When Hollywood names sell tickets and young audiences gravitate to the new and flashy, what makes this theater doing O’Neill, Shakespeare and Moliere still relevant?
Wearing grimy boxers and a bowler festooned with foliage, gray-bearded Geoff Elliott prances onstage, portraying King Lear in a scene in which Shakespeare’s mad monarch grows even madder. The once-mighty patriarch rants and cries as he wanders the countryside in his underwear.
“It’s a mountain of a role,” Elliott says later, “one I’ve waited 30 years to play, until I had the life experience for the part.”
Aging, it seems, has its rewards — an idea the 58-year-old performer can appreciate as an artist and as a co-founder of A Noise Within. As it celebrates its 25th anniversary season, the Pasadena-based troupe is doing some of its best work ever, he says, after “a long journey in which we built a company, a community and, at long last, a theater.”
In a world that craves the starry, edgy and new, A Noise Within has established itself as an oasis for those who love classic stories told in a classic way. It presents pieces from the dramatic canon in rotating repertory — three shows at a time — using a core group of resident artists.
FULL COVERAGE: Spring arts guide 2017
Embracing — and exploring — this traditional approach, A Noise Within is known for quality productions and loyal supporters. Both have helped it go from a shoestring start-up to a respected company with its own multimillion-dollar midsize theater.
During a recent interview in that theater, Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, his wife and co-producing artistic director, make clear they see this anniversary as a chance to look ahead as well as back. “It’s in our nature to keep growing,” says Rodriguez-Elliott, 55. “We always ask, ‘How can we do better?’ How does each season reflect people’s concerns right now? How do we make the classics feel relevant and modern?”
Their 25th season tries to address these questions. The fall rotation included plays whose authors illustrate how broadly the company defines “classic”: Tom Stoppard, Molière, Jean Genet.
This spring, “King Lear” will be joined by Eugene O’Neill’s nostalgic comedy “Ah, Wilderness!” this weekend and the musical “Man of La Mancha,” which opens April 1. A Noise Within has presented these plays before.
“This time,” Rodriguez-Elliott says, “our new space allows us to convey the grandness of the tales as well as their intimate nature — with more sophisticated stagecraft.”
The company moved into that space in 2011 after a capital campaign that raised $13.5 million. A Noise Within, which was started by the Elliotts and then-partner Art Manke, spent most of its first two decades in cramped quarters in a former Masonic temple in Glendale. The custom-built Pasadena complex includes a 283-seat theater (nearly twice Glendale’s capacity), costume and scene shops, offices and a rehearsal area.
Rodriguez-Elliott says she and her colleagues have worked hard to “convey grandness” without losing “the intimacy crucial to us and our patrons. We finally crystallized how to make the epic intimate: take on big-canvas plays but keep the humanity front and center.”
In her staging of “Lear,” for instance, the aging king’s family must deal with his worsening dementia. “We tell that domestic story in the context of the global story.”
She believes combining “the personal and global” helps a centuries-old text resonate with playgoers. So does the repertory experience itself. Everything feels more accessible when actors and audiences get to know one another over a season or, in the case of a resident company, several seasons.
A Noise Within’s 20 resident actors and designers include veterans such as Deborah Strang, a winner of a local Ovation Award who joined the company soon after its founding. Increasingly, Rodriguez-Elliott says, new faces are appearing as the company diversifies and expands its hiring of guest and resident artists. “We value our creative process and collaborations but we know we need to reenergize. We also need people who will carry the torch forward.”
Rafael Goldstein, who plays Edgar in “Lear,” embodies a blend of old and new. A self-described Latino Jewish American, he became a resident artist in 2012, having been introduced to A Noise Within as a teenager through its summer youth acting program. Now 30, he loves classical rep and the chance to “acquire more chops” by appearing in several shows at once.
Since moving to Pasadena, A Noise Within has grown offstage as well as on. The annual operating budget has jumped from $1.3 million in 2011 to $3.1 million this year, and the artistic payroll from $350,000 to $830,000 during that period too.
Annual attendance has grown as well, doubling to more than 40,000 since the move, according to Strang, who also manages the box office. Subscribers have nearly doubled, representing about a third of ticket-holders. Students make up another third or so.
Rodriguez-Elliott says the company is in the middle of a five-year plan that calls for raising $2 million to create “deeper” educational experiences, increase artists’ compensation, enhance production budgets and support funds that finance facility maintenance, resident artists’ passion projects and directors’ freedom to add unbudgeted elements — a cellist, perhaps, or video projections — to shows.
“In terms of challenges,” she says, “there never are enough resources. Artistically, you worry about every play being its best.”
Among spring highlights, the Elliotts say, are guest director Steven Robman’s weaving of music into “Ah, Wilderness!” and the linking of “Lear” and “La Mancha.” The productions share a director, lead actor and basic set, and twice they will be presented on the same day so audiences can compare works with similar themes — “impossible dreams” — through a common prism.
The Elliotts chose these plays to celebrate their anniversary. Now, they note, the mood in the country is uneasy, giving new significance to the experiences of Lear, Don Quixote and the teenaged hero of “Ah, Wilderness!” — all characters who are out of sorts.
“Classical theater is about telling timeless stories,” Elliott says. “Our job is to make them relatable to the here and now.” Sometimes, those connections are deliberately drawn. Sometimes unanticipated events bring them out. And sometimes, the goal is not to mirror life but offer a respite from it.
“There is,” he says, “a wonderful healing effect when people gather together in a room and watch actors tell a great tale.”
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