By Dudley Cocke

A Keynote Conversation  - "A Call for Experimentation:  Why Ensembles are Especially Ready to Lead the American Theater into a New Period of Discovery"

Network of Ensemble Theaters Festival

Amherst College, July 23, 2003


(The following edited keynote presentation was re-constructed by Dudley Cocke from his speaking notes, the notes of Barbara Whitney, who attended the session, and from audio recordings of several sections of the presentation.)


Good morning. I’m hoping that this will be a relatively painless keynote, so let’s have it as a conversation, figuring that will help. If anyone wants to see what I’m fixing to say, here are the notes for my talk. Feel free to take one. That way if I get a little tedious, you can skip ahead to see what I’m going to say.

The title of this conversation is A Call for Experimentation: Why Ensembles Are Especially Ready to Lead the American Theater into a New Period of Discovery. (I hit on period of discovery since it’s the Lewis and Clark bicentennial, and because I do believe that NET can lead the American theater into an exciting new period.)

I’m going to follow my outline, picking it up point by point, and what I’d like to hear from you are questions and comments. Please do not hesitate to disagree, or to elaborate. We may not be able to resolve all the disagreements, but we at least want to name issues for later consideration.

I was talking to a colleague the other day: “I really think these networks and associations are counter-productive and a bad idea,” he said. (He was specifically referring to foundation grantmaker associations, like Grantmakers for the Environment and Grantmakers in the Arts.) And I asked, “Why?” “Because they encourage group-think,” he said. And I said, “Oh, alright.” So with that caution in mind – for NET, I don’t see that as an immediate problem – I do think we owe it to ourselves to debate things and to get the issues out. No reason not to – there’s plenty of safety here to disagree. That’s really what our work with ensembles is about in many ways – asking questions. And you don’t need to go through any formality to speak-up – just interrupt me. Hey, in the theater, timing is everything.

The first thing I’ve done is outline the assumptions that I made when considering NET’s future. I’ve been thinking about this future for a couple of months and talking to Bob and several others about just what NET might be. I come from 28 years of doing this work and have been in on the founding of other networks – Alternate ROOTS in ’76, the American Festival Project in ’81 with Naomi and others in San Francisco, and then the Global Network for Cultural Rights at the Caribbean Cultural Center in New York, to name three. You’ll have to decide if I’m any the wiser for it.

First, the general assumption upon which my argument is based:The history of theater not as chronology or anecdote but the study of the creative act itself – the process of making art. That assumption frames what follows. Any questions about this general assumption?

With this framework in mind, I made several specific assumptions about NET’s future. First, ensemble theaters are presently the most experimental cohort in the not-for-profit American theater, especially when experimental is broadly defined to include the full range of theatrical practice. Here I’m not talking just about NET’s membership, of course, because the ensemble universe is much larger than NET. I’m making this claim for ensemble theater as a whole. And I think that in the last couple of days we’ve heard some definition of what sets ensembles apart from other types of theater. I’d like to make the claim that ensembles have a bright future, because the regional theater model is based on the assembly line – bringing the various pieces together in one place to assemble a play, which of course is based on Henry Ford’s Michigan motor works. As that manufacturing model disappears in our new wired, information economy, I expect the average person will eventually forget that’s the way things were once done. The ensemble model has a bright future because it will more closely mirror the economic model that is coming down the pike. Young theater-makers 50 years from now won’t really appreciate the assembly line.

If ensemble theaters are presently the most experimental cohort in the not-for-profit theater, we in NET have a special obligation to be inclusive of what I will call intellectual and aesthetic diversity. Since we want to make the claim of being adventuresome, I think the more intellectual and aesthetic diversity we can bring into NET, the better for our purposes. Some of the key ways to get at that inclusion are through race, place, and class diversity. Intellectual and aesthetic diversity are high-sounding concepts, but one place they reside is in diversity of race/ethnicity, place, and class.

  • Let’s not forget gender!
    • I’m for it.
  • You said race, place, class, and, yes, gender. Since this is an arts organization, some of the most extreme diversity will be in aesthetic diversity.
    • Yes, I’m making a connection between the two..

