A repertory theatre can be a theatre in which a resident company presents works from a specified repertoire, usually in alternation or rotation. In the British system, however, it used to be that even quite small towns would support a rep, and the resident company would present a different play every week, either a revival from the full range of classics or, if given the chance, a new play, once the rights had been released after a West End or Broadway run. The companies were not known for trying out untried new work, however. The methods, now seldom seen, would be also used in the United States, Canada, and Australia.
The acting company would consist of a "leading lady", a "leading man", a "juvenile", both male and female (ingenue) for the young often romantic roles, a "character" actor and actress (for the older parts) and perhaps a "soubrette". A "guest star" name might be brought in to boost attendance which only might cover the added cost. Hence the resident cast would number 7, plus the resident director, usually doubling as the artistic director in charge of the whole enterprise, and in addition there would be the stage director, the "ASM" (assistant stage manager), some (unpaid) apprentices, and lights and sound technicians. Newcomers to the profession would often start their careers in this fashion, and members would not only gain a foundation upon which to base a career, but, apart from the apprentices who might even pay for the experience, also be sure of a steady income for one or more "seasons". The season might last for 6 months, basically because the schedule was exhausting, both mentally and physically. Examples of performers who went on to universal recognition are Jeremy Brett, Judi Dench, Rosemary Harris, Ian McKellen, Christopher Plummer, Harold Pinter, Imelda Staunton, Lynn Redgrave, Vanessa Redgrave, Patrick Stewart, Geraldine McEwan, Ronnie Barker, Dirk Bogarde, who wrote about his start at tiny Amersham rep in 1939, and Michael Caine, who recounts his time spent at Horsham rep in the early fifties, to present just a few.
For weekly rep, and for a typical 3 act play with a wise director, the actors' week would start Tuesday and go as follows: Tuesday: Notes on last night's opening from the director, then a sitdown readthrough of the next play with some discussion by the director, on-the-feet blocking of the moves for Act I with few questions from the actors, and there are performances of last week's play each night. Wednesday: Run Act I and start to block Act II, but break early because there's a matinée. Thursday: Finish blocking Act II, run Act II, and block Act III. Friday: Run Act III, runthrough of entire play, no scripts in hand and technicals, meaning lights and sound, to watch and write down cues. Saturday: Runthrough again, stop and go to test lighting and sound cues, may use costumes if ready. Two shows today, the evening one closing the current play. After the show, the set will be struck (taken down) by the crew, usually apprentices, and the stage manager.
Sunday is an opportunity to brush up on lines and moves and private rehearsals. But for the crew it means putting up the new sets, and hanging and focusing lights, and setting sound equipment. Monday: Morning, runthrough, no costumes usually (save wear and tear), mainly for the techs. Afternoon, "Full Perfect" Dress Rehearsal, maybe a few friends in front to gauge reaction, then copious notes. 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 starts again on Tuesday.
From the audience's point of view, local communities would become fans and champion their favorites who would be treated as celebrities. And sometimes entire families would make a visit to their local rep as part of the weekly routine like going to church, and for the young ones, it became a part of their future appreciation for live "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 tells of her 50 consecutive weeks of doing just that at Bedford rep. It cannot happen any more, due to the restrictions of British Equity which came to mandate just 8 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, because Eliza says "Not bloody likely!", "FOR ADULTS ONLY!" would be posted in the front of house. Or perhaps he was afraid of the Lord Chamberlain, Her Majesty's official censor whose duties were abolished in 1968.
Times have changed, the practice of a new play every week and a week's rehearsal doesn't happen, and today 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 3 weeks of rehearsal, and audiences see better shows. Repertory can still be found in the UK in a variation of the old time manner, for example the producer Charles Vance still produces weekly rep in Sidmouth (12 plays), Wolverhampton (8 plays), Burslem and Taunton (4 each). The one Equity standard company left producing Weekly Repertory theatre is the semi-legendary Summer Theatre season at Frinton-on-Sea, produced by Ed Max. This season has been running for sixty-six years now, and until recently maintained its links with the oldest traditions of British commercial theatre by being run by the actor Jack Watling, his son Giles and most recently, his son-in-law Seymour Matthews. Frinton saw the early launch of actors such as Michael Dennison, Vanessa Redgrave, David Suchet, Jack Klaff, Neil Dudgeon, Owen Teale, Lynda Bellingham, and continues to give first jobs to graduating drama students.
In America, 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 come-back, in cities such as Washington, DC, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Houston, Boston, San Francisco, San Diego, Buffalo, and Seattle. Festival theatre now provides actors with work in the summer.
Canada has its repertory and non-profits; its crowning achievement being the world-renowned Stratford Festival of Canada, but has had to contend with the tendency of Canadian actors to head South for greener pastures. Their old English-style repertory theatres such as Ottawa's CRT (Canadian Repertory Theatre), and Toronto's Crest Theatre don't exist any more. 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.
Not to be overlooked is a form of touring repertory theatre known as "bus and truck", which involves transporting the actors and sets for about five different plays which can be performed in smaller communities on consecutive nights.
In Russia and much of Eastern Europe repertory theatre is based on the idea that each company maintains a number of productions which 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 reexamination. Moscow Art Theatre and Lev Dodin’s Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg are the world’s most notable practitioners of this approach.
Among the benefits of such a system are increased variety and better quality, due to fresh actors and shopped in directors. The theatre can afford to take risks, and a show that is likely to attract a large audience will effectively subsidize a show that is less likely, especially if season tickets are sold.
Drawbacks to the repertoire system are increased production costs as each show will need separate sets, props, costumes and actors, (although sometimes an actor will be engaged to play in more than one production). Many such companies are large, and are able to have a smaller space available to workshop an experimental production or present playreadings. But the standard should be higher than under the old-time repertory system, because there will be more time for rehearsal. Also many repertoire companies today have non-profit status, so that budgets and income should be higher because they will not just depend upon ticket sales. However, the downside is that promotional costs will also be much higher due to having to employ a separate staff.