The Kent Thompson Interview, Part 4: Whatever happened to the resident acting company?

by John Moore | May 22, 2014

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Says Producing Artistic Director Kent Thompson, who directed “Hamlet” last season: “The question is, can we guarantee (actors) three or four roles a year?  I don’t think we can, and that is agonizing.”

With the recent closing of Kent Thompson’s ninth season as Producing Artistic Director of the Denver Center Theatre Company, we present to you this four-part interview. The series at a glance:

Part 1: Kent Thompson’s assessment of the 2013-14 season
Part 2: A play-by-play look at 2014-15 season
Part 3 (today): On the factors that went into choosing the 2014-15 season
Part 4 (today):  On the national trend away from preserving large resident acting companies.

By John Moore

The American regional theatre movement has been undergoing a glacial transition that has been so slow to reach Denver, you may have hardly noticed it was even happening:

There aren’t any large, permanent resident acting companies anymore. Even though that was one of the founding reasons the regional theatre movement sprung up back in the 1960s and ’70s.

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“The regional theatre movement was started as a rebellion,” Denver Center Theatre Company Producing Artistic Director Kent Thompson said. “It was seen as a different solution to theater than Broadway.”

The idea was that new regional theatres in Denver, Seattle, Minneapolis and elsewhere would hire a somewhat permanent company of actors who would be cast in multiple productions throughout the season in a combination of large and small roles. These actors would become fully invested in their local artistic communities and forge real relationships with their audiences over time. They would earn a livable wage and enjoy unprecedented job security - for actors. Enough to put down roots, buy homes and raise families.

But times changed, and most regional theatres began giving up the ghost of the resident-company concept long before the wake of 9/11 brought shortened seasons, lowered attendance and other ramifications that made the idea of a resident company even more impractical.

When asked this week whether the Denver Center Theatre Company still has a permanent resident acting company anymore, Thompson said publicly for the first time: “I don’t believe we do.” But he was quick to point out, “We actually stuck it out longer than many of our compatriots.”

When Thompson arrived in Denver nine years ago, he inherited more than a dozen resident actors who were pretty much assured three or four roles per season. Longtime audiences can rattle off the names like a football geek can name Denver Broncos Ring of Famers: Jamie Horton, Jacqueline Antaramian, Annette Helde, Philip Pleasants, Randy Moore, Kathleen M. Brady, Jeanne Paulsen, Robin Moseley, Carol Halstead, Caitlin O’Connell, Bill Christ, John Hutton and Sam Gregory, among them.    

When he got here in 2005, Thompson stated straight-out that the concept of a resident acting company would change here over time. That the revolving door to his stages would start to revolve much more widely, allowing for more diversity and variety in casting than ever before. And that is exactly what has come to pass. Last month, Hutton moved east, leaving Gregory as the last truly year-round player from the group listed above.

Gregory will be back next season, in Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. But the days of audiences seeing popular actors up to four times a season are over. Part of the reason, Thompson said, is simple math: With an eight-show season, it no longer adds up. Part of it is economic: Attendance is on a slow decline, and specific foundation support for the resident company concept has dried up. Part of it is the simultaneous graying of the actors we have called resident Denver Center actors over the past 20 years. And part of it, Thompson said, is artistic necessity: If you are going to commit to a broader spectrum of programming, you have to commit to a wider spectrum of casting.

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Thompson sees his company evolving into what he calls more of a “frequent-flyer” ensemble: Popular actors returning here to perform often, but without as much regularity as in the past. But he emphasized that audiences will continue to see their favorite actors perform here.

“Those people are the actors we want to use most often,” Thompson said. “The question is, can we guarantee them three or four roles a year?  I don’t think we can, and that is agonizing.”

But he also pointed out that while there is a strong base led by subscribers who want to see popular company members return time and time again, “there is another set of ticket-buyers who are really more interested in seeing new faces,” Thompson said.

Here are highlights from the conversation I had with Thompson on the subject:

John Moore: Why has the resident acting concept gone out of style nationally?

Kent Thompson: The two major changes that have made it more difficult have been changes to the economy and attendance, both of which have contributed to theatres presenting smaller seasons, with smaller casts. That has made maintaining a commitment to a large ensemble of actors – especially when most are of similar ages – nearly impossible.

John Moore: How does that play out here in Denver?

Kent Thompson: I think the economic conditions, and some of our artistic priorities – such as new plays – have meant we’ve had to re-think what a resident company means. Moving forward, I look at the core of this company as actors who have worked here before coming in and doing a show here every year or two.