My second assumption is: The national service organization for ensemble theaters is Theatre Communications Group. I make this assumption because I don’t think it’s in NET’s best interest to set up an entire administrative structure to try to do what TCG should be doing for us. As you’ll see as I develop my argument, I’m really pushing for us to focus on the art, saying that making theater is what NET is going to be known for. Not known because we’re a great advocacy organization, not because we get our newsletter out on time, and so forth. All those things we may find that we need, but in my proposal they would be directed at the art making itself. If we set about it right in NET, we can get TCG to do the other important pieces of work for us. I think they want to do it, but it’s a matter of engaging them. And my practical suggestion is that when we get organized, we assign someone who can get to New York City regularly - someone eager to stay on the TCG case - to go talk to TCG once a month to tell them what’s happening with ensembles. TCG has a host of services important to us, and I think there’s now a receptiveness among its membership and on the TCG board because they’re feeling a little bit under the strain of the old industrial model. They are attracted to the company model.

  • Do they know they’re attracted to it?
    • They feel the attraction!
  • Seriously, if that’s true, how far away do you think they are from a conscious understanding of the ensemble model as opposed to the model they are used to? If they are consciously providing services for one model, you’re saying that they can provide services for the ensemble model. How far away do you think they are from this consciousness?
    • Some distance, but we can see the goal line. I don’t think that I could have said that 8 years ago. It’s not so much that people in large resident theaters don’t understand the ensemble model, but that they are so invested in the other way of working. So, it will be gradual. It’s not only about providing different services to ensembles, but TCG has to recalibrate their existing programs to include an ensemble model, with its different structures, methods, and values. For example, the applications we fill out for TCG grants are based on a resident theater model, so we’re always having to translate the guidelines and questions. To pinpoint where their consciousness is, a few years ago TCG celebrated an anniversary (I can’t remember what specific anniversary), but for the occasion they marked U.S. theater history beginning after the second World War with the establishment of resident theaters. So much of ensemble theater is coming from the theater models and history prior to WWII. After the second World War, we have the rise of modern corporate America, made possible by the technological innovation occurring during the second World War. It shouldn’t surprise us that our not-for-profit corporations mirrored our for-profit corporations.
  • I would still like to challenge the proposition that we should even go anywhere near TCG. My feeling is why not step around the model that is not set up for us?
    • That’s a question that I suggest we keep debating. I would argue that we can accomplish more working through them. If NET wanted to try to work with TCG, it would be good to set milestones. To answer your skepticism, let’s agree that in one year we’ll be here with them, and let’s evaluate it. And, of course, let TCG know that’s what our expectation is and that there is internal pressure from the NET membership to prove that a healthy relationship can develop.

Just a reminder – these are all proposals I’m putting out here for you to sift.

My next assumption: NET is at a stage in its development when its purpose and operating principles need to be clearly stated for adoption by its membership. We hear a lot about this, and it seems to be a consensus among the NET leadership that this needs to happen. I’m reminded of something the naturalist Francis Bacon said, “Truth emerges more readily from error than from confusion.” Lord knows we’re not afraid of error in the ensemble movement, but we could do ourselves a favor by corralling our confusion.

Those are my three specific assumptions. I now want to move on to what I am proposing, beginning with the NET charter: NET will formally evaluate its mission and operating principles every 4th year, at which time a new proposal of purpose and principles will be adopted by a three-quarters majority of the membership. What I’m proposing is that we decide on a mission and purpose for a discreet period of time, and then periodically we, the full membership, come together, assess that purpose, restate a purpose and mission, which then three-fourths of the members have to approve in a formal vote.

This recommendation is based on my often discouraging experience with other networks. When we founded ROOTS in 1976, we said that in five years ROOTS was going to be folded. Of course the fifth year came and we felt so invested that we never did shut it down. But, in retrospect, I think that we should have, and let it come back in a new incarnation. My experience with networks and coalitions is that they start developing a life of their own, without the understanding and consensus of the membership. Then you start to get all sorts of bad dynamics – for example, new members don’t understand founding members, and vice-versa – and power struggles replace trust and cooperation. I think that it’s fair to judge the viability of a coalition by its purpose and its trust and cooperation quotient. Perhaps we can forgo the agony of divisive power struggles – and it is agony – by just saying, o.k., every fourth year we have to reinvent this organization by coming up with a new mission. I don’t think our funding and other partners will mind if we articulate this way of working at the front end.

