"Run faster," exhorted instructor Bobby Price to the sweating, leotard-dressed students who were running in place, and in circles. "Run like someone is chasing you . . . watch where you're going."
The class at The Rep, Inc., an allblack, community-oriented theater on Georgia Avenue, is not for dancers. Instead, it is part of an intensive theatrical training program that includes acting technique, stage movement and play production workshops.
For the 15 students in the program, it means hard work.
"I didn't know that it would be this rigorous," said student Joann Williams. "I didn't know I would need this much stamina."
But stamina is a key part of training at The Rep.
In one exercise Price instructed the students to climb an imaginary rope for 10 minutes, extend their arms over their heads like a tree for 13 minutes and walk and fight in slow motion before beginning improvisation and scene study.
"The purpose of these exercises," said Price, "is to build their bodies and minds. If their bodies don't work, their minds won't work."
"At one point," said Roscoe Freeman, who, like the others, has been for about 16 weeks, "I wondered what the hell I was doing here. I didn't know a person had to go through this to act.
"But now," he admitted, "my stamina is way up. I'm thinking sharper. And my body is quicker."
The students also attend a movement workshop, where they stretch their muscles and lift their bodies to develop a better "stage presence." They even have an opportunity to learn the technical side of theater by producing, directing, staging and lighting their own in-house productions.
As with other training programs at The Rep, the technical workshops have a practical goal. "No actor acts all the time," said technical instructor Ed Deshoe. "An actor's career can be augmented if he understands the business side of it, too."
A film workshop and advanced scene study are offered to the more advanced members. "As soon as we get more money," said administrator Carolyn Smith, we will offer classes in dance and voice."
The nonprofit company is funded through the National Endowment for the Arts and CETA.
Although the students perform domestic and other duties to help pay for their training, the once-a-year, 18-week program is free to those who audition and are accepted.
"We don't require tuition," said artistic director Jay Stewart. "But we do ask for a time commitment. The students are in class every night, from Monday through Friday, because when they perform during our production season they will have to be here every night. We want them to know early what they're getting into."
Most of The Rep's staff members were with the former D.C. Black Repertory Company (DCBR), the forerunner of The Rep, which was established in 1976. The DCBR was founded by actor Robert Hooks, who is a consultant for The Rep. "Robert is still in touch with us," said Stewart. "He is still interested in what we're doing."
The DCBR had a larger staff than The Rep and was an equity (professional) company, while The Rep is not. Those differences have not prevented the young company from performing its primary responsibility, which is "to provide an outlet for persons desiring careers in the theater," said Smith. "Putting on productions is secondary."
But The Rep does not believe in waiting for the public to come to the theater, so they take the theater to the public. They have performed and conducted workshops at area high schools, at Morgan and Bowie state colleges and Lorton Prison. Most recently, the company began a series of radiodrama programs that are aired on WHUR at 9:30 a.m. the first Thursday of each month.
Last year, through the sponsorship of the Festival of African Arts and Culture (FESTAC), some members of the company performed in Lagos, Nigeria, for two weeks.
"That was an experience," said Stewart, "because we were dealing with the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks. A lot of English-speaking people don't understand some of her adjectives, let alone a group of people that mostly speak French and Yoruba. Our vocabularies increased 100 percent just rehearsing for the performance. We had to use our bodies a lot to convey the message of her work."
Some of The Rep's former members are doing well professionally: Native Washington Ronald (Smokey) Stevens has been performing in the Broadway production of "Bubblin' Brown Sugar." Charles Augins and Amy Stewart, also from Washington, are performing in the European Company of "Bubblin' Brown Sugar." Howard University graduate Lyn Whitfield and Carol Maillard are performing in a touring company for "For Colored Girls Who Consider Suicide When The Rainbow is Enuf." And Kene (pronounced Kenny) Holiday appears regularly in the series "Carter Country," (ABC-TV). Holiday is a drama graduate of the University of Maryland.
"Each year," Stewart said, "we have more time to concentrate on our training program. Once we were more concerned with securing a building and cultivating an audience. But now the staff, and particularly, the new students can concentrate on their craft."
Ouida Byrd, a student at The Rep, says there is visible proff that the training is successful as she described a scene on television, with one of The Rep's actors. "You should have seen her energy level," she told the other students. "That's what The Rep's training will do for you."
But Price just looked at the group, suppressing a terse smile, and said: "Let's go over in the other room and walk in slow motion."
An open house will be held from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. this Sunday at The Rep, 3710 George Ave. NW. The first production of the season, "Amen Corner" by James Baldwin, will be Oct. 19. The other two productions will be "No Place to Be Somebody" by Charles Gordone and "Five on the Black Hand Side" by Charlie L. Russell. For more information, call The Rep at 291-3903 or 291-3904.