John Moore: How did the resident-acting concept begin in the first place?

Kent Thompson: When I was at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, which was basically the 1990s through 2005, there were major foundation grants available to anyone who maintained a permanent resident company of actors. And the NEA, for a period of time in the late 1980s, and probably even earlier, was actually giving grants to those theatres that would keep a company of actors together. The benefits of having professional actors working together over time were obvious. They would develop an artistic language by which they worked. They lived in their communities and were recognized as theatre professionals. And there was also recognition by most companies – and certainly here in Denver – that they should be properly compensated, because of the mutual commitment. The concept took hold in just about every resident theatre in the country. Then, over time, it really evolved into more of a season-by-season relationship. But with every company, you have different issues you have to deal with, whether it’s that you’ve got a lot of actors above the age of 50, or you need more diversity that reflects your community. In our case, a major commitment to new plays doesn’t always mean the resident company members will fit into the play as the playwright has written it. We have to provide them the cast they need and want.  

John Moore: How has this change been for you?

Kent Thompson: I have always advocated for resident company members in any show I’ve done. But our artistic priorities have changed, and it has become more difficult to cast them. Take The Legend of Georgia McBride.  We had Jamie Ann Romero in that show, and the other three guys were from New York. They had to be (because of the requirements of the roles). At the same time, we were continuing our commitment to African-American plays (black odyssey). We’ve started an ongoing commitment to Latino plays, and we did not have any resident company members who were Latino. So those things have changed the face of our company.

John Moore: What about from a national perspective?

Kent Thompson: What happened nationally is that funding got tighter and tighter, for a couple of reasons. First, 9/11 changed the world, and it changed American culture in many fundamental ways. The buying patterns of single-ticket audiences went from buying 2-3 weeks in advance, to about 7-10 days. Then the (2007) recession changed that to 3-5 days, tops. That’s very scary. Also, in the past decade, foundations have moved a lot of their money toward education and other issues like poverty, health care and social issues – things other than the performing arts. A great example was the Pew Charitable Trust in Philadelphia. For years, they were major supporters of residencies for actors and playwrights. And then they decided to change their focus on the arts to be more about “public policy on the arts.” It turned into a think-tank rather than a fund that supported the field. And since the ’90s, corporations have been pulling out some of their support for the arts. Support on the federal level has continued to fall as well. So there aren’t the sources of diversified income that were once specifically supporting the concept of a resident company. There aren’t the sources that are supporting theatre as much, period. The two biggest foundations that still support theatres are the Shubert Foundation and the Steinberg Foundation. The Steinberg supports new plays, so that leaves the Shubert as the only major foundation I know of that still gives money for general operating support. That’s very different from where the arc of it once appeared to be going.

John Moore: How does that affect how you choose a season?

Kent Thompson: You have to pick seasons that you know will have some level of general appeal. At the same time, you have to commit yourself to two or three “programmatic priorities” for yourself, rather than 10 or 12, which I think was the original model of the major regional theatre system. In many ways, we’ve been building our seasons around the resident acting company since time immemorial. That had to change.

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John Moore: That has to be hard for you.

Kent Thompson: Believe me: It’s incredibly sad for me, because I’ve spent the past 25 years as the leader of a major theatre with a resident company. When I left Alabama, I knew this would be something I would have to fight for, because I was watching it disappear.

John Moore: When you look back to when there were 15 or 16 actors who could count on nine months of work per year in Denver, part of the fun for audiences was acknowledging that maybe not every actor was exactly right for every role.

Kent Thompson: That’s right.

John Moore: But that was the give-and-take of the resident-acting  concept: That in order to ensure that audiences were going to get to see a favorite actor in four roles a year, that might require some artistic compromise.   

Kent Thompson: I don’t view it as artistic compromise. It’s only a compromise if they are really inappropriately cast, like having a 50-year-old actor playing a 20-year-old character. I think there’s a huge benefit in casting John Hutton or Sam Gregory or Mike Hartman or Kathleen Brady or many of the other actors we’ve worked with. But two things happened in our theatre company: We already talked about how we’ve been diversifying our programming. The other thing is that cast sizes are shrinking. If it’s more than six characters now, it’s considered a large play. So that gives you fewer opportunities to cast people.

John Moore: The end of the resident acting company concept is not really a new development, is it?