  • Is it possible that after 4 years the original mission still works?
    • Could be, and in that case we re-ratify. And I’m suggesting a three-fourths majority, because I think we want to take the time among ourselves to really work it out. Our ability to help one another depends on it. (I wouldn’t say consensus because we always want to have the skeptics among us.)

If this charter of re-invention guided us, here’s what I would propose as the mission for 2003-2005: NET’s mission is to support its members’ artistic experiments. I’m arguing for a fairly tight organizational focus, that we not spread ourselves thin trying to do everything – and, of course, that’s part of my rationale for working with TCG, to allow us to focus on our core purpose.

Now to the operating principles to support the 2003-2005 mission. The first point I want to make is: When proposing experiments for NET support, members should feel free to consider the full range of artistic practice. I want us to be inclusive of all this aesthetic diversity that was mentioned earlier. Some people may want to make a play with the Amherst community; somebody else may want to make a play that examines the relationship between the audience and the stage. The more variety the better. We’re not going to get into that group think thing!

The second operating principle is: Proposals will explain how the experiment will build knowledge by summarizing the antecedent theory and practice and recent observation that has led to the formulation of the experiment’s hypothesis. Unlike the sciences, it seems that in the arts we’re not conscious of building knowledge. Not knowledge about how to get grants, etc., but knowledge about the art making process itself. In fact, I think that sitting right here this morning is a huge amount of untapped knowledge about making theater. I’m looking for ways and means for NET to claim, validate, and articulate that knowledge. Because I don’t think non-ensemble theater artists are very conscious of building knowledge either, I think NET could take a leadership role and help the field as a whole. I’d like to see NET go to the forefront of creating this knowledge about the art of making theater.

  • Several times you’ve mentioned support and resources. What do you mean by support?
    • I mean the range of supporting resources, not just money, but also training, advocacy, communication, etc.
  • We need to remember that at different stages of their development, ensembles need different kinds of support. We need to pay special attention to companies that are just starting out, and experimenting with different styles that they have not yet made their own. This leads to the issue of mentoring. How can a new ensemble learn from the early experiences of older ensembles?
    • Excellent point. Now you see why I wanted this to be a conversation.
  • Regarding experimentation, passion can be critical. In my company’s experience, there were times when it seemed important not to know how we fit into the past tradition until we had created something that we could then understand more historically.
  • Likewise, we really began with a kind of vision, and there was no way to place ourselves in a lineage, because we had no idea where we were going. No idea what language we were going to create. A lot comes from synthesis of individual psychies, and what you come up with. When you look back, you can see the connections, but in the moment, we must have been influenced by things we weren’t aware of.
    • You seem to be suggesting something like Jung’s collective unconscious. Sometimes something new comes because we put what is known, or what has been done, into a new pattern of relationships. Other times, by clearing away inherited theatrical assumptions and practices, we see our way to make something new. I’m suggesting that experimentation be in creative tension with what has come before, and rationality in play with intuition.

Let’s become conscious of what is being attempted artistically. Taking for example the two plays we’ve just seen, our post-performance discussion naturally focused not only on what the plays were attempting to say, but what happened in the process of their trying to say it. A lot of theaters – I know for our theater – it took us 4 or 5 years to find out what theatrical tradition and history we were a part of. Now every theater is part of some tradition, some history. Let’s become more conscious of what tradition and history that is. So when we’re trying an artistic experiment, let’s think about who else has tried something like this. What happened ? Won’t thinking in this way boost our creation process? Roadside makes all original work, and I realize that we’re not nearly as conscious of antecedent experience as I think would be to our benefit.

Third operating principle: Experiments that present a compelling hypothesis and way to test the hypothesis will be favored. What’s the exciting idea and what is the exciting way the theater proposes to pursue the idea? By learning about what happened before, we can place our experiment on a line of knowledge. There’s been some talk here about ensemble theaters as process versus product. I would argue that we want to stay away from these kind of either - or terms. If you take the work we’ve watched in the last couple of days, weren’t we simultaneously conscious of both product and process? I don’t think such pleasure should be reserved just for when artists discuss the art.

