Community theater often gets a bad wrap. It's sometimes labeled as non-professional or low budget. But over the years, the regional theater company A Noise Within has been able to overcome those stereotypes.
By focusing on the classics (Shakespeare, Ibsen, Shaw, Chekhov), presenting three plays at a time in the rotating repertory model, and employing a group of resident actors, A Noise Within has been able to set itself apart.
Over the past 25 years, Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, co-producing directors of A Noise Within have built a respected, classical repertory company essentially from the ground up.
The couple, who are also husband and wife, formerly put on plays in a Masonic Temple in Glendale. Now, they call a new, multi-million dollar, state-of-the-art theater in East Pasadena their home. But back when they were just getting started, Geoff Elliott says, the path to success was not so certain.
Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott talked with The Frame's John Horn about the 25th anniversary of A Noise Within.
Did you know you had something special on your hands when you started A Noise Within?
JEFF: Back in 1992 we didn't think that we would last. In fact, nobody thought we would last. It got back to us the next year that a friend said, Hey, listen, I had somebody come tell me, "Go see this group who's doing Hamlet over in Glendale. They won't be around in two months." And so that's what we assumed would happen. And what shocked us in those early days was that there seemed to be a vacuum. And things seemed to happen very quickly because I think there was a need.
What was it about the classics that was so appealing?
JULIA: Well I think on a level it was really part of our DNA. We had trained at The American Conservatory Theater (ACT) in San Francisco under the leadership of Bill Ball and that was a time in regional theater where there was a great deal of focus on classic work and the notion of repertory as well as resident companies. I think after leaving ACT it was really built into who we were and that notion of high language and embracing plays that include that kind of work.
How do you take classic texts like "A Tale of Two Cities" and make sure they're accessible to modern audiences whose attention spans may not last as long as a five-act Shakespeare play?
JEFF: We might be interested in a five-hour grind but our audiences will not be. We wouldn't be sitting here talking to you if we decided that we would do five-hour grinds. We loved this adaptation of "A Tale of Two Cities" because he really distills it. ... It's sort of non-stop. It's this extraordinary, mysterious detective story and he gives you all of the highlights of the novel. It's one of those non-stop, tumbling down the hill kind of things.
JULIA: And he also I think humanizes the story because I think criticisms of the novel has been that it's very plot-driven. I'm not sure that I completely agree with that but in taking the enormity of the story and distilling it, we really see the events though the eyes of the family. So that part of it really was very appealing to us.
How often do you find that classic plays have modern relevance given the times that we live in?
JEFF: It happens to us all the time. Every season. We realized very early on that whether it be Hamlet or whether it be the Greeks or whether it be "Mad Woman of Chaillot" or "Mrs. Warren's Profession." These are plays that we will hear gasps from our audiences because they will realize how this play could have been written yesterday in terms of the issues that we're dealing with and that they were dealing with.
JULIA: I think part of it too is that, for us, we've never been interested in museum theatre. So when we sit down to look at choosing a season, we're thinking about what's going on with us personally, what's going on with us right now as a society in the 21st century. What are those preoccupations? What are the plays that might address some of that? And it gets easier and easier because, for instance, with this season it was very easy to choose the plays that we chose. So we're always looking to ask ourselves the question, Why are we doing this play right now?
Which plays did you choose this season that were informed by what's going on in the world?
JEFF: Well we always have a theme to our seasons. And generally it's more than just a PR thing. We really are looking to certain themes that connect these plays. Things that an audience can look for when they come to see the play. This theme was "entertaining courage." And frankly the first play that we chose for this upcoming year was "Mad Woman of Chaillot" because after the election there seemed to be such a sense of overwhelming anxiety no matter what side of the aisle you were on. And everyone seemed confused and in angst and angry and afraid that we felt that this season had to somehow plug into that.
So "entertaining courage" was really about plays [that] are entertaining and they deal with people who are courageous. But these people are thinking about being courageous. They're entertaining courage and that's what connects all of these plays.
How do you compete with other theatrical spaces?
JEFF: Well, we have the opportunity as opposed to a lot of theaters of choosing the greatest plays ever written from the Greeks on. So we have quite a choice of plays to able to really look at and pick and choose. Some people are but most are not. There are a lot of people doing contemporary plays, newer plays, etcetera. And because I think of the thing that we had referred to together, these things really are timeless. So if you work from the assumption that they're goign to be done in a high caliber. That they're going to be excellent. Then these are the kinds of plays that attract a kind of a universal appeal. And I think that's a part of it. I also think that because we run in true rotating repertory, that gives people an opportunity to experience and be exposed to different plays in a very short period of time so on that front we've got that sort of market covered. There's a reason why there are only a handful of companies on the continent doing true rotating repertory theatre because it's really hard.
How do you develop younger, new audiences while continuing to program your classics?
JULIA: Well, I think first off you have to present them with that sensibility so the plays have to be of the here and now, whether that means that you set it in a different period or not, they have to be accessible and they have to be visceral and they have to be speaking to a 21st century audience. And that's something that we're always very focused on. I think that we have the added benefit that we have great relationships with school. And so if they have preconceived ideas of what they're going to experience, those are quickly changed when they come and experience a play at A Noise Within and because we serve over 16,000 students, anywhere from middle schools to high school, that's the audience that's coming in and engaging with a classic play in a way that they never thought they would. Oftentimes what we hear back from teachers is, Thank you! Thank you! Now my students get it. They understand why we're studying Shakespeare, why we're studying Molière.
To hear the full interview, click on the player above.