Recently, a friend and colleague of mine asked me if I would be interested in getting in on the ground floor of a new theater company he’s thinking about starting. When asked what he meant by “getting in on the ground floor,” he said perhaps in a co-artistic capacity helping him run it.

Which got me thinking: whatever happened to the good ol’ actor-manager? You know: well-known actors who headed up big theater companies or were independent producing impresarios. There used to be a lot more of them around than there are today. Pre-20th century there was a bounty of them: Richard Burbage, David Garrick, Moliere, Sarah Bernhardt, Henry Irving, Edwin BoothStanislavsky – the list goes on and on. 

With the advent of the 20th century (and the increasing dominance of director-centric thinking) actor-managers dropped precipitously off the map. A few of them still popped up. The most notable example of the modern era is, of course, Laurence Olivier, who ran both The Old Vic and The National Theatre of Great Britain (which he helped create) to great acclaim.

Here in the U.S., Eva Le Galliene did her part to carry on the actor-manager tradition by starting the Civic Repertory Theatre back in the 1920s. In the late 1950s, Ellis Rabb formed the Association of Producing Artists, which later merged with the Phoenix Theatre to become the APA-Phoenix. And, in the 1970s, three upstart actors from the suburbs of Chicago – Gary Sinise, Jeff Perry, and Terry Kinney – started Steppenwolf Theatre Company in a church basement – and the rest, as they say, is history.

In all of those instances, the actor-managers who led the charge were highly esteemed, well-respected, and thought highly capable of being both bosses and artists.

Nowadays, you don’t see actors running big theater companies anymore. All those jobs go to directors now. A.R.T., The Public, The Guthrie, The Goodman, Arena Stage, Yale Rep, Long Wharf, the Intiman, Seattle Rep – all run by directors. Two notable exceptions are Steppenwolf (which is run by actor Martha Lavey) and The Old Vic in Britain (which is run by Kevin Spacey). Otherwise, it’s as if the world-at-large suddenly came to regard directors as more viable candidates for artistic director jobs when, truth be told, it’s the old-fashioned actor-manager who paved the way for their creation in the first place.

So, why is it that actors no longer get opportunities like this? What’s your take on this? Why can’t actors be bosses anymore? Is there some unspoken prejudice against them in the eyes of those who dole out such positions? Are directors better at lobbying and schmoozing their way into these jobs? Is there a fundamental difference in today’s theater training that gears directors more towards institutional positions than actors? Or do actors just not want these jobs anymore? I’d love to hear the blogosphere’s thoughts on this. Because, frankly, I don’t see why we can’t see the actor-manager once again rise to prominence.


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