NEW YORK — This year’s Tony Award acceptance speeches were peppered with pleas for a true repertory theater company in New York, and while “The Coast of Utopia” certainly hinted at how such an institution might work on a grand scale, there’s also a smaller model to consider.
After two decades producing successfully in the Washington, D.C., area, the Potomac Theater Project has brought its take on repertory theater to Gotham.
The company’s 21st season of politically themed plays will run in repertory in New York June 20-July 14 at Atlantic Theater Company’s 99-seat Stage 2, alternating perfs of Howard Barker’s 1981 indictment of censorship, “No End of Blame,” with a collection of short pieces by writer-director Anthony Minghella. The combined cast of 27 features 15 Equity professionals and 12 students from Vermont’s Middlebury College, where two of Potomac’s three co-artistic directors — Cheryl Faraone and Richard Romagnoli — have long been faculty members.
A look at the cast reveals the company’s repertory strategy, as well as a primary reason it chose to relocate from its comfortable regional home to the riskier streets of New York.
Every professional actor in the season also worked with Potomac while they were Middlebury students. For its entire history, the company has been aligned with the college, immersing undergraduates in a professional summer program that requires them to do everything from paint sets to give perfs reviewed by professional critics.
While many Potomac alums return, the company wanted to find a way to guarantee its ongoing association with them.
“We moved to New York because so many of our graduates head here,” Faraone explains. “We wanted to have continuing access to this group of artists we’ve been working with for years.”
Hence Potomac’s repertory, which has uprooted itself to follow its artists instead of asking them to remain in a city that, despite its large legit community, will always be a secondary theater hub to New York. Plus, Faraone continues, 20 years can feel like a long time to stay in one place.
“The political climate has changed in D.C., and there are so many theaters that do this kind of material now,” she says. “We feel we helped catalyze something, and we hope to re-catalyze something here in New York.”
Some would argue that Gotham doesn’t need help making political theater, but Faraone also feels Potomac’s repertory model can fill a niche.
“The idea of combining younger, student actors with professionals is not supported in New York like it is in the regions,” she notes.
The potential benefits of this collaboration are twofold: It gives aspiring young theatermakers a taste of big-league legit, and it keeps professionals rooted in the deep thinking of a classroom environment.
Plus, Potomac’s university connections help reduce various kinds of pressure. For instance, because the artistic directors are also professors, the company can only produce in the summer or during winter breaks, meaning it has to stay limited to short engagements. There’s never anxiety about finding a long-running hit.
And since Middlebury provides a significant portion of the company’s $75,000 budget, staffers can spend less energy on fund-raising. Plus, they are free to stage aggressively political work without worrying if it will appeal to the masses.
Not that finding audiences isn’t an issue. Faraone insists she’s sorry to leave an established group of patrons in D.C., but says Middlebury’s Gotham-based alums and interest from local bloggers will help the company reach a new crowd.
Additionally, the guarantee of Middlebury funds means Potomac’s artists don’t have to live on bare-bones money. Though details of an Equity contract are still being finalized, the company plans to offer its professional actors a weekly stipend that is higher than the industry standard for small Off Broadway productions.
“If you’re only performing for a month out of every year, and you’re doing less than 20 performances of each show, your concerns and needs can change,” says Faraone.