A Noise Within theatre is a case study of how a simple dream turned into a stable, successful, and beloved theatrical organization in Los Angeles. After 25 years, ANW achieves a high artistic standard, continues to challenge audiences, and further expands their commitment to education and to building a diverse, theatre-loving community in Los Angeles.
In 1991, American Conservatory Theatre-trained actors Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, along with their colleague Art Manke, staged William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Though they had little money (having in fact withdrawn their last $3,000 from the bank for the production), what they had was a Los Angeles filled with well-trained actors. They also had a great empty space – the Masonic Temple at 234 S. Brand Blvd. in Glendale. Previously used as a place of worship, the Elliotts and Manke built a makeshift stage for their production, and flanked three sides of it with the wooden church pews left behind by the previous occupants. The thrust configuration, now a hallmark of the organization, gave their early audiences an intimate theatrical experience.
“From the beginning, we gravitated toward sets that were spare and provocative; we knew we were not interested in big, huge, representational sets,” said Julia Rodriguez-Elliott. “A mark of true artistry to be able to tell the story with the bare minimum – and we have always had a scrappy imagination! We’ve always been interested in transformational environments that pulled your attention to the actor, the words, and the story.”
Geoff Elliott said, “The one requirement we had of the audience was that they bring their imaginations with them. The thrust stage, which plunges the action into the audience, has an immediate intimacy. These guiding principles were the start of A Noise Within (ANW): thoughts of how to stage the classics, a way of thinking about what makes theatre meaningful and satisfying for the audience, and a fulfilling experience for our artists.”
Julia Rodriguez-Elliott said, “We knew from the beginning that that the story is the star. That is a key aspect of ANW’s aesthetic. To this day, we focus on high language and epic expression. Our conservatory training valued language and storytelling, and we were lucky to have found a large community of actors in Los Angeles that shared our values.”
Julia continues, “After the success of Hamlet, we were energized to work with our colleague Sabin Epstein, who wanted to do Congreve’s The Way of the World. Actor’s resumes poured in – and soon enough, we had enough language-based actors that we could easily populate the two plays. That is how we found our way to the repertory theatre we still practice today.”
The Elliotts’ training ground, the famed American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, pioneered repertory theatre in which different productions are performed in rotation, with the same troupe of cast members performing different roles from night to night. Classical rotating repertory is a time-tested tradition that in recent years has all but vanished from the U.S. regional theatre scene. There is reason to continue — rotating repertory has the unique ability to build strong community among artists, between artists and their audience, and among audience members.
A Noise Within adopted this system with their second and third productions, and by their third season, individual actors were given the opportunity to perform multiple roles across three thematically linked plays during the fall season, and again during the spring. Over the last 25 years, A Noise Within has carefully tended its working relationship and a true association with Actors’ Equity Association (the Actors’ Union), allowed them to grow in steps – from 60 to 99 seats, then to 145, and finally the jump to 283.
In April 1992, following ANW’s The Way of the World and The Merchant of Venice, Los Angeles Times drama critic Sylvie Drake said, “This is a well pedigreed company of actors who know how to deliver the classics. They mostly hail from the country’s better-known classical hatcheries such as San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre, Oregon’s Shakespearean Festival at Ashland and such solid other dabblers in the classics as the American Repertory Theatre, South Coast Repertory and the Mark Taper Forum […] A Noise Within is one of the freshest classical companies to come down the pike. One devoutly hopes its noise grows louder.”
A quarter century later, A Noise Within is one of America’s most successful theatre companies. Their unwavering artistic vision is a driving factor on that success. “We focus on timeless works that speak to the human condition,” says Julia, “it’s important for us to present these epics in an intimate setting, told with a personal and contemporary perspective – after all, what good are all these grand, sweeping narratives if no one can relate to them?”
In the last 25 years, ANW has presented some 166 main stage productions – a challenging repertoire devoted to bringing classic plays to life in fully realized, full-bodied productions. ANW has amassed nearly thirty Los Angeles Drama Critics’ Circle Awards including the Polly Warfield Award for Excellence, 31 LA Stage Ovation Nominations, winning 4 awards, and was the youngest company ever to receive the Margaret Harford Award for Distinguished Achievement.
In 2012, ANW Producing Artistic Directors Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott were honored with the inaugural alumni “Contributions to the Field Award” by American Conservatory Theatre. This award honors distinguished alumni and supporters who have contributed significant leadership in the field of theatre locally and nationally beyond their role as actors and founders. Their fellow honorees were The William Randolph Hearst Foundation, Annette Bening, and Elizabeth Banks.
Julia and Geoff are very aware of the word ‘region’ in regional theatre – they endeavor to create theatre that is of and for community, just as the early champions of the regional theatre movement envisioned. They have always felt that their energies are about serving the community they live in, and not necessarily about exporting productions to other cities.
Not surprisingly, their most important associations are with partners in the region: the City of Pasadena (including with Mayor Bogaard), the owner of the parcel of land for their current theatre, SMV Technology Partners (David Worrell and Jeff Allen), and Metro (LA). These connections have helped foster growth to the benefit of both the community and ANW’s long–term artistic goals.
Today, the company celebrates its sixth season in its new venue in Pasadena. In the middle of the Great Recession, the company began serious fundraising for the space in 2008, and found the $13.5 million needed to build its new home on 3352 East Foothill Blvd – a three story, 30,000 square foot facility complete with rehearsal space, scene and costume shops, classrooms, administrative offices, and a student learning resource center.
The state-of-the-art Neo-formalist facility was built on the site of an historical landmark designed by acclaimed 20th century architect, Edward Durell Stone, most noted for Radio City Music Hall, the Center Theatre in Rockefeller Center, the Museum of Modern Art, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (Kennedy Center) in Washington D.C. The important architectural feature, a mid-century modern façade dating from 1958, was entirely preserved.
The new venue has allowed ANW to grow its audience in a considerable way and in the past five years, it has surpasses its previous box office and attendance records each year. ANW annually serves more than 40,000 patrons from across Southern California and beyond.
In an era of declining renewals to most subscription theatres, ANW has achieved the remarkable – renewing 85% of its audience each year (12% more than the national average) as well as adding new subscribers, increasing its total audience base each year.
To further increase their accessibility to traditionally underserved audiences, ANW hosts a Pay-What-You-Can Night for each production. Additionally, the company’s Resident Artists put on staged readings six times annually, which the public can enjoy at no cost.
An important component of ANW’s audience development effort is its service to the students. ANW dedicates 30% of its resources to education and outreach programs. Through vital foundation and government support, ANW provides support to schools in need including transportation for students to the theatre; reduced cost tickets to attend a live on-stage performance; post-show discussions with the artists; in-class workshops; and standards-based study guides. Over its history, more than 250,000 students have been served; in the 2015-2016 season, 15,400 youth from 204 schools across 28 school districts participated in this program. And over ANW’s history, nearly 900 students have also participated in its acclaimed camp, Summer with Shakespeare, as well as other activities.