Read up about the early careers of many of the senior actors in the UK and they will very often relay their experience of being a member of a repertory company. Often found in regional theatres and seaside venues, even the National Theatre was run as a ‘rep’ company under the management of Laurence Olivier and beyond. The basic idea was to mount a season of productions with a core of performers who would take on a variety of roles, from leading to minor, while maybe also being involved in duties backstage. The actors would rehearse one play in the daytime, whilst performing another in the evening and so on. It was high stakes theatre, but it provided the actors with a wealth of experience, the public with a different play every week or so, and the theatre with a regular turnover.
CHARLIE AS RON MILLER
BREAKING THE CODE – SIDMOUTH 2022
As times changed and the theatre became more commercial, the repertory seasons began to decline; seen as not being financially viable anymore, whereas bigger touring productions offered the theatres more financial stability. Theatre became national rather than local. An identity was lost. Actors like Michael Caine, Helen Mirren, Michael Gambon and Ian McKellan all benefitted from the rep system; McKellan has, in the past, spoken about his fears for a lack of versatile performers because of the current lack of the breadth of experience he and the aforementioned enjoyed in their earlier careers. In his recent autobiography, ‘Making It So’, Patrick Stewart celebrates the opportunities he was offered, not least when part of Sheffield Rep.
So, what is the situation today? Well, there are little pockets of rep theatre around the country; but you do have to search for them. The longest running of these is the summer season at Frinton-on-Sea which was established in 1934. Pitlochry Festival Theatre runs an 8 production season throughout the summer and the Manor Pavilion Theatre in Sidmouth, Devon, comes in with a massive 12 plays in 12 weeks each summer; run by Paul Taylor-Mills since 2013 and from 1987 until 2011 by Charles Vance and even before that, rep existed in this small seaside theatre.
CHARLIE AS FRANK CHURCHILL IN ‘EMMA’
The experience of being involved in a repertory season is rather different today, but actor Charlie Bryant says the benefits are enormous. A 2021 graduate of the BTEC and degree course at Emil Dale Academy in Hitchin, Bryant was recruited into the 2022 Summer Season at Sidmouth by Jason Marc-Williams – formerly the Head of Acting at Emil Dale and currently the Head of Acting and Voice at Laine Theatre Arts. Marc-Williams has a long association with the Sidmouth Rep Season and approached Charlie to join the cast of ‘Jane Austen’s Emma’ which he was directing. “Although I knew the premise of repertory theatre, I wasn’t that familiar with the nuts and bolts and I was completely ignorant about how things worked at Sidmouth.”
It was soon after his recruitment to ‘Emma’ that Charlie was approached to appear in two other plays in the Season; ‘Breaking the Code’ and ‘The Ghost Train’. “I was so lucky; the roles were all completely different and the plays from different genres. As a young performer, this was such a good opportunity to gain much needed experience.”
The scheduling of the productions meant Charlie had a week off performing in between each, but when he wasn’t performing, he was rehearsing. So added to Charlie’s CV was a romantic costume drama, a play of great gravity and a comedy thriller – all performed within 5 weeks of each other. “I couldn’t believe my good fortune” says the actor who had precious little time to prepare for the roles; “I had to trust my instincts and draw on my training. Although they weren’t the biggest roles I knew I had to nail the lines immediately and then concentrate on the rest of the performance. What this introduction did do was to allow me to gauge the nature of ‘rep’ and of the Sidmouth Season in particular.”
This undoubtedly helped with the 2023 Season when Charlie was invited back to perform larger roles in consecutive plays; Victor in ‘Private Lives’ and Richard Hannay in the Patrick Barlow version of ‘The 39 Steps’. Both plays rehearsed and performed 6 times each in a matter of 19 days. “With ‘The 39 Steps’ my role was to tell the story while the other actors took on multiple characters and a huge amount of stage management tasks – we were like a swan gliding elegantly through this mad play, while backstage we were pedalling like crazy.”
CHARLIE AS VICTOR PRYNNE IN ‘PRIVATE LIVES’
SIDMOUTH – 2023
Bryant reflects on the benefits of taking part in such an enterprise; “It forces you to learn very quickly and think on your feet. Not just the lines either. There is so little time that you have to use your skills to fill in the details that rehearsal time doesn’t afford you. In just the few weeks I spent at Sidmouth over the two summers I added five new roles to my CV, worked with several new directors and many actors. I have enhanced my credibility as an actor and gained a tremendous opportunity to develop my skills and build my creative muscle.”
Judi Dench has bemoaned the demise of repertory theatre and put it down to finances and the television culture, but lauds those small seasons that still exist; “As long as there are some of those reps going and they keep going, there’s a light, a little flame that we can nurture, and hope that sometime in the future it will come back to being a bonfire.” To many of her generation, the rep system has been invaluable. Charlie Bryant tends to agree; “The industry is too commercial these days and rep is full of risks financially. Although I would encourage any actor to get involved in a season, there are not many to choose from.”
CHARLIE BRYANT AS CHARLES MURDOCK IN ‘THE GHOST TRAIN
Sidmouth remains unique and there doesn’t seem to be any diminishing of its popularity; after a lean couple of years due to Covid, audiences flocked back to the Manor Pavilion Theatre in 2023 for a hugely successful season. There is an appetite out there, but is anyone likely to start setting up similar seasons elsewhere? It would be a brave impresario to do so. Despite the opportunities it offers artists and audiences alike it is a people-heavy operation and a logistical burden like no other form of theatre.
For Charlie Bryant the chance to return to Sidmouth in the future would be welcomed with open arms; “it was a friendly place to find myself, surrounded by actors with a variety of rep experience. Just by chatting I would pick out little tips which could apply to me. It is the ultimate networking scenario; even with my short stints I have got other jobs directly through contacts I’ve made at Sidmouth.”
So, although the opportunities may not be thick on the ground, the rep system can offer multiple benefits to those who take part and from the audience point of view, having great quality professional theatre on your doorstep with a new play each week is something of a godsend.
We should laud and celebrate rep – there is nothing quite like it and it is as relevant today as it has ever been, you just need to hunt a bit harder to track it down.
CHARLIE IS CURRENTLY APPEARING AS ONE OF THE UGLY SISTERS IN ‘CINDERELLA’ AT THE MIDDLESBOROUGH THEATRE
MAIN PHOTO – CHARLIE AS RICHARD HANNAY IN ‘THE 39 STEPS’ – SIDMOUTH 2023
The Summer Play Festival at the Manor Pavilion Theatre will return in June 2024
PHOTO CREDITS – ALASDAIR EVANS & ANDREW BECKETT
CR – NOVEMBER 2023