Now in its fourth decade of operation, New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players (NYGASP) is America’s preeminent professional Gilbert & Sullivan repertory ensemble. Under the dynamic leadership of Artistic Director Albert Bergeret, who has been hailed as “the leading custodian of the G&S classics” by New York magazine, NYGASP has created its own special niche in the cultural mosaic of New York City and the nation. Since its founding in 1974, the company has presented over 2,000 performances of the G&S masterpieces throughout the eastern United States and Canada, captivating audiences of all ages.
Starting as a street theatre, with a budget of $35 for Xeroxing, New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players (NYGASP) has become America’s pre-eminent professional Gilbert & Sullivan repertory company with an annual budget of nearly 1.5 million dollars. It all began when a group of friends, mostly alumni of the Barnard College Gilbert & Sullivan Society at Columbia University in New York, thought that it was time to create a new outlet for their burgeoning ranks and leave the college group to the undergraduates. One of these alums was Albert Bergeret, Founder and Artistic Director/General Manager of NYGASP, who participated in 20 productions over 10 years with the Barnard group. But Mr. Bergeret’s goal from the outset was a professional repertory company, not another community theater group. His vision has shaped the Company’s mission ever since. The early years saw primarily rudimentary performances of scenes from The Mikado and The Pirates of Penzance at block parties, street fairs, nursing homes, and in city parks – with costumes, sound system, electric piano and set pieces borrowed from Barnard, a children’s theatre, an opera school, and the Columbia University Band, whose basement home became the Company’s first rehearsal space. But a nucleus of performers developed and a commitment to further growth flourished, leading to incorporation as a not-for-profit 501(c)3 corporation in 1975-76. Without any funding or performance fees, ingenuity and persistence were the only available assets for several years, and the only reward was strictly non-financial satisfaction for the Company members. The first indoor home was the B’nai Jeshurun Community Center on West 89th Street, where the New York School of Opera allowed performances by NYGASP on unused dates – first Sunday afternoons only, and eventually one week runs – in exchange for the technical services of Mr. Bergeret and his wife Gail Wofford, still NYGASP’s costume designer and wardrobe head. With modest ticket income over two years, new productions were added to the repertory while costumes and scenery were built or acquired. On February 29th, 1976 the largest audience to date assembled to celebrate the leap year birthday of Frederic (the pirate apprentice from The Pirates of Penzance), and in the spring of 1978 the Company’s first celebration of a G&S centennial took place with H.M.S. Pinafore. As Symphony Space emerged on the scene in the fall of 1978, NYGASP found a new and larger home base. In this now well-established professional venue on New York's Upper West Side, the accommodations were far from luxurious – with no dressing rooms, no backstage plumbing, and (at first) a portable stage which shared the space with a boxing ring. Once again Mr. Bergeret and Ms. Wofford’s technical experience came into play as NYGASP bartered for theater space, storage, and its first office. Now the prospects for development really began. After less than one season of productions with piano accompaniment, NYGASP hired its first orchestra in May of 1979. This was accomplished by increased ticket sales aided by strong reviews in The New York Times and one especially spectacular publicity stunt. On October 28, 1979 pictures of the cast performing excerpts from H.M.S. Pinafore on the Staten Island ferry were displayed on the The Sunday N.Y. Times and in The Daily News. The addition of a full orchestra solidified the Company as a serious player on the New York cultural scene and engendered even more attention from the press and the theatre-going public. NYGASP was able to offer nominal fees to its cast members. During the early 1980’s NYGASP continued to expand its repertory and to celebrate G&S centennials, including one hosted by new found fan Isaac Asimov who also joined the Company for its 10th Anniversary in 1984. Performers’ fees increased, as did the mailing list and contributed support, including annual grants from the New York State Council on the Arts. National touring began in 1981 under the management of Robert Gewald. Some of the Company’s most experienced players, such as Keith Jurosko, Richard Holmes, Del-Bourre Bach, Louis Dall’Ava and Stephen O’Brien became established on the roster during that time. The NYGASP orchestra was organized under Local 802 of the AF of M in 1985 and Stephen Quint became a regular both in the orchestra’s French horn section and in patter roles on stage. Two fires figured in NYGASP’s early years. Insurance money from a storage area fire at Symphony Space, discovered during a performance by Gail Wofford while acting as house manager, created that venue’s first dressing room. Then, a minor fire broke out, and was quickly doused by some unusually careful NYC firemen, at the shop where the Company’s first touring production of The Pirates of Penzance was being built – just minutes before it was loaded on a truck to leave town. As a result, shards of broken bricks and glass fell out of an otherwise undamaged and newly painted backdrop