By Dale Reynolds
One of the most successful classical theatre companies in Southern California moved this year to Pasadena, in a brand-new, built-from-scratch, 281-seat thrust theatre. With state-of-the-art lighting and backstage set-storage, this lovely performance space has taken a strong toe-hold in the theatre-starved San Gabriel Valley.
The co-creators of A Noise Within (a line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet) are an attractive married couple, Geoffrey Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, who founded ANW twenty years ago.
Ms. Rodriguez-Elliott was born in Havana, Cuba, but moved with her family when she was three-months-old. “Yes, I’m legal,” she laughs. She was raised in Miami, so while she readily admits to being “American,” she is also “70% Cuban.”
It is this bi-cultural assimilation that she brings to the fore as a director and producer. As a child, she was enrolled in a Miami private school founded by a mother/daughter Cuban exile duo. “It was a conservatory program steeped in dance, music, visual arts and theatre, which remains a large part of my life. I inherited the Cuban Spirit: infused with a love of color, the dance and all the arts. Because I started with Spanish dance, I often direct visually.”
Part of this “cubaismo” is reflected in how she lives her life here in Southern California: “I grew up feeling my American/Cuban identity to be a mixed bag. I have always viewed family, community, relationships through a sensibility that is part Cuban and part American. I’m a mutt, which is fine by me.” She found that since most immigrant children go through stages in assimilating to a new culture, early in her teens, “I felt that I was a ‘Julie’ instead of being ‘Julia’, I’d find more acceptance, but eventually I woke up to discover I wasn’t a “Julie,” at all, but was a “Julia,” which I remain.” Because there wasn’t much ethnic inclusivity in Florida, she was left feeling like an outsider. “For instance, when we drove from Florida to New York, we found less-than-stellar-treatment in restaurants and motels.”
After meeting husband Geoffrey at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre, where both had studied as actors and directors, they moved to L.A. and decided that running their own classical theatre company made more sense than acting in television and films. “A Noise Within” was formed in 1992, first in rented store-fronts, then for eighteen years in a converted Masonic Temple in Glendale, and eventually, after a $13,500,000 fund raiser, built their new theatrical home on the eastern edge of Pasadena, on donated land.
Any major move for a theatre is always a gamble (will they keep their audience base? Being the most insistent question), but it surprised everyone that not only have they held onto 85% of their old subscribers (rare in today’s bad economic climate), they’ve also expanded with newer season-ticket and single-ticket sales from a newer group of patrons in the San Gabriel Valley, which has large concentrations of Latinos and Asian-Americans.
It is rare for a theatre company in Los Angeles to move upwards from the AEA 99-Seat Plan (in which actors are paid minimally in houses that seat less than 100), so there’s not much history on how to successfully make that move. And it is always challenging. “These are somewhat unchartered waters for us, and as a process, we and Equity are thinking it out.” The three-year trial of raising that $13.5 million was a herculean effort. “Now we’re trying to catch our breath.”
Another factor that has been strengthened in their move is ethnic and gender diversity in their casting. “For us, diversity has become part of the challenge of running a successful theatre company. “We work under an Actors Equity Association Letter-of-Agreement (LOA) contract, which means we hire actors per-play, as opposed to the more expensive option of putting them under full-time contracts.” Their company is made up of twenty or so professional actors who “job” in from play to play. This allows AWN the opportunity to cast from the outside, which is beginning to include more actors from communities of color. That old standby line, “we’re looking for the best actor for the role,” seems, indeed, to be applicable here. While more true to the Classics and to Opera than to contemporary plays, non-traditional casting is more acceptable in plays that have themes larger than life.
But more than anything, the move into a larger house, with new audiences, allowed them an important exchange of energy. “You can’t help but notice how open and available the audience is to us and as we are to them. Scary as it was at first, the intimacy of this larger house has shown us how important the transfer of energy from actor to audience and back again, really is.”
A Noise Within is still in a growth stage in this new house. “As we continue to meet the challenges, our hope is that we will mature in our work. The space gives us incredible opportunities to work with scale and size, and the actors love the balance of the space [on-stage and in the audience] and how it informs their work. At first we didn’t really understand that scale, but now we are more comfortable with it.”
And in truth, the quality work they are producing reflects that important comfort-level. Long may they prosper!