Paul Morgan Stetler is living in a state of happy collapse. After a year and a half of hustles and headaches, his new theater company (of which he is the co–artistic director) has opened its first production (The Adding Machine, glowingly reviewed to the left, of which he is the star). "We've put everything we have into this production," he says. "So far, nobody hates anybody yet."

The New Century Theatre Company is an audacious experiment. Starting a new professional company—that pays union wages—is risky in the best of times. But these are the worst of times, as professional theaters across the country panic over the coming economic drought and whether their revenue streams will evaporate. If Stetler is nervous, he doesn't show it. "Actors always live in that world," he says. "Our world is one constant financial recession."

NCTC was born in the same crucible as most theater companies: "in a living room," Stetler says, "with a bunch of actors being drunk and bitching and moaning about things." He's coy about the targets of their bitching ("I don't want to bash other theaters"), but drops a few hints. He and the other company members, including Darragh Kennan and MJ Sieber and Amy Thone, aren't cast together as often as they'd like. They miss the Empty Space and other late, lamented midrange theaters that used to produce "more mature and adult work." And they are frustrated by the inflexible conventions of making theater: "There's this habit of putting strangers in a room for a four-week rehearsal period and hoping a good play comes out."

Fundamentally, it seems, NCTC was founded on the pursuit of camaraderie and fun. But do any of them have any administrative experience? "No," Stetler laughs. "Just our collective temp experience."

Over the last year and a half, NCTC has raised $40,000 for this production, which will cost them $55,000. A quick budget breakdown: Renting ACT cost $15,500, though ACT is practically donating the space—most of that $15,500 goes to pay the stagehands' union wages. The five union actors in The Adding Machine make $1,817 each, the director $2,000, the stage manager $2,410—all on specially negotiated, extracheap union contracts. Six nonunion actors are making $1,050 each. Four nonunion actors are working as unpaid interns.

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They don't have much, but their recession-mindedness has forced them to make bold choices. One of the best things about The Adding Machine is its stark lighting. The company couldn't afford to pay union stagehands to adjust the overhead lights. So, for the first half of the play, designer Geoff Korff instructed the actors to wheel glaring bulbs around the stage by themselves. The effect is a revelation in chiaroscuro, turning the play into an eerie stage noir.

"It's kind of neat," Stetler says enthusiastically. "We're making big, cheap theater in a big, expensive theater." So far, the audacious experiment is working. recommended