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A repertory theatre (also called repertory, rep, true rep or stock) is a Western theatre in which a resident company presents works from a specified repertoire, usually in alternation or rotation.  While the origins are debated, the repertory theatre movement became popular in the early twentieth century. Not to be confused with a similar term, "weekly rep," which denotes a British movement started in the early 1900s that focused on shorter runs of a single new work, rather than having several plays ready to perform at any given time.
The exact origins of repertory theatre are unclear. Various historians theorized potential beginnings. Among them: London's Court Theatre (1904-1907), The Abbey Theatre at Dublin, and state-subsidized theaters on continental Europe. One of the earliest examples of this system is the Moscow Art Theatre circa 1898. An even earlier example are the theaters of Germany.  See The Deutsches Theatre, a privately owned German theatre founded in 1883 to produce plays in rep.  While variations appeared before, the modern repertory system did not become popular until the twentieth century.
In the United Kingdom, the repertory system emerged in the early twentieth century. After withdrawing her support from The Abbey Theatre in Dublin, Miss Annie Horniman founded the first modern repertory theatre in Great Britain. The theatre, known as the Gaiety Theatre in Manchester, opened its first season in September of 1908.  The opening of the Gaiety would be followed by the Citizens' in Glasgow and the Liverpool Repertory Theatre. The theaters were formed in response to Edwardian theatre. The Edwardian theatre movement left those outside London desiring to create their own theatre independent of the British urban centers.  The Gaiety, the Citizens', and Liverpool Repertory Theatre were the first provincial theaters working in rep. Previously, theatre in the countryside relied on traveling stock companies and London touring ensembles.
Before the modern repertory system, acting ensembles were normally made up of the standard stock company and later the touring company. The stock company would usually consist of a leading man and lady, a character actor and actress, younger actors to play romantic roles, and the rest of the actors would be a variety of ages and body types. The acting ensemble was typically around twelve. This was most popular prior to the Restoration. Post Restoration and into the nineteenth century, stock companies remained, but they were joined and then replaced by traveling companies. These ensembles consisted of the stars and actors hired to play a very specific role as a single production toured around.
The modern repertory system has built on these systems. Today, repertory theaters continue to employ a wide range of actors, who can play a variety of types. In the United States, many summer stock theatre companies are repertory in nature. College students and young professionals making up much of the acting company supported by guest stars or actors further in their careers.
Examples of performers who went on to universal recognition are Michael Caine, Michael Gambon, Laurence Olivier, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Imelda Staunton, and Patrick Stewart. Along with Errol Flynn, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Jeremy Brett, Rosemary Harris, Peter O'Toole, Christopher Plummer, Harold Pinter, Lynn Redgrave, Arthur Lowe, Vanessa Redgrave, Geraldine McEwan and Ronnie Barker. Dirk Bogarde wrote about his start at tiny Amersham rep in 1939, and Michael Caine has recounted his time spent at Horsham rep in the early fifties.
There are many ways to rehearse repertory theatre. The most prolific American repertory theatres are an example of that. Utah Shakespeare Festival rehearses two plays a day split between an eight hour period. This is common. Some theatres only rehearse one play a day and add shows into rotation as the season progresses, like The American Shakespeare Center. They rehearse one play for a little over two weeks before it opens; then, they begin the next one. The length of rehearsal is also varied. American Players Theatre has a six-week long rehearsal process compared to Oregon Shakespeare Festival's eleven-week long process.
For weekly rep and for a typical three-act play, the actors' week would start on Tuesday, and go as follows:
Tuesday: notes on last night's opening of the current play from the director, then a sit-down read-through of the next week's play with some discussion by the director, on-the-feet blocking of the moves for Act I, with a few questions from the actors, followed by the second performance of the current play (which would also occupy every evening up to and including Saturday).
Wednesday: run Act I of next week's play and start to block Act II, but break early because there would be a matinée of the current play.
Thursday: finish blocking Act II of next week's play, run Act II and block Act III.
Friday: run Act III, run through the entire play with no scripts in hand, and technicals – meaning lights and sound – to watch, and write down cues.
Saturday: run through again, stop and go to test lighting and sound cues; costumes may be used if ready. Two shows today, including a matinée; the evening show closes the current play. After the last show, the set would be struck (taken down) by the crew - usually apprentices – and the stage manager.
Sunday: for actors, an opportunity to brush up on lines and moves, and for private rehearsals. However, for the crew it would mean putting up the new sets, hanging and focusing lights, and setting sound equipment.
Monday: in the morning, a run-through, usually without costumes (to save wear and tear), mainly for the technicals. In the afternoon: a "Full Perfect" dress rehearsal, maybe with a few friends seated in front to gauge reaction, then copious notes. In the evening, 8 o'clock opening night, followed by notes from the director, visits with friends from the audience and maybe a party nearby. The process would start all over again on Tuesday.
Audience and management
From the audience's point of view, local communities would become fans, and champion their favourite performers, who are treated as celebrities. Sometimes entire families would make a visit to their local rep part of the weekly routine, like going to church. As a result, the younger generations begin to develop a natural appreciation for the live arts, otherwise known as "legitimate" theatre.