The fourth operating principle to support the proposed 2003-2005 mission: The results of all experiments will be documented and vetted, first by the NET membership and then by the theater field.This will be critical if our purpose is to build knowledge, not only among ourselves, but in the field as a whole. We should look for inventive ways to do this documentation and vetting, including ways that involve the audience. We would expect this practice to engender a vibrant dialogue among ourselves, the community, and theater field.

The fifth principle: NET will continue to seek intellectual and aesthetic diversity, based on class, race, place, and gender, and give this diversity the opportunity to show itself as it sees itself.Isn’t it remarkable that in the almost 30 years that I’ve been working in the theater that I’ve not heard of one working-class theater festival in the U.S.! They tried to get one together in Ireland some 15 years ago, but it never came off. Class, of course, cuts across all ethnic/racial groups; could that be the reason?

The final operating principle that I am proposing: Because of the current poor arts funding climate, NET will look for administrative efficiencies, including partnerships, that maximize support for its mission. I’ve already suggested that we consider TCG to be one of our primary partners.

  • How do you think NET should build the argument to TCG?
    • Regular communication will be important, because TCG will be interested in the breadth of our membership. As TCG begins to understand who we are, together we can begin looking to see how our members, and NET itself, can take advantage of the many TCG services. I’m confident that it can be a mutually beneficial relationship.

Those are the operating principles, and now I want to discuss two sample mechanisms for becoming conscious of experimentation and for building knowledge about theater. Sample one is a NET grant or NET festival application form. Here’s how it might read:

    • In one sentence, please state the hypothesis of your proposed artistic experiment.
    • How do you propose to test your hypothesis?
    • What antecedent theory and practice and recent observation has informed your hypothesis and the way you propose to test it?
    • Please spell out any underlying assumptions of your hypothesis and proposed methodology that you regard as significant.
    • How will you document your experiment?

What I’ve done in this sample is take the charter, the mission statement, and the operating principles that I have proposed and translated them into a practical guideline.

My second sample is a NET festival prospectus. Here, I’m thinking about the festival being planned for 2004. Based on the ideas that we’ve been discussing, the prospectus might read something like this:

The purpose of the Network of Ensemble Theater’s First Experimental Theater Festival is to build knowledge about and sharpen the theory and practice of making original theater.

Proposals for Experimentation have not been limited in any formal way, but include the full range of the theatrical experience – for example, the actors’ relationship with the audience, and the performance’s relationship to place. In the Festival’s program, the artists reveal how they arrived at the hypothesis that their performance tests.

Festival-goers are encouraged to participate in the review sessions occurring at different times after each performance. These sessions will assess each experiment with an eye to what was learned and what might occur next in the development of the experiment. The perspective of audience members is very important to this process, so please plan to engage in these conversations with the Festival’s artists.

My premise is that we should not be trying to conceal our art from the audience, but rather to reveal it. In this way, I expect that the audience will have a deeper engagement with the work. So, for example, we give the audience an idea before hand of what the artists and the performance is attempting to do, and then we give the audience the opportunity to comment on what they have experienced.