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Kent Thompson: In truth, this process has been going here on for the last three or four years at least. We are moving toward what I would call a “frequent-flier company.” I don’t mean that in a trite way. These are people who simply work with us regularly – and that is a much larger pool of actors in Denver and around the country than what we would have called our resident acting company. These are people who have an intense commitment to working here, and enjoy working here.

John Moore: Are there other positives to be gleaned from this evolution?

Kent Thompson: I think the only downside of a maintaining a company is that when an actor has been with you for a long time, there can become a sense of entitlement. They want to start determining who’s directing a play, and who else is in the cast. I understand that instinct completely, but you can’t accommodate it, because you have to build your company based on what your vision is.

John Moore: But you have already acknowledged what you lose when you dissolve this resident company concept – this idea that your actors are a part of our larger community. And that even if they go off and work for other companies, the Denver Center is still their artistic home.

Kent Thompson: Yes, but you have seen the steps that have had to be taken here. We no longer have the National Theatre Conservatory students. That was actually an opportunity for us to really go into the community and hire many more local actors and directors and designers, and to really get to know the community better. It’s tricky, though. There is also a presumption that company members drive sales, but the numbers don’t really back that up.

John Moore: So … it’s tricky.

Kent Thompson: It’s very tricky. 

John Moore: So who still has a permanent resident acting company? And I know that’s difficult to answer because every theatre’s definition of “company” is different. Steppenwolf in Chicago lists 44 past or present actors as company members. Closer to home, Curious Theatre lists about 30 resident actors, but none of them are guaranteed a role in any given season. Is that really even a resident acting company? 

Kent Thompson: I would call that an acting ensemble. I don’t doubt the commitment at Steppenwolf to those people. Their actors have a very strong tradition of having gone elsewhere, succeeding and then giving back to the company. There are a few companies left who maintain a commitment to a regular group of actors, like the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, but most of them draw from no more than a half-dozen actors. Marco Barricelli, who directed Glengarry Glen Ross for us, is an incredibly gifted actor. He’s in the American Conservatory Theatre’s company in San Francisco – which means he does two shows in any given year. And he’s one of their core company resident artists.

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Producing artistic director Kent Thompson looks over the set model for the upcoming Denver Center Theatre Company production of “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.” Photo by John Moore.

John Moore: But if you are the company actor here, this fundamentally changes your financial security. Now you are going to have to live the gypsy life. You can choose to live in Denver, but you are going to have to go where the work is. 

Kent Thompson: Yes, and if you are in Chicago, you have much greater opportunities in every way. There’s Lookingglass, there’s Steppenwolf, there’s the Goodman. There’s like 300 theatres. And then there is the film industry. It’s not the same here.

John Moore: I think what people are afraid of is, when you say there is no more resident theatre company here, that means they will never see anyone that they recognize again.

Kent Thompson: Oh no, that’s not’s not true at all.

John Moore: So the next time you come across the perfect John Hutton role, you’re going to call John Hutton?  

Kent Thompson: Yes, absolutely.

John Moore: We should not forget, too, that every new play is an opportunity for audiences to forge new relationships.

Kent Thompson: Absolutely. Look at William Oliver Watkins, who came here for the first time in Ruined and then came back this year to play Jackie Robinson in Jackie and Me. Or Brent Harris, who played Saliere in Amadeus, and came back to be in Noises Off.

John Moore: Or Michael Fitzpatrick. Or Michael Santo.

Kent Thompson: And neither of them lives in Denver.

John Moore. I don’t want to pre-cast Appoggiatura for you, but I think another example might be Nick Mills, who came here for the first time to perform in The Legend of Georgia McBride, probably having no idea that his contract included the stipulation that, hey, while you are here, we get to use you in the Colorado New Play Summit. But after that reading, I’ve heard a number of people say they hope he gets that same role next season.

Kent Thompson: He was fabulous.

John Moore: That’s how new relationships get started.

Kent Thompson: Yes, it is. We do that every year, with actors, with creative teams and with playwrights. And we’ll continue to do that.

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ABOUT THE EDITOR
John Moore
John Moore
Award-winning arts journalist John Moore has recently taken a groundbreaking new position as the DCPA’s Senior Arts Journalist. With The Denver Post, he was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the US by American Theatre Magazine. He is the founder of the Denver Actors Fund, a nonprofit that raises money for local artists in medical need. John is a native of Arvada and attended Regis Jesuit High School and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Follow him on Twitter @moorejohn.

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