During the forties, fifties, and sixties, two impresarios dominated the field of British rep, mostly in the North. They were Harry Hanson and his Court players, and Frank H. Fortescue's Famous Players, with Arthur Brough in Folkestone for the South. Their system was the toughest of all, for if you joined one of their companies, it could mean "twice-nightly" shows, and a new play to learn every week. Rosemary Harris has told of her 50 consecutive weeks of doing just that at Bedford rep. That cannot happen anymore, owing to the restrictions of British Equity, which came to mandate just eight shows a week, including perhaps two matinées. Fortescue, who died in 1957, was known to be a strict and upright man. When Pygmalion was playing at one of his theatres, the sign "FOR ADULTS ONLY!" would be posted in the front of house, because of Eliza Doolittle's line "Not bloody likely!".
In Russia and much of Eastern Europe, repertory theatre is based on the idea that each company maintains a number of productions that are performed on a rotating basis. Each production's life span is determined by its success with the audience. However, many productions remain in repertory for years as this approach presents each piece a few times in a given season, not enough to exhaust the potential audience pool. After the fall of the Soviet regime and the substantial diminution of government subsidy, the repertory practice has required re-examination. Moscow Art Theatre and Lev Dodin's Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg are the world's most notable practitioners of this approach.
Rotation Repertory system is still the most commonly used business model of live theatre in Eastern and Central Europe, specifically in countries such as Austria, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Slovakia and Czech Republic.
In Germany, Schaubuhne and some other theatres run on a repertory system.
Today in the UK, the practice of rep is more likely to be seen in large cities in the manner applied by such well-known established companies as Birmingham Rep in the Midlands of England, which states in its programmes: " 'The REP' presents a season with each play generally having an unbroken run of between three and six weeks. This is the form of repertory theatre that the majority of theatres like The REP — which are also called producing theatres — now follow." Actors have the luxury of at least three weeks of rehearsal, and audiences see better shows. Repertory can still be found in the UK in a variation of guises: in Sidmouth (12 plays), Wolverhampton (eight), Burslem and Taunton (four each). The Sheringham Little Theatre produces an in-house repertory season each summer, running from June until September. Weekly repertory theatre is also produced by the Summer Theatre season at Frinton-on-Sea. This season has been running for 77 seasons now[when?].
In the United States, the repertory system has also found a base to compete with commercial theatre. Repertory theatre with mostly changing casts and longer-running plays, perhaps better classed as "provincial" or "non-profit" theatre, has made a big comeback in cities such as Little Rock, AR, Washington, DC, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Chicago, Los Angeles, Nashville, New York, Houston, Boston, San Francisco, San Diego, Buffalo, Kansas City, and Seattle. Festival theatre now provides actors with work in the summer.
America's oldest resident repertory theatre, Hedgerow Theatre, is located in Rose Valley, Pennsylvania. It was founded by actor Jasper Deeter in 1923. The present producing artistic director is actress and director Penelope Reed. Other notable repertory theatres include the Guthrie Theater, which was set up as a regional repertory theatre concept that is free from commercial constraints in the choice of repertoire. It is aligned in objectives to the repertory and resident theatre movement that emerged in the United States in the 1960s. This sought to establish an alternative and decentralized theatre network outside of New York, one which would have non-profit-making status and would be focused on the art of the theatre as well as the development of artists, craftsmen, and administrators. Publicly funded theatres that belong to this type have been receiving erratic support since the 1980s.
The Association of Producing Artists (APA) was one of the most successful repertory theatres in the United States, touring for four years and holding residencies in several cities before finally joining the Phoenix Theatre in New York City, where it was known for staging plays with modest prices. Currently, the American Repertory Theatre is considered one of the most distinguished repertory theatres in the United States. Since its foundation in 1979, it has earned several awards including a Pulitzer Prize (1982), a Tony Award (1986), and a Jujamcyn Award (1985).
North America's largest classical repertory theatre company is the Stratford Festival, founded in 1953 primarily to present productions of William Shakespeare's plays, and North America's second largest repertory theatre company, the Shaw Festival, which presents plays written or set during the lifetime of Bernard Shaw or following Shaw's ideal of socially provocative theatre, founded in 1962. However, Canadian repertory companies don't actually follow a true rep several years long rotation repertory system like Europe. In Canada, the productions stay on the repertory for one season, running in repertory with other productions in the same year. The actors are not employed full time long term, but instead work on contracts usually maximum 8 months long.
The Vagabond Repertory Theatre Company was formed in March 2009 by artistic directors Nathaniel Fried and Ryan LaPlante, and currently resides and performs in Kingston, Ontario. It shuttered in 2019. The old English-style repertory theatres such as Ottawa's CRT (Canadian Repertory Theatre) and Toronto's Crest Theatre no longer exist—although they did have a version of summer theatre in smaller holiday districts, such as the "Straw Hat" players of Gravenhurst and Port Carling at Ontario's vacation Muskoka Lakes area.
- Combination company
- Community theatre
- Fringe theatre
- Mercury Theatre
- Summer stock theatre
- Theatre festival
- Theatre (structure) (i.e. building)
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