The Madison Repertory Theatre's decision last spring not to renew its contract with artistic director Richard Corley came at an especially inconvenient time.
The Rep's 2008-2009 season, which kicks off Sept. 19 with Becky Mode's one-actress play Fully Committed, is the company's 40th. It should be part of a vigorous celebration of the company's history and future. But managing director Julie Jensen and acting artistic director Trevin Gay really had to scramble just to pull it off on schedule. "When Rick left, Trevin, our production manager Phil Richardson and I worked together very collaboratively to balance our budget and to program a season," says Jensen.
"It was a pretty quick turnaround, actually," adds Gay, who served as associate artistic director under Corley. "We had quite a few meetings, and working late we got the budget done in about a week. Then we got the season brochure together pretty quickly and out. It was a really collaborative effort. Everyone worked hard to keep the theater moving forward."
Making certain the quality of productions didn't dip just as the company reached a significant milestone was just as important. "We wanted to maintain the artistic excellence we have here and have it continue for the next 40 years," says Gay. "Forty years is a pretty big accomplishment for a theater company in this day and age. And we're featuring that and talking about it wherever possible."
Past Rep successes are definitely emphasized in the reworked season Gay and his colleagues fashioned from portions of Corley's original schedule of plays. Sam Shepard's True West and William Inge's Bus Stop were both hits for the company in years past, and the hope is that they will do big business at the box office once again. But their inclusion in the season also underscores something else: Until the Rep's board completes its search for Corley's replacement in early 2009, the company is in a holding pattern. And that has some staff chomping at the bit.
"It's been difficult, I'm not going to deny that," says Gay, who's has applied for the permanent position. "It's been a collaborative effort with the staff, and there's really been a lot of in-depth communication on how to keep this train moving forward. And that's been pretty remarkable. But it's hard for me as the acting artistic director to put forth any sort of artistic vision out there. If I did put something out there and I'm not named the new artistic director, people would go, 'Oh, we're switching again.' So we have to wait until we have a clear idea who that artistic director will be, and then we can jump on board with that vision."
Thanks to the uncertain economy, the Rep's financial side is also strait-jacketed these days. "We can't deny the economic weather," says Gay. "If we did, we'd be foolish. With higher gas prices, people aren't spending their luxury dollars as much, and we're definitely a luxury dollar item. There has to be some belt tightening."
The Rep is coping with the economic challenges in a variety of ways. Some plays on the schedule have modest casts, and a collaboration with the University Theatre on John Barton and Kevin Cavendar's The Greeks that was originally set up by Corley will include unsalaried graduate students. Hoping to minimize empty seats, the company has upped its marketing on television while simultaneously reducing the runs of each play from four weeks to three. Local actors will also see more stage time as the company cuts back on the number of out-of-town artists it's bringing in this season.
Not that the increased focus on the bottom line is getting anyone down. Cutting costs and doing more with less has always been part of professional theater. "Our creativity isn't all on stage," laughs Gay.