An ensemble - a company of actors who have honed their craft through years of working together in a variety of roles - has been the dream of many actors and artistic directors alike. The high cost of paying year-round salaries to actors has made that impossible for all but a few companies. But a new grant by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) may help to revive a formerly flourishing practice in American theater.
The grant, Ongoing Ensembles, given to eight theaters, is the first by the federal government to provide for actors' salaries.
''The past has proven the positive value of a group of artists - actors, directors, playwrights, and designers and others - working together as an ensemble over a period of years with each project building on the first,'' says NEA chairman Frank Hodsoll, who made the grant announcements recently in Providence, R.I., and New York.
The eight theaters receiving the grants, which range from $65,000 to $310,000 , were: three New York companies, Circle Repertory Company, Wooster Group, and Repertorio Espanol; Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.; Trinity Square Repertory Company in Providence, R.I.; San Francisco Mime Troupe; Milwaukee Repertory Theater; and Roadside Theater in Whitesburg, Ky.
The chosen theaters already had ensembles, but because of financial constraints periodically had to lay off nonworking actors, forcing them to seek unemployment compensation or scramble for a commercial or odd job between shows. Keeping talented actors around with such an erratic arrangement has proved difficult. With no guarantee of consistent work, says Adrian Hall, Trinity Rep's artistic director, ''The local acting pool shrivels up. Most people give up on the idea of a company.'' This $1.3 million grant will now enable the theaters to ''secure and maintain'' some if not all their actors. Trinity Rep, for example, has 35 members. Fifteen will go on salary, says Mr. Hall.
The eight companies were selected by a jury of their peers from 51 applicants on the basis of artistic excellence, a long-term commitment to the ensemble, and plans for continued ensemble training and development.
While the grants aren't big enough to send actors into condo ownership, for Daniel Chumley and the other members of the 25-year-old San Francisco Mime Troupe, it means that ''We'll be able to get our teeth fixed. Most of our cars are running on borrowed tires.'' Mr. Chumley will keep his other full-time job as a carpenter, figuring the actors will make about ''$6.25 an hour, if we only work 40 hours a week.'' But even this is ''going to make a big difference in our lives,'' says Chumley. In addition to increasing the artists' salaries and fringe benefits, the grant will enable the Mime Troupe to add a playwright to the ensemble and provide artists with a month of advanced professional training.
Actors at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre will also be provided with increased training in the form of a permanent vocal coach, teachers hired from outside the company, and subsidized time off for travel, says John Dillon, artistic director.
''It means we invest more profoundly in our artists, not only by paying them but by nurturing their growth as artists,'' says Dillon.
The five-year grant will pay 75 percent of the actors' salaries the first year. In keeping with the Reagan administration's desire to encourage private support of the arts, says NEA's Frank Hodsoll, the theaters will have to reapply for each of the four successive years, with the monies decreasing 20 percent each year. This will force the company to maintain its commitment and its own support.
The idea of a repertory company is nothing new: Before 1900, rotating repertory companies were the traditional form of American theater, says Jeffrey Martin, assistant professor of theater at Emerson College.
With the revitalized system, the eight grant-winning companies could provide a blueprint for better theater. ''It won't be just five actors with five different styles but an ensemble that works smoothly together,'' says Mr. Martin , ''one that can create the world of the play because they already have relationships with each other as actors and craftsman.''