at NYGASP’s first out of town venue in Macon, GA. NYGASP veterans sometimes go on to major careers with other companies, and one such instance led to the Company’s six-year association with legendary patter singer John Reed, O.B.E. - the leading comedian of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company for over 25 years. In 1983, John was singing in a production of The Washington Opera at The Kennedy Center, where NYGASP alumna Joanna Levy introduced him to Albert Bergeret. January 1984 saw John joining NYGASP as King Gama in Princess Ida, helping to further enhance the Company’s professional status and attracting new audiences - as well as performers eager to be associated with his internationally-recognized reputation. NYGASP regulars such as Alan Hill, Susan Case, and Michael Galante became frequent cast members and new sets for H.M.S. Pinafore and Princess Ida required the acquisition of the Company’s first independent storage space. John continued to appear with NYGASP each year for many memorable performances until his retirement in 1989. One unforgettable occasion was a gala benefit at Symphony Space in 1987 when John, as The Lord Chancellor from Iolanthe, proposed, on stage, to celebrity guest and noted sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer! Concurrent to Mr. Reed’s run as the Company’s featured guest artist, NYGASP established its first Board of Directors, composed of established Company supporters rather than cast members as had been the case since its founding. Long time directors David Rice, Carol Davis, Leonard Rubenstein, and Jack Behonek joined the Board. 1989-90 was another watershed year for NYGASP. The actors of the Company were organized by Actors’ Equity Association, ushering in a new era of professionalism brought on by the prestige of union affiliation. The Company branched out into its first non-G&S repertory – a highly acclaimed production of Gershwin’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Of Thee I Sing. The financial pressure of this experiment, combined with the loss of a guest artist and the increased costs of the union contracts, proved too great for the Company’s limited resources and forced the curtailment of all activity without a predetermined profit margin. All staff was laid off and the following performing season cancelled. Thanks to self-imposed financial restructuring and the singular dedication of Mr. Bergeret, along with a few timely donations and a booming market, the Company was able to get back on the boards after only one dark season and, eventually paid off all of its outstanding debt and invested its cash reserves. Productions continued at Symphony Space, with varying degrees of financial success, and in 1997 touring management was taken over by the notable firm of ICM Artists, Ltd. Prestigious venues where NYGASP performs regularly include Wolf Trap, the National Park for the Performing Arts outside Washington, DC; Van Wezel Hall in Sarasota, FL; The McCarter Theater in Princeton, NJ; and The Shubert Theater in New Haven, CT among many more. When Symphony Space announced that it would be closed for major renovations during the 2001-02 season, NYGASP had so well recovered from its financial woes of the previous ten years that the Company had enough resources to take the highly risky step of producing at City Center – historical home of G&S productions in the early days of NY City Opera and touring productions over the years from D’Oyly Carte and other companies. Mr. Bergeret had always dreamed of this move, and the bold step paid off with outstanding ticket sales for a three week run in January of 2002. NYGASP is now considered a constituent presenter at NY City Center. Despite bad weather which has sometimes reduced attendance in January (with negative financial implications), the visibility of a mainstream NY theatre district venue has been highly successful in enhancing the reputation and stature of the Company. NYGASP’s artistic level continues to rise and the Board of Directors has recently been revitalized and enlarged – resulting in increased financial stability for the operation. In the summer of 2004 NYGASP made its first trip to the home of its muses, performing with its distinctly American flair for enthusiastic crowds at the International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival in Buxton, England. The Company has also recently expanded its repertory to include Sullivan and Basil Hood’s rarely seen The Rose of Persia. New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players remains dedicated to the professional performance of Gilbert & Sullivan operettas and to building new audiences for this classic repertory. Throughout its history small ensembles from NYGASP, known as “Wand’ring Minstrels,” have performed in schools, senior centers, stores, and concert venues, both in NYC and on tour throughout the country. Each season the Company offers full scale performances of its main stage productions to NYC public school groups free of charge and sponsors its popular “Family Overture” series of pre-show introductions for multi-generational audiences. In addition to the beloved John Reed, guest stars have included Hal Linden, Frank Gorshin, Steve Allen, Pat Carrol, Noel Harrison, John Astin, and John Rubenstein. Not to be forgotten however, are the repertory performers who have been the backbone of the Company year in and year out. Under the direction of Founder, General Manager and Artistic Director Albert Bergeret, it is the dedication of these performers and instrumentalists which keeps NYGASP flourishing in the 21st century.