October 15, 2018

Making a Noise

Above, Jill Hill and Geoff Elliott in a scene from A NoiseWithin’s production of “King Richard III.” Top, co-founder ArtManke.

In every other Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland movie, there came apoint when one or the other would pipe up with, “Hey, kids, let’s puton a show,” followed by a glitzy Hollywood production number.

A latter-day incarnation of that entrepreneurial spirit isrepresented by a trio of young producers/directors/actors — ArtManke and the husband-and-wife team of Geoff and Julia RodriguezElliott.

Against all odds and from a standing start six years ago, thethree have created one of the top repertory companies in SouthernCalifornia and, along the way, have built large and loyal audiencesfor the great stage classics and put Glendale on the theatrical map.

Manke and the Elliotts, all expatriate Angelenos, were fellowstudents and actors at San Francisco’s prestigious AmericanConservatory Theatre back in 1990. Restless and dissatisfied with thelimited opportunities to practice their craft, they decided to strikeout on their own.

In effect, said Julia Rodriguez Elliott, with a smile during ajoint interview with Manke, “we decided, ‘Hey, kids, let’s put on aclassic.'”

The Muses smiled on the rash enterprise and led the three artists,all in their early 30s at the time, to Glendale’s funky eight-storyMasonic Temple, built in 1928, which had fallen on hard times.

With a lot of elbow grease, the three founders converted one floorof the temple, which had most recently housed a rock ‘n’ roll revivalchurch, into a theater auditorium, and A Noise Within: Glendale’sClassical Theatre Company was born.

With the audaciousness of youth, the new company selected “Hamlet”for its first production, with Manke directing, Geoff Elliott in thetitle role, and Julia as Ophelia.

For the second production, William Congreve’s “The Way of theWorld,” the trio lured their respected former mentor in SanFrancisco, Sabin Epstein, to direct the play. An integral part of thecompany ever since, he recalls the early days, when audiencesalternately sweltered in the summer and froze in the winter.

Over the next few seasons, as the company expanded its repertoryto seven productions a year, A Noise Within attracted growingaudiences, critical praise from the Los Angeles media, and solidsupport from the city and business communities of Glendale.

This season, the company is taking a major leap forward. It hasexpanded its original 99-seat theater to 145 seats, but that’s onlythe beginning. Buttressed by a $2.5 million grant from the city ofGlendale, a 250-seat auditorium will take shape two floors above thepresent auditorium over the next two years.

The third phase, which will take an additional two years, callsfor the construction of a 500-seat facility within the MasonicTemple, with both orchestra and balcony seating.

Artistically, A Noise Within has stuck to its basic formula. Itsannual fall and spring seasons are anchored by at least oneShakespeare play, traverse the following centuries with aMolière, Congreve or Richard Brinsley Sheridan drama, and thenby way of Charles Dickens, Henrik Ibsen or Oscar Wilde, reach aGeorge Bernard Shaw, Eugene O’Neill, Luigi Pirandello, John Steinbeckor Arthur Miller play.

In the coming spring season, the company will mount its mostcontemporary production yet — Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child,” whichpremièred 20 years ago.

When does a play qualify as a classic? One definition, said Manke,quoting Tyrone Guthrie, is “a classic is whatever I say it is.” On aless subjective note, he added that “a play becomes a classic bydealing with universal themes and archetypical human relationships.”

Sometimes, a classic’s relevance to current concerns is underlinedin a way that astonishes Elliott and her colleagues, who must planthe season’s bill far in advance.

Currently playing is Shakespeare’s “Richard III.” Suddenly, withthe death of Princess Diana, “the world is focused on the lives ofthe royal family and questions of royal succession,” said Elliott.”So the audience can look at the play from a new perspective.”

The same applies to another current fare, Noel Coward’s “Designfor Living.” “What could be more relevant than the issue of being acelebrity and how to deal with the media?” asked Elliott.

Epstein, who is directing “Design for Living,” said that he isparticularly attracted to “comedies of style,” also known as “teacupand corset” plays.

A Noise Within’s success is reflected both in numbers and criticalrecognition.

Last season, audience attendance was at 97 percent of capacity,and “if we had more space, we could fill it now,” said Manke.

While the core of subscribers comes from the Glendale-Pasadenaarea, half of the audiences are drawn from other parts of theSouthland.

As for critical plaudits, two years ago, the production ofDickens’ “Great Expectations” (to be reprised in December) washonored with four awards by the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle.Last year, the same group conferred on the still young company itsMargaret Harford Award for sustained excellence.

A Noise Within is located at 234 S. Brand Blvd. in Glendale. Forinformation and tickets, call (818) 546-1924.