Theater performances require actors, and some people to listen to them. That'ês pretty much it. Props and costumes, lights, directors and playwrights are optional though useful. Permanent stages, technical and administrative staffs, and marketing budgets are dangerous luxuries. Yet most professional productions in this country are staged by organizations with large fixed-cost budgets, in which narrow lines for jobbed-in actors jostle against dozens of other turgid expenses. It'ês this head-scratcher that makes a group like New Century Theatre Company vitally important.
New Century is a group of mature, professional theater artists who have been making their living with regular but low-paying acting gigs, supplemented by side income from carpentry or spousal salaries. A few years ago they got together to start their own venture. They don'êt have a theater space to pay for, or an administrative staff, or overhead of any kind. Ticket sales and donations go to artists, crew and modest set and costume costs; they also share a few dollars with ACT, which provides heavily subsidized rehearsal and performance space.
New Century'ês efficiency is an order of magnitude greater than that of our professional theaters: The same actors are up there on stage and they have worked at least as hard to get there, but the company'ês overall cost per show is a small fraction of what it is at the Rep or Intiman.
Part of this efficiency is unsustainable. If the company doesn'êt receive some kind of stable, consistent financial support, New Century is unlikely to survive. At some point the relentless struggle to draw an audience, raise a few more dollars, put together another set becomes overwhelming: The company fractures, its members move on to other projects that don'êt demand so much unpaid and tedious administrative and development labor.
In the meantime, pending support or smash-up, the company offers us a collection of Seattle'ês finest actors, working with passion and enthusiasm to try to do exceptional dramatic work. This should influence your decision as to whether you attend On the Nature of Dust, New Century'ês third production, playing at ACT through Sunday (May 30).
The acting upholds New Century'ês standard of excellence. Amy Thone as Shirley is terrific — natural and focused. Michael Patten is at once powerful and slightly creepy as the earnest pastor. Benjamin Harris and Brenda Joyner both successfully play below their ages as awkward but engaging high-school sweethearts. Betsy Schwartz doesn'êt quite convince in her role as a biology teacher, which is a disappointment after her excellent work in New Century'ês last production, Orange Flower Water, but she is a solid performer.
Unfortunately, neither the script nor the directing match the performances. Company member Stephanie Timm has written a mildly charming mash-up of a mother-daughter relationship with some evolution/creationism conflict, glued together with a gloss of contemporary surrealism: It plays like Caryl Churchill declawed. Its quick scenes and quotidian language, common in contemporary plays, dabble in sentiment but mute the emotions.
Kathleen Collins'ê directing, if adequate, does not overcome the script'ês weaknesses; it sometimes leaves the audience confused about the topography of imagined spaces, and it allows unnecessary intrusion of the real into the imagined. Happily, fine performances rescue the show and furnish a memorable evening.
Many notable theater companies have been founded and led by charismatic visionaries: Mnouchkine, Stanislavsky, Peter Brook. Others — notably Chicago'ês Steppenwolf, after which New Century patterns itself — have started and sustained themselves as a cohort of performers. The greatest challenge for such an acting company is to carefully select the directors and scripts they engage so as to challenge their performing talents and continually stoke the audience'ês excitement, while maintaining a healthy and collaborative artist community. New Century'ês next steps will be interesting to watch.
If you go: On the Nature of Dust, New Century Theatre Company. Playing through Sunday (May 30) at ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle, . Tickets cost $25 and are available online or by calling 206-292-7676.
Editor's note: Ben Rankin serves on New Century's advisory board.