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A.C.T.'s Core Company

March 29, 2007

One of the qualities that made A.C.T. the envy of the U.S. theatre world in the early and middle part of the 20th century was its core acting company, which was one of the biggest and most synergistic in the land.

Yet I feel rather ambivalent about the announcement, yesterday, that A.C.T. is expanding its core ensemble from three members to six.

Anthony Fusco, Jack Willis, and Jud Williford will join current A.C.T. core company actors René Augesen, Steven Anthony Jones, and Gregory Wallace. Allison Jean White's one-year contract is not being renewed. (Apparently A.C.T. hires one actor more or less straight out of acting school to join the company just for a year. White therefore passes the baton on to Williford, a recent A.C.T M.F.A program graduate.)

These days, few U.S. theatre groups have a core ensemble. The most common model is a loose collective of regular performers around just one or two founding stalwarts. But companies that develop shows with core members, such as Campo Santo here in San Francisco and Steppenwolf in Chicago, produce exceedingly high-quality work. This tends to be the case because a core group provides a bedrock of talent. The members all know and work with each other well. And playwrights and directors can often create work with these specific actors in mind.

But despite a noble past, A.C.T.'s core company has not brought the company much success of late. The acting has been unremarkable and the productions on the whole have felt pedantic and safe. A.C.T's output, in fact, has seemed as stagnant as the mothballed product of bankrolled acting ensembles in Communist Russia, where hundreds of actors were kept under regular subsidy by the government. These actors more or less sat back on their laurels. As a result, the productions they performed in were frequently tiresome.

It's also strange that out of six core members at A.C.T, only one is a woman. The departure of White means that only Augesen is left. As a producer of mostly classic works, A.C.T. casts many more men than women in the average season, so it makes sense in a way that this bias should be reflected in the core ensemble. On the other hand, there are plenty of amazing female performers in San Francisco who would be an asset to A.C.T. so why not give one of them a steady job and use their talents more regularly? Certainly there are lots of great parts for female actors in the upcoming season. You'd think there'd be enough work to keep an extra actress busy. Hopefully Carey Perloff will readdress the balance next year when Williford's contract expires.

In general, I hope the addition of three new members will breathe new life into A.C.T. New blood is always a good thing. But it'll take more than a few new faces to make this company's work arresting again.

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