A Noise Within: Moving Stage Right

by Marshall Bissett

In a town where the terms longevity, loyalty and consistency rarely spring to mind,  A NOISE WITHIN  is thriving while other theatre companies are wilting.  A Glendale cultural  landmark housed temporarily (for the past eighteen years) in the iconic Masonic Temple on Brand Boulevard, the company produces classic repertory theatre of exceptional quality.  The theatre is run in the style of the British repertory system  by the husband and wife team of Geoff and Julia Rodriguez Elliott. Based on a model they learned at ACT in San Francisco, their theatre company has all the qualities of a well run neighborhood family business.  Always minding the store, the co-artistic directors are either  acting in the productions or directing them. They also greet patrons in the lobby, give spirited fund raising speeches and generally re-define the term “hands on.”  The repertory system they chose nineteen years ago is the key element of their success – their mission statement  is more than a handy catch phrase on the back of their program.  The rotation of plays, often connected in a thematic way,  intensifies the experience  for audiences and company members. The actors, many brought through the ranks like the farm system in baseball, get to stretch their legs in a string of classic roles. The mandate to stage only the classics of Western theatre is far from limiting.  It’s devastatingly simple – find a good script, assemble a great cast, surround yourself with topnotch  backstage talent and your community will keep coming back for more.  So, if it’s really that easy, shouldn’t every theatre be doing this? Yes, if you  have the time, patience and talent to build the loyalty of your local community.

Sustaining a twenty year legacy takes more than good shows. Like other theatres, A NOISE WITHIN, sells season subscriptions and has a system of tiered sponsorships. They just do it better than anyone else.  Their subscriber base renews year after year, a trick that larger theatres have yet to figure out, but what truly sets them apart is their exceptional ability to raise funds. Contrary to popular belief, individuals not corporations are the largest donor group in America today and NOISE has proved this by raising over $10 million (with an M) in an economy where penny pinching is the new norm. As Geoff points out in the curtain speech before Blithe Spirit , they still need to raise about $3 million to equip the “shell” of their new theatre being constructed in Pasadena. His confidence that they will reach their goal is believable and obviously contagious.

In a recent interview with USC , Julia Rodriguez Elliott describes the themes of their recently opened season as “The Heart of the Matter – Finding the Essence of Eternity in a changing world.”  She goes on to say that this will be explored most deeply by the character of Pip in Great Expectations.

The design of the new theatre closely resembles the current Glendale digs. The thrust stage and audience all within thirty feet are part of a winning formula it would be unwise to change. The move will allow for more technical freedom in staging, but the vision will remain focused on doing the classics and doing them well.

The 2010 season, the last in the Glendale facility, has opened with two bold productions by British dramatists, Noel Coward and William Shakespeare. Measure for Measure and Blithe Spirit appear at first glance to have little in common.  Measure, set in contemporary corporate style, blends a dark story of trading sex for justice with bursts of humor and frivolity. Blithe Spirit is a frothy ghost story based on the frailty of a marriage under constant pressure from the spirit world. That they both restore the status quo by the final curtain defines them as comedies, albeit in the dark British tradition. The productions for the remainder of the season have been carefully chosen.“The 2010-11 season’s great masterworks all deal with change on some level,” says Julia Rodriguez-Elliott.  “They all have a mystery about them, a veil that must be lifted or pierced to get at the truth.”  Geoff Elliott adds, “All of us are on a constantly changing journey in this ever-changing world.  The plays explore an inner voice telling us there’s something more than the physically changing environment into which we are born.  They affirm in some way that there’s a grounding, spiritual essence to life.” Later in the season, that connection will be explored in works as disparate as Measure for Measure and The Chairs.

The “sweet sorrow” of leaving Glendale will soon be tempered with the anticipation of moving into a new theatre in Pasadena, perfectly suited to the needs of the Company. A NOISE WITHIN and their exuberant audience will soon head East on the 134 for many more years of classic repertory theatre.

About Peter Finlayson

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Peter Finlayson is the Founder, Publisher and Editor-in-chief of FootLights magazine and footlight.click. While working on a prelaw program at the University of Michigan, he happily got involved with the theatre program. Much to his mother’s chagrin, law school never happened, but in a career spanning more than 4 decades, Peter has performed, directed or designed more than 150 productions. In his spare time, he is working on a new play. You can follow him on Twitter @Thtrdog .

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