Thanks to Kenneth Branagh's Renaissance Theatre Company, and to the much lauded English Shakespeare Company founded by Michael Pennington and Michael Bogdanov, it has always been assumed that any new company comes into being sticking two little fingers up at the big two. 'It looks as if it's a gauntlet thrown down to those national companies,' Pennington says, 'which it isn't really. You're trying to bring into being something that you believe in, whether it's that there should be more touring or you're trying to establish a style of playing Shakespeare that you feel isn't being done elsewhere. There is some kind of dream involved in it, rather than your own advancement.'
Self-advancement tends to be an effect rather than a cause. Self-government has much more to do with it. 'That's why more and more actors nowadays are doing their own work,' says Sarah Harper, an actor who runs her own pyrotechnic street theatre company in France called Friches Theatre Urbain. 'If you can bear the financial hardship and the 24-hour-a-day responsibility, it does give you a way of controlling your life and not waiting by the phone for what can be years on end sometimes.'
'Actors are very passive,' says Christopher Luscombe. He is currently playing Moth in Love's Labours Lost and Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice at Stratford, but he also has a one-man show called Half Time written by him and his director, Richard Bonneville, that describes his experiences at Cambridge and in the theatre. 'They have to be asked to work, and because I was able to get something down on paper I was able to take control a little bit. Actors are always waiting for the offer and in this case we haven't waited; we've just gone for it.'
For Polly Irvin, a jobbing actor who with the actor Adjoa Andoh and the designer Colin Hill set up a company called Wild Iris in 1992 to put on a greatly admired Doll's House in a north London pub, disillusionment with conventional acting set in at drama school. 'When you're doing the school play,' she says, 'you're involved in design and the whole concept of the show; often you're improvising - it is much much more a creative task. And when you get out into the business the task really is much smaller.' So it's not egomaniacs or megolomaniacs who strike out alone - or not usually. But every actor-impresario emphatically does have to be a workaholic. Until they're up and running, no small theatre company can afford an administrator, so licking stamps and printing posters is as integral to the job as hoarding the plaudits.
'You don't go home at six o'clock,' Sarah Harper says. 'I do spend most evenings in front of the computer typing in VAT codings and numbers for pay slips. When I go and do a freelance acting job, it's like going on holiday.'
'It is extremely stressful,' Irvin agrees. 'You could spend a hell of a lot of time doing admin stuff that isn't probably what you're meant to be doing when you started it up.' With the boon of an Arts Council grant, Wild Iris is interviewing for an administrator. Luscombe is nowhere near getting one. 'There's a danger that I spend all my time handing out leaflets,' he says. 'I hope there will come a time when I can stop doing that, because you can't really do it all. Up to now it's been fun, but there comes a point when you need help.'
For Pennington, who steered a much bigger ship, adminstrative help came but it didn't end his involvement in areas where actors are traditionally ignorant, and his experience is instructive for all small companies that aim to grow. 'The difficult part of the job, and this is perhaps why so few people do it, is that temperamentally I would always be on the side of the actor whereas, in fact, as an actor- manager you sometimes have to take up a 'management position'. If I'm arguing with an actor who I know has a family of small children to support about whether he should come on the road with us for pounds 250 a week or pounds 300, it's a rather difficult position. On the road I was at the same time of the company and not of it. The friendships that I would expect to form with somebody I was working with were sometimes tainted, because we were big employers for a time, by a degree of self-interest. It was very difficult to judge who your friends were.'
For smaller companies, who know that there isn't any money to haggle over, this is less of a problem. Actors all work together for next to nothing. Their problems are mostly confined to worrying whether anyone will come to see the show. Luscombe and Bonneville pooled their address books, put them on a database that currently numbers '1,600 of our closest friends' and sent an SAE and a tear-off slip to publicise the first show at the RSC Fringe Festival in 1992. It was a sell-out, like every show they've sporadically done since, and each time the small profit has paid for promoting the next one.
For real exposure, though, you need to rely on more than friends and word of mouth. 'The first one we did,' Irvin says, 'I didn't really know about employing publicity people and I was literally running out of the technical rehearsal to see if the Guardian was coming.' The Sunday Times did come and raved, and Time Out gave them an award for their second show (Catharine Trotter's little known Restoration comedy, Love at a Loss) and they haven't looked back.
For his forthcoming late-night residence at the Donmar Warehouse, London, Luscombe found that the best, though easily the most embarrassing, means of gaining publicity was to solicit poster quotes from actors who had liked the show. 'I think they sympathised with my problem: I had to sell a show in the West End and I was unknown.' Griff Rhys Jones obliged with 'frighteningly good'. Prunella Scales offered 'painfully accurate and outrageously funny', and Robert Stephens said 'this is an enchanting show'.
The attendant hassles are almost unendurable, but when it all works, the rewards are incalculable. 'Nothing will ever equal the excitement of it,' Luscombe says. 'There's a thrill you get that you don't get from any other acting work. It's like a drug, it's like forbidden fruit.' Pennington remembers 'times when it was very heady indeed, when we played the Chicago Festival; with the fantastic excitement that we engendered there, you think, in a certain sense, 'I'll die happy'.'
Wild Iris has toured too, taking A Doll's House to Ibsen's homeland. 'That was terribly exciting. To have started off literally asking people to donate a fiver or a tenner so that we could get the show on, and it wasn't until I'd got there that I thought, 'What the hell am I doing, putting on an Ibsen in the National Theatre in Norway?' But it went down incredibly well.'
'Half Time': Donmar Warehouse (071-867 1150) 4, 5, 11, 12 Feb. 'Love at a Loss': BAC (071-223 6557) from 13 June
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