Company: Margot Harley '57
This past June, Margot Harley accepted a 2003 Tony Award. She accepted on behalf of The Acting Company, the organization she co-founded with John Houseman in 1972, and of which she is now producing artistic director. The award, a special Tony “Honoring Excellence in Theater,” was given by the League of American Theaters and Producers and the American Theater Wing. The New York Times has called Harley’s company “the major touring classical theatre in the United States.”
From the beginning Harley and the legendary producer/director/actor Houseman envisioned The Acting Company as a means to create great American classical actors. The company tours small cities and towns that otherwise cannot get classical theatre—a great learning tool for any actor, Harley feels. The actors also reach out to the communities as teaching artists, thus developing both the actors and new audiences for their work.
Harley never expected her career to go in its current direction. Starting out as a dancer, she got a Fulbright to study acting, but wound up working for Channel 13 in New York. While there, a female friend told her that Houseman was starting a drama division at Juilliard. “I was home-sick for the theatre,” Harley admits, “and she pestered me so, I wrote him a letter. I went to see him, and eight minutes later he hired me!”
At Juilliard, Harley discovered she was a gifted administrator. As for the famously imperious Houseman, “he was a great producer, an artistic director with a marvelous eye,” she recalls. Houseman and Harley felt that the first graduating class in 1972 was not only individually talented but even more so collectively, and they determined to create a troupe. “The Acting Company was the seventh company John had started, and he used to say he needed it like a hole in the head,” Harley says.
Houseman had connections in Saratoga, and the fledgling organization turned a former movie house there into a theatre, then became an Equity company and performed in New York. “They caused a sensation. We sent them out on tour, and we’ve been doing it ever since,” says Harley. “That first company stayed together for four years. As they peeled off, we took other Juilliard graduates, and later actors from other training institutions. And that’s what we do to this day. When John died [in 1988] I carried on, which I never thought I could have done.”
The Acting Company’s alumnae/i include Kevin Kline, Patti Lupone, Jesse L. Martin, Frances Conroy, Lorraine Toussaint and David Ogden Stiers. Their upcoming season features Shakespeare’s “Richard III” and a new play by Jeffrey Hatcher, “Murder By Poe,” based on several of Edgar Allen Poe’s stories. The Acting Company also offers the Salon Series, Monday-night play readings by noted directors and actors in Manhattan; profits from the reading series fund the company’s “Literacy Through Theater” program for New York City schools.
Recognizing that a feel for ensemble work lies at the heart of great acting, in 1984 Harley helped to found Sarah Lawrence’s London Theatre Program, in conjunction with the British American Dramatic Academy (BADA). “I thought it would be a good thing for Sarah Lawrence, and BADA needed [to affiliate with] a good college,” she says. The program attracts juniors and seniors from SLC and other American colleges and universities, and the classes are taught in BADA’s London facility. Students receive credit from Sarah Lawrence. “BADA gets major English performers and directors to come teach, because actors there feel a responsibility to pass on what they know. Kevin Kline loves to teach, but generally American stars don’t feel the same obligation.”
“I’m very interested in training,” Harley notes. “The BADA program is just a taste of training. It lets the students decide if they want to go on to a graduate program in theatre.”
Harley’s love and appreciation for The Acting Company still abide, more than 30 years after its founding and 15 years since Houseman’s death. “When John was very recognizable,” Harley remembers, “people used to stop him in the street and say, ‘Thank you so much for bringing The Acting Company to my college.’ I’m very happy to have created this company that brings so much to so many.”