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If it's Thursday, I must be Roderigo

Repertory projects put players through their paces

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"Acting pills, anyone?" Heidi Cline asks before beginning a Saturday morning rehearsal of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. At the moment, the Back Stage Theater of 7 Stages, filled with bare wood and the noise of power tools, seems more like a Home Depot storage room than Tennessee Williams' overheated plantation. "Acting pills?"

She's offering her fellows in Soul-stice Repertory not some performance-enhancing pharmaceuticals but simply Altoids, saying that actors find the mints indispensable, especially for impending kissing scenes. Still, the cast and crew of Soul-stice, working toward the opening of their 2001 repertory, may need any boost they can get.

Cline, for instance, will be rehearsing her role as Maggie in Cat all morning, then after lunch directing a rehearsal of Noel Coward's comedy Hay Fever all afternoon. Fortunately she gets a break this particular Saturday night as Hudson Adams, her husband and Soul-stice co-founder, will be directing the first dress rehearsal of Othello, which opens in six days.

All three plays, in addition to midnight showings of Alice in Wonderland, also directed by Cline, are being staged in rotating productions at 7 Stages' little theater from Feb. 15 to March 18. Members of the company will play multiple roles off-stage and on, but the concentrated workload is business as usual as Soul-stice upholds the tradition of repertory theater.

The word "repertory"in the strictest sense refers to theaters that keep specific plays in a permanent repertoire. But most often it refers to theaters like Soul-stice or the Georgia Shakespeare Festival, in which a regular pool of actors play rotating parts, especially during a set time of year when multiple shows are staged on alternate nights.

"Repertory companies are an old-school British theater tradition," Cline says, pointing out that in Shakespeare's time, a company could have 30-40 plays at their disposal at once. "People like Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart came up doing repertory and became great character actors because they had so much opportunity to stretch their range."

Every year Soul-stice gives about a dozen actors the chance to stretch with classics produced in the dark, intimate back stage space. This year Barbara Cole plays Emilia in Othello and Alice in Wonderland, while also serving as assistant director for Cat and the theater's managing director. Brik Berkes plays tormented Brick in Cat and dandyish Roderigo in Othello, while Jeff McKerley and Donna Wright play married couples in both the Shakespeare and Coward plays.

With so much work in store, Soul-stice selects its casts about six months in advance of its repertory performances. "We cast in August because of the difficulty in learning all these lines."

Actor Daniel May, participating in his first series of repertory productions as Cassio in Othello and Simon Bliss in Hay Fever, finds the experience a definite adjustment. "The most obvious difference is the split focus, especially playing multiple characters in different shows. You have to put the work into them to make them distinct. I have to make mental notes when it seems that Cassio is creeping into Simon."

Shifting gears from one kind of play to another can be tricky. "Hay Fever is a challenge because of the nature of the dialogue, and it's exacerbated by the rep format," May acknowledges. "Shakespeare has always been easy to deal with, because of the lyrical nature and poetic form, and the dialogue tends to be straightforward speech or simple exchanges. With Hay Fever, a lot [of it] is people being unable to finish sentences or trying to interject when others are talking. It can be hard keeping up with the technical aspects of it."

"In a repertory the discipline's different," Cline says, pointing out that typically, a given play might have as many as 20 rehearsals. "If you only get about 11 rehearsals, as we usually do, there's a sense that all of them have to count, and that sense is heightened in a repertory situation. And that's compounded by the fact that we're doing classic plays. We could do five-and-a-half weeks on each of them, instead of all of them."

From 1992 to 1994, Cline and Adams staged classics and developed new plays at the Play Ground Theatre, a company that evolved into Soul-stice, which staged its first repertory in 1995. About the same time, Adams joined the Georgia Shakespeare Festival, where he's now an artistic associate.

Working on Othello Sunday afternoon, Adams comments on the differences between Atlanta's repertory theaters. "One of the nice things about Georgia Shake is that when I work there, because of the scale it's on, I'm an actor," he says. "I'm not being pompous about it, but I don't have to sweep or do carpentry. And out there you have eight-hour rehearsal days. Here, all of these folks have day jobs -- they get to work at 8 or 9 in the morning, then rush to get over here by 6:30. We work on the play at night and on weekends."

Wearing a GSF T-shirt and an ART Station cap, he points out an advantage to Soul-stice's smaller size. "We have the luxury of being able to cast people against their type. When you're a company at the level of the Alliance or Georgia Shake, you'll cast according to type, because that's what you're paying the actors good money for. But we cast so our actors can stretch. We won't cast, say, somebody who plays ingenues in just the ingenue roles."

Cline says that audiences like to see the players do 180-degree turns. "If we get an audience for one show, they usually come back for at least one more. They enjoy seeing players doing something else, often something very different, like Brik playing the fop in Othello and Brick in Cat."

Planning the rehearsal schedule, from coordinating actors' schedules to building and storing the sets, can be a logistically daunting task every year. "It ends up becoming a little more like rocket science than you might want it to be. We have a schedule and we have to stay on it. We can't go into overtime here, since we're doing other shows that we have to respect." That's proved by the Saturday rehearsal of Cat, which runs out of time before getting to the last act, which the cast must squeeze into free hours on Sunday.

ART Station artistic director David Thomas, directing Cat, says that logistic complications aren't that different from helming a single show. "The reality for actors in Atlanta is that everyone's always doing more than one thing at the same time, so whenever we're doing a show at ART Station, my cast will be off doing something else during their free time, so we have to plan around that."

Actors extol the advantages of appearing in multiple plays rather than bemoaning the challenges. Speaking of both Soul-stice and GSF, Adams says, "It's nice because most of the time we're getting to do very distinct characters, so it's very easy to keep them apart. It triggers different ideas and different thoughts, not being lulled into just doing a technical performance."

May concurs. "My two roles kind of feed each other," he says. "I can let go of Cassio and be something opposite, and it's not often you get the opportunity to do that, which is a good thing. You can live so much in a single character in ways you don't notice. It's great to be in a rep situation because you don't get locked in one character."

Even when actors get huge workloads, they get a lift from the experience. In Soul-stice's 1998 repertory, Tim Habeger played both Macbeth and the major role of Lopakhin in The Cherry Orchard. "When I was doing those plays with Soul-stice, I spent a lot of time working on them as well as running PushPush Theater, but I felt great and alive and full of energy. The roles were so different that it felt very healthy to come off of Macbeth and then the next night redeem my soul as Lopakhin."

Indeed, it seems that simply being in repertory can make acting pills unnecessary.

Othello, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Hay Fever play in repertory through March 18 at the Backstage Theatre of 7 Stages, 1105 Euclid Ave., with performances at 8 p.m. Thurs.-Sun. and 2 p.m. matinees on March 3, 4, 10, 11, 17 and 18. Alice in Wonderland plays at midnight March 3, 4, 10, 11, 17 and 18. $10-15. Call 770-591-3036.

curt.Holman@creativeloafing.com/

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