When a pair of twentysomething thesps launched the Company Theater in Toronto’s vibrant scene of established playhouses in 2004 — with no permanent home nor the promise of regular seasons — it seemed an audacious move. But the resounding critical raves that greeted Company’s inaugural show, the first Canadian production of 1961 Irish classic “A Whistle in the Dark,” proved that co-founders Allan Hawco and Philip Riccio had hit an idea that resonated with auds and, especially, the thesp community — an intimate live theater experience that puts the acting process at the forefront.
“Improv with text” is Riccio’s shorthand description of an approach that has lured Canuck heavyweights like Nicholas Campbell, Eric Peterson and Sonja Smits to Company which, so far, has mounted a production every 12 to 18 months, allowing Riccio and Hawco flexibility and room for crucial fundraising.
“We don’t do new work, we don’t want that focus in rehearsal,” Riccio says. “It’s about exploring the art of performance from night to night in ensemble plays about the human condition and that allow actors to interact on an equal level.”
Spotting a void in local offerings, the duo has honed in on contemporary international work and international collaborations. Company’s fifth production, bowing this fall, is the English-language preem of Swiss-German playwright Lukas Barfuss’ “The Test,” which marks Irish director Jason Byrne’s return to Toronto. “When he came to direct ‘Whistle’ he had no preconceived notions and he brought out the best in everyone.” Riccio says. “That’s been our sales pitch ever since — the best actors at their best.”
With Hawco sidelined as creator, star and exec producer of CBC-TV’s hit P.I. comedy-drama series “Republic of Doyle” (now filming season three in his native Newfoundland), Riccio, who still pursues film work, has taken on the lion’s share of Company’s day-to-day operations. But the duo remains committed to their original intent.
“Actors often fall into relying on other people for work and forgetting why they started acting,” Riccio says. “There’s something powerful and satisfying about saying this is my voice, this is an artistic conversation.”