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THEATER : Making a Dramatic Noise : Theater company has found itself a niche in the classical realm and met with critical acclaim.

October 07, 1994|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; T.H. McCulloh writes regularly about theater for The Times

GLENDALE — There's a whole lot of shaking going on at the Valley's prestigious 3-year-old classical theater company, A Noise Within.

To begin with, its fall repertory season opened this week with Shakespeare's "King Lear," directed by the company's resident director / artistic adviser Sabin Epstein. It will be joined Oct. 19 by Richard Brinsley Sheridan's "The School for Scandal," directed by Art Manke, and on Nov. 2 by John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men," under the guidance of Julia Rodriguez Elliott and Geoff Elliott. Manke and the Elliotts are A Noise Within's artistic directors.

Classical repertory is a hard nut to crack. But the success and critical approval of the company's first two seasons would indicate that it's doing something right, and this winter will be its busiest yet. In January the company will revive its acclaimed production of Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest," followed in repertory by "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Anton Chekhov's "The Three Sisters" and W.S. Gilbert's rarely produced "Engaged."

Don't stop there. At the moment the group is operating under Equity's 99-Seat Theater Plan, but is working on a scheduled upgrading from this small theater system to a mid-sized house, possibly on the first floor of the same former church building where it began three years ago with a trial production of "Hamlet." That production made the company's name and set it on the road to the frenetic repertory existence that consumes its time today.

And beginning in early 1995, A Noise Within will become a touring company under an Equity touring contract, which will allow it to pay its actors what the artistic directors call "almost a living wage." Productions of "Earnest" and "Dream" will play either singly or in repertory in full-sized theaters from San Diego to Santa Barbara, from Palm Springs to Hawaii's Maui Arts and Cultural Center.

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Pausing to take a breath, the company's four heads try to explain the state of their art.

As for their move to larger quarters, Geoff Elliott says: "Our hope--and we're confident--is that we will move down to the first floor of this building, which will be refurbished into a 350- to 500-seat theater. We're about to embark on a feasibility study, along with a marketing and operating study. The study will also give us milestones, where we should be at various times between now and then."

Julia Rodriguez Elliott further explains: "The phrase 'feasibility study' is an odd one. It's really more of a business plan that's going to tell us how we get there. From the beginning of this company, the plan has been to really become a LORT (League of Resident Theatres) theater. The 99-Seat Plan has been great, because it has facilitated what we're doing right now, but people who are involved know that this is not where we want to be. It's simply part of the process."

Part of the process also seems to be the tours. This is not something the company sought, because in addition to difficult and time-consuming scheduling and budgeting, the tours will occur simultaneously with the continuing repertory operation at home.

"We didn't go looking for it, beating down doors," Manke says. "It came to us. We were doing a production of 'Tartuffe.' The Norris Theatre (in Palos Verdes) had an opening in its season because their scheduled production had canceled on them. They came to look at 'Tartuffe,' along with a booking agent. It didn't work out, but they asked us to come the following year with 'The School for Wives.' The booking agent has since lined up a whole slew of stuff for this year. There are several reasons for doing it. One of the most important is that it allows us to pay the actors. It also allows us a greater visibility. It doubles our audience in a very quick time period, and increases the recognition of the company."

With three shows running at home while the company is touring, it would seem that there might not be enough actors. With an explosive laugh, Geoff Elliott says, "Enough can't be said for a strong understudy program."

It's a sizable company, Epstein explains, adding: "One of the things about the way we view ourselves, is that it's a company of actors who are capable of playing any of the roles at any point in time. And sometimes do, at a moment's notice. There's never a sense of compromise. An actor who comes in playing a servant in one production, will play a lead in another. The work is always equally balanced and distributed in the course of the season, among all the actors. So even when we're on tour, there's no shortchanging an audience or diminishing the quality or integrity of the work on stage."

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