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Within A Noise Within

As three productions are mounted simultaneously, running the classical theater company is no easy task

October 06, 2002|DON SHIRLEY

A former Masonic Temple, built in 1929, looms nine stories over the east side of Glendale's Brand Boulevard, its bone-colored walls somewhat forbidding. It's at the southern end of a busy shopping street--but looking at it, you know you're not at Mervyn's anymore.

Yet the apparent fortress is hardly as grim as it appears. It's the home of A Noise Within, "California's classical theatre company"--or so says a big sign out front, a valiant attempt to mitigate the austere architecture.

A few summer-only theater festivals might quibble with the banner's claim. But if "California's classical theatre company" means a professional, year-round group that stages a range of nonmusical classics from Shakespeare to Shepard but nary a new play, most observers of California theater would endorse the sign's claim.

The often-acclaimed A Noise Within produces fall and spring seasons of three plays each in repertory--usually with a few actors who overlap in more than one production. In its 144-seat theater, the company pays actors higher wages than in any of the 99-seat companies that do classical theater. It stages a holiday show and tours in the winter--mostly in California--and runs a classical training program for teenagers in the summer.

On a recent Sunday, a technical rehearsal of the season-opening "Macbeth" occupies the third-floor stage, which thrusts sharply out into the audience. Simultaneously, the season's second show, the 18th century French comedy "The Triumph of Love," has taken over the basement rehearsal studio.

Upstairs, most of the theater is dark except the stage. Sitting at an electronic console in the front row are the stage manager and lighting designer. Co-director Julia Rodriguez Elliott hovers behind them, sometimes stopping the action to venture on stage and talk to an actor.

From out of the darkness comes an occasional remark by her unseen husband and co-director, Geoff Elliott. He sits first on one side of the stage, then the other, gauging the look and sound of the play. "Can we go back and start the dagger scene again?" asks the voice. "Is that OK?"

"Yes," agrees his co-director.

Later, Geoff Elliott explains that he and his wife disagreed for two weeks about whether the lights should come up on the silent witches during Macbeth's dagger scene. "She thought the image was very powerful; I thought we should focus on the words." When they disagree, "we talk about it at home," he says. "We don't make a scene." In this case, "I realized after the lights and costumes were added that she was right."

Generally, however, "we have very similar tastes." This time around, with their infant son, Jack, at home, Geoff Elliott took the more active role in the production's earlier phases in the rehearsal room. But his wife became more involved when the company moved into the theater.

He takes a moment to demonstrate how cramped the backstage is. The passage across the back of the stage is about 2 feet wide. Three potentially precarious steps connect it to the tiny side of the stage. Actors who exit the stage down the aisles toward the rear of the auditorium, he says, often "have to go tearing around the corners of the lobby and the greenroom to get backstage again for their next entrance, telling people to get out of the way."

The greenroom is on the other side of the auditorium's south wall. Inside, actors on sofas alternately chat and doze while awaiting their next entrance.

Mitchell Edmonds has little time for dozing. He is the only actor who is in both productions that are being rehearsed, so he shuttles between floors.

Downstairs at the "Triumph of Love" rehearsal, Edmonds points out the mirrors on the walls and pillars of the room, which was once a discotheque. A platform for the DJ still occupies one end of the room. Just as the darkness upstairs seems right for "Macbeth," the brightness in this room is eminently suitable for Marivaux's light comedy about affairs of the heart.

Edmonds, 62, a mainstay of many A Noise Within productions, used to manage a dance club himself. But his chief source of current income is residuals from a Fixodent commercial he made nine years ago. "It has been a real life-saver," he says.

A Noise Within "has kept us sane," he says. Playing three roles in two plays at once isn't a problem for him. But he quotes a director for the company who said, "It's not about the work, it's about the scheduling." That isn't completely true, Edmonds adds. "It's about the work, or none of us would be here. But there's a lot of scheduling involved in the work."

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