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"This obviously isn't for money or glory, so come and do it if you want." Peter Sarsgaard typed that sentence in an e-mail to his actor friend not long ago.

"It" was the production of Hamlet that Classic Stage Company will present in March, with Sarsgaard in the dual role of headliner and, apparently, behind-the-scenes casting agent.

That show will follow this theatre's mounting of Turgenev's A Month In The Country, which previews on Friday with Peter Dinklage and Taylor Schilling. And after Hamlet winds down, Chris Noth of Law & Order and The Good Wife fame is coming in to play Marlowe's Doctor Faustus.

Classic Stage is hardly unique among theatre companies in realising that famous names sell tickets, but the number of well-known actors making the trip to this 199-seat space on East 13th Street is noteworthy. The previous three years have featured Elizabeth Olsen, Mandy Patinkin, John Turturro, Ethan Hawke, F. Murray Abraham and Dianne Wiest, among others, taking on the likes of Shakespeare, Chekhov and Brecht.

That list of playwrights goes a long way towards describing this off-Broadway theatre's success at securing such established talent. "These are the writers who will never let you down," said Schilling, best known as a star of Netflix series Orange Is The New Black.

Chekhov, in particular, has become a sort of Pied Piper for the company. Brian Kulick, who became Classic Stage's artistic director in 2003, said: "There is an American tradition of doing these plays and I thought we should be doing them."

As it happened, Wiest had expressed interest in playing Arkadina in The Seagull and Alan Cumming joined her for a 2008 production. Not long after that, Kulick staged a one-night reading of Tony Kushner's new translation of Brecht's The Good Person Of Szechwan.

Kushner told his leading lady, Maggie Gyllenhaal, at a post-show dinner she would make a great Yelena in Uncle Vanya, and it was not long before she and her real-life husband, Sarsgaard, were starring in a Classic Stage production of the play.

Austin Pendleton, who directed that production, along with a subsequent Ivanov featuring Hawke, said: "There's an unpretentiousness, an unassumingness about this theatre where actors can say, 'Let's try this, I feel protected here'."

Frequent one-night staged readings have been a reliable way for prominent actors to dip a toe into the theatre's waters. In fact, years before hitting it big with Game Of Thrones, Dinklage played Uncle Vanya in a 2007 reading there directed by his wife, Erica Schmidt. The two ended up staging Vanya at Bard SummerScape in New York, where they first paired up with Schilling, their future A Month In The Country co-star.

Kulick gives a lot of credit to the physical space itself. "This is a theatre that's like a rehearsal room," he said. "It's not so big that you have to scream your performance but not so small that you have to say, 'Excuse me, pardon me, audience, I need to go stage left'."

Productions are typically staged with seats on three sides of the performers, though this configuration can and often does change. "It's definitely a warm, welcome environment," Dinklage said. (Some of the collegiality may stem from the fact that Wiest, with two Academy Awards, receives the same salary as the servant fresh out of acting school, according to the theatre's contract.)

All of this, along with the Important- with-a-capital-I texts and the friendly working atmosphere, gives Classic Stage the feel of a college black-box theatre that just happens to feature movie and TV stars.

Kulick said: "We barely have enough electrical current to operate a space heater and a microwave oven at the same time without blowing a fuse. As a result, the theatre has never really been about spectacle but rather about performance."

"Some theatres are writers' theatres," he added. "Others are directors' theatres or theatres for experimentation. Classic Stage has, I would like to believe, become an actor's theatre."

James Calleri, who has spent more than 10 years overseeing the casting at the theatre, is well aware that actors sell more tickets than writers, directors or experimenters. He said: "How do we get people into a Chekhov play or a Moliere play that they wouldn't necessarily be flocking to?" He also deserves credit for spotting the next generation of talent: Tucked in among the boldface names have been early performances by Adam Driver, David Oyelowo and Stark Sands along with Nina Arianda, whose role in Classic Stage's Venus In Fur won her a Tony Award.

Calleri has gotten assistance in recent years from his leading players. The actors' positive experiences have spurred them to reach out to their friends. This process became somewhat codified when Pendleton and Kulick solicited Sarsgaard's input on casting decisions for Hamlet.

Sarsgaard said he wanted the longtime acting coach Penny Allen - "my mentor and a mentor to seemingly most of the great actors I know" - to play Gertrude to his Hamlet. And several other known commodities are likely to join them in the cast, which has yet to be announced.

Kulick said the company will make an effort to mould its rehearsals and performances around pre-existing commitments, something that used to be easier when network TV had a more predictable shooting schedule.

"These plays survive or fail by who's at the centre of them," he said of the classics that give his theatre its name and its reason for existing. "But one of the real joys of theatre is continuity and over time, we've managed to create this sort of floating game of great actors."

 
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