Also tendering their resignations were fellow ensemble performers Angela Madden and Michael Surabian and five members of the 11-person Jean Cocteau board.
According to Smith and Stone, who are married, the break was long in coming. "It's something we've been getting to for a while," Stone told Playbill On-Line. "There's been a disillusionment with the theatre and the course it's been taking. A lot has to do with the makeup with what's referred to as an acting company." Smith said that, in contrast to past years, when the members of an ensemble filled most roles in a season, the Cocteau now relied on open auditions, resulting in people who had never worked at the Cocteau being cast in substantial parts. "The quality of the work in recent years has really plateaued out, in my opinion," Smith added.
Cocteau artistic director David Fuller said the actors' exit came as a surprise to him. "I remain committed to [founder] Eve Adamson's vision of the theatre," he stated, "which is to produce a broad repertory of plays and to nurture an ensemble." The Cocteau, for many years a non-Equity house, now operates under a Letter of Agreement contract with the actors union. Fuller said it is his goal that the Cocteau eventually become a League of Resident Theatres (LORT) company, which would put it on par with such New York City powerhouses as the Roundabout Theatre Company and Lincoln Center Theatre.
The Cocteau has long been unique in the New York theatre world—a genuine repertory company focused on the classics and equipped with a standing ensemble. It was founded in 1971 by Eve Adamson and has been working out of the Bouwerie Lane Theatre on the Bowery since 1974. Aside from Adamson, who still directs from time to time, two of the most constant features of the company have been Smith and Stone. Smith joined the ensemble in 1973, Stone in 1985. If was not unusual to find critics and theatregoers who thought of the Cocteau essentially as the theatre where those two actors could be seen. Smith alone has appeared in more than 200 productions there.
The actors said they thought the theatre was moving away from the artistic ideal they cherished—that is, the seasoning and utilization of a working acting corps. "Basically, there are no core members with our departure," said Stone. "There really is no company." Harris Berlinksky, another mainstay, who joined in 1978, recently relocated to California. And Chris Black, who had acted at the Cocteau for more than a decade, chose not to return this season.
Fuller—himself a former ensemble actor at the Cocteau—said he would not hold immediate auditions to replace the departed actors. "There's no lack of talent at Jean Cocteau Repertory," he said. "The interest among actors is quite high." He added, "There was always a [personnel] changeover over a period of time. I don't know what the mean stay is for actors, but few have stayed over five years. This is a 34-year-old company, so the idea of moving on is the nature of the business."
Smith and Stone have teamed with Madden and Surabian and another former Cocteau actor, Jason Crowl, to form a new group, the Phoenix Theater Ensemble. Smith said it would be ensemble-directed. "We will be governed by a core group of actors, but there will be one decision maker, who will rotate." Smith and Stone said they had already received several pledges of financial, as well as practical, assistance.
The Phoenix will stage a benefit performance of Eric Bentley's play Are You Now or Have You Ever Been? at Symphony Space in October. (Critic and playwright Bentley's translations have often been mounted at the Cocteau.) They hope to fill the many-character play with several name performers. The event will be followed by an inaugural production likely to be staged in the Mint Theatre's W. 43rd Street space. The play has not yet been named.
Smith said he envisioned the troupe would stage both classics as well as commission new plays complementary to those classics. The name of the company is reminiscent of the Phoenix Theatre, the trailblazing Off-Broadway company which focused on a mix of classics and new plays, and functioned in a variety of forms from the 1950s to the 1980s.