John Houseman's Acting Company at age 40

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Entertainment,Music,Emily Cary

When the Oscar-winning actor/producer director John Houseman founded the Acting Company 40 years ago, he could not have imagined the influence it would have upon students, schools and potential stars of stage, screen and television. During that time, the company has toured by bus to 48 states and 10 foreign countries performing 137 classic plays and new works for more than 3 million people. This outstanding repertory company has received Tony Awards for excellence in theater.

In keeping with its mission to develop a diverse theater audience, the Acting Company presents two plays locally, Shakespeare's "As You Like It" at the Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas on Saturday, followed on Sunday by John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" at George Mason University Center for the Arts.

Minnesota native Megan Bartle appears in both productions, following in the footsteps of Kevin Kline, Patti LuPone, Rainn Wilson, Jeffrey Wright and the more than 300 distinguished actors whose careers began touring America with the Acting Company. She plays the roles of Celia in "As You Like It" and Mae, Curley's wife, in "Of Mice and Men."

"From September to November, we presented the Steinbeck work everywhere we went," she said. "Mae is the only woman in the play, which meant that I was the only woman on the tour bus. Then we returned to New York to rehearse the Shakespeare play and we've been back on the road since January presenting both. 'As You Like It' is a comedy about the romances of Rosalind and Orlando and Celia and Oliver. In contrast, 'Of Mice and Men' is a serious drama, but it is also a great love story about the friendship between George and Lennie.

If you go
Shakespeare's 'As You Like It'
» Where: Hylton Performing Arts Center, 10960 George Mason Circle, Manassas
» When: 8 p.m. Saturday
» Info: $24 to $40; 888-945-2468; hyltoncenter.org.
John Steinbeck's 'Of Mice and Men'
» Where: George Mason University Center for the Arts, 4400 University Drive, Fairfax
» When: 4 p.m. Sunday
» Info: $20 to $40; 888-945-2468; cfa.gmu.edu

"We'll continue on the road through April, take a short break, and begin rehearsing for Shakespeare's 'Hamlet' and 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead' by Tom Stoppard, the plays we'll present next season. The Acting Company is based in New York City, where most of the members live. We all love performing in different cities and towns all over the country. One of the most interesting places we visited on this tour was the Jicarilla Apache Reservation near Dulce, N.M. The audience was extremely appreciative. They had never before seen either actors or a play, so this was a very special experience for them."

Bartle grew up near the famous Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis on a street named Guthrie Way, a sign that she was destined to be an actor. After studying in the Guthrie Actor Training Program, she moved to New York, auditioned for the Acting Company, and was overjoyed to become part of the current cast of 14 members.

In addition to the actors, the bus carries the company manager, the staff director, the crew and two sets. There is a rather stark one for "Of Mice and Men," and a very elaborate one for "As You Like It," an interpretation of Shakespeare's Forest of Arden that includes animal masks and 16-foot trees which the crew struggle to fit onto small stages.

"The set changes as we escape into the forest and there is gramophone music to set the romantic mood," Bartle said. "Because this is a repertory theater, we often play several very different roles. For instance, the actor who plays George in 'Of Mice and Men' is Orlando in 'As You Like It,' and the one who plays the ranch hand Lennie becomes the jester Touchstone dressed in a dark green velour suit.

"Part of our mission is to present master classes and workshops in schools along the way. Often students are so excited by our presentation in the morning that they encourage their parents to take them to the play that evening. In one case, a little girl in Minnesota had read 'Of Mice and Men' and wanted to see the play. Even though we were performing only 'As You Like It' at that theater, we did 'Of Mice and Men' for her alone without a set. She was thrilled.

"Performing with the Acting Company is exciting for us because we go to places we never would have seen, like the Indian reservation and small towns in the South. It's not like performing for a New York audience, because many of those in our audiences have led very different lives. People everywhere are kind, welcoming and interested in what we are doing. Best of all, many come up to us afterward to thank us and say, 'I've never seen a play before and I never will forget this.' "

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Author:

Emily Cary

Special to The Washington Examiner
The Washington Examiner