  • We’ve been doing just that, having pre-show talks, and find that it opens the door for audience understanding and more participation.
  • Several questions: How much information is useful to the audience before and after the show? And, how do we keep the artists from being injured by criticism, so they can hear, learn, and respond?
    • There are a number of criticism models that exist. Some of you are familiar with Liz Lerman’s model, and Roadside has developed several models – one of them based on its story circle methodology. Perhaps one of the break-out sessions can catalogue and discuss these various models.
  • I find your general idea of testing an hypothesis very helpful. You are asking us to be more complete about what we already do – to think about how to articulate what we do, its consequences, and how we carry what we learn from one project to another. You’re asking us to help one another gain that rigor and apply it to our work. At the same time, there’s plenty of flexibility in what you propose. I like the word experiment as opposed to experimental. Experiment emphasizes learning, and what you propose is that the audience be a partner in the experiment, as opposed to being experimented upon. This validates the audience in an important way. Over time, I’ve learned that I may not be able to fully explain the play – after all, theater often resonates beyond reason – but I need to be able to explain my interest in partnering with the people for whom the work’s being performed.
  • This discussion reminds me of a model that was practiced by the Lincoln Center Institute. Several days before a theater company went into a school to perform, another artist, who had studied the visiting company’s work, would make a workshop about the upcoming performance with the classes that were involved. This workshop was led by a peer, not by a member of the visiting company. As a visiting artist, I don’t want to do a pre-show myself; usually, it’s just a stretch to get the performance up at such a site. This Lincoln Center idea is something we as artists can do for each other. So the NET membership can learn about each other’s artistic process. What better way to do this than having the opportunity to present such a workshop, and, in a sense, to collaborate with the visiting company.
  • When we’re thinking about and cataloging different critical and audience engagement models, it’s important that we look beyond this country.
    • I agree, and incidentally, one of TCG’s three major, long-range goals and mandates is more international exchange and learning. And we should remember, too, that a lot of the world is right here within our national borders. For example, for the past several years, Roadside and I have been working with new immigrants – Hmong, Mixteco, Lao, among others - in California’s great Central Valley. We’re helping them bring their stories, experiences, and performance traditions to the public stage. It is fascinating work, and usually bilingual. It feels like these folks are writing a new chapter in the American story.
  • This is an addition to the class, place, race, gender matrix, putting in generation . I’m wanting to hear more from the younger generations about what their circumstances are. That comes from one of my board member’s who is quite a bit younger than myself. She often reminds me that many of my thoughts and answers and processes don’t necessarily apply to the generation that she’s living in. I’m curious as to what the issues are for a young company trying to start in 2003, as opposed to 1986. Can we set up a place within NET where we try to understand those things, because that will also have a great deal to do with reaching audiences of diverse generations. What are the different generational needs and interests that our festival could meet? Why would a particular group come to the festival? What would they hope to see?
    • If I picked up my local newspaper and read that I had the opportunity to see a company of theater artists in their 20’s, who had been together one year, and were concerned with such and such questions, I would be drawn to that as an audience member. Who better to lead us into a new period of discovery?
  • In doing your bilingual work, how do you place that in the tradition of theater making, and all the questions you were asking us to ask ourselves about the work, how do you ask them to yourself?
    • You’ve caught me! One of the reasons I’m interested in this conception is Roadside’s own shortcomings – not knowing enough about the context of what we do. We need to know more about the contemporary experiences of others with bilingual work, and what is the history of such work in the theater? How are other peoples in the world working bilingually? Now, we’re basically doing it out of enthusiasm; our company would benefit from knowing more.
  • One of the things that we have here in this room is other groups that have done bilingual work. We may not know that longer history, but we have recent experience. How many in this room have done bilingual work? Quite a few. But do we know about each other’s experience? No. So, that’s one way we can learn.
    • Excellent example. I hope that we will take advantage of just such opportunities.

Our moderator has signaled me that our time is up for this session. I would like to leave you with two thoughts from the beginning of our conversation. First, that we not think of the history of theater as a chronology of plays, playwrights, productions, and so forth, nor do we think of this history as a series of anecdotes. Of course, both exist. But I’m suggesting that we think of the history of theater as a study of the creative act itself. That is already our central concern as ensemble artists, and in building knowledge about the creative act itself, I think that ensembles can make a significant contribution to the field and lead the American theater into a new period of discovery.

Second, we should remember Francis Bacon: “Truth emerges more readily from error than from confusion.”

Finally, I must challenge you to identify the source of this quote. Your career depends on answering correctly. The quote:

“I don’t go to the theatre at all. I hate the theatre. I really do, I can’t stand it. I think it’s totally disappointing for the most part. It’s just always embarrassing, I find. There’s more drama that goes down in a rodeo than one hundred plays you can see.”

  • “George Bush!” (a chorus)
    • Wrong!
  • Ronald Reagan!.
    • Wrong again! It’s Sam Shephard in an interview in the inaugural issue of American Theatre magazine, April, 1984. At the time, I happened to be writing an article forAmerican Theatre about our exchange with Zuni Indians. As I was driving through New Mexico, I thought, Sam, if you would only come out of New York and perform for those rodeo audiences, they would certainly straighten you out . . . son.

Thank you.

Cite This

Dudley Cocke. “A Call for Experimentation.” October 22, 2015.

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