By Ferdinand Lewis

In Sync? For American ensembles, questions come first - then creativity

American Theatre magazine, May/June 2000


Ensemble theatres in America live on long hours and luck. It's a canny kind of luck, the sort that reveals itself after a lot of footwork. If it would be bottled, takers would line up around the block, but that won't happen anytime soon. In the meanwhile, ensembles are attempting the next best thing: making sense of what they've been through over the past 25 years.

A decade ago, critic Misha Berson reported in this magazine on America's ongoing ensemble theatre movement ("Keeping Company," April '90), describing small companies whose commitment to their work was matched only by the commitment of their audiences - and, in most cases, the depth of their poverty. Although most of the ensembles she interviewed are still operating today - and although the influence of their work is frequently far-reaching and profound - as an active movement, ensemble theatre remains a tiny blip on America's cultural radar.

"The work is community-centered, so it's low profile," explains Bob Leonard, co-director of the Community Arts Network at Virginia Tech and a veteran of what he calls the ensemble wars. "Ensembles are so intensely focused on their communities that they're invisible to the outside world." Because they are isolated from one another, ensembles are often unable to share experiences, resources and, well, luck. This contributes to the steepness of a new ensemble's uphill struggle.

Last year, however, things began to change. In June 1999, representatives from seven ensemble theatres around the country came together for the first time under the banner Network of Ensemble Theatres (NET) for a first-ever conference and festival, funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts and the ensembles themselves. The troupes were Independent Eye of Sebastapol, California; Touchstone Theatre of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble of Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania; A Traveling Jewish Theatre of San Francisco; Irondale Ensemble of New York City; Dell'Arte Players Company of Blue Lake, California; and the Road Company of Johnson, Tennessee.

The ensembles met in San Francisco, saw each other's work, discussed approaches, compared scars. A Traveling Jewish Theatre's Cory Fischer said, "Just hearing other people's stories, how they've survived, was so important. We've all been so alone up until now." In 2001 there will be an expanded ensemble festival, another chance for the movement to find its voice and pool its luck.

It will also be an opportunity to discover how ensembles make that luck. I recently spoke to members of four thriving ensembles, each with 20-plus years in the saddle, to find out what approaches they share in common. At first glance, I concluded the answer was "not much." Beyond the obvious commonalities - that ensembles are artist-driven, for instance - there are as many styles and approaches as there are ensembles. What, then, are the threads that connect them?

An artistic movement is usually defined by the common solutions its artists have found to their creative problems: "The Fauves experimented with pure color," or "The Futurists broke with traditionalism." In the American ensemble theatre movement, however, there are few answers in common - the common thread turns out to be the questions that ensembles all must ask. Among these questions-in-common are:

What is our relationship to the audience? What is our source of inspiration? What is our style? How do we avoid burnout? Hold the ensemble together? Support members and their families? Reconcile the individual with the collective? What are our traditions?

An ensemble tends to define its mission by answering these and other questions-in-common, then bets all its chips on living up to that mission. For the most part, ensembles don't limp along. They either fulfill their missions or die. For this discussion, I chose the first four questions-in-common from the list above.

1. What is our relationship to the audience? 

"It's very direct," declares Laurie McCant, a founding member of Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble. "Our post-show discussion groups take place on Main Street." After 22 years in Bloomsburg, the ensemble knows that its symbiotic relationship to this eastern Pennsylvania town of 12,000 can't be taken for granted. "The real collaboration is in how we interact with the community," says McCant. "The audience feels challenged by us, and so they're loyal."

If BTE has decreased the distance between the ensemble and its audience, Whitesburg, Kentucky's Roadside Theater has eliminated it entirely. For 25 years, Roadside has been making original pieces from regional oral history and song through a unique development process based on Appalachian storytelling and ballad traditions. Roadside's connection to the community gains additional force from its strategy of employing folk artists and other talented community members to perform with the ensemble whenever possible. Such is the case in their current production, New Ground Revival, built around an entire family of Appalachian singers, the legendary Mullins Family.

"I expect we're one of the few theatres who can see ourselves as a company of folk artists," says artistic director Dudley Cocke. Roadside makes pieces that are by, for and about that community. Does this approach close the traditional gap between audience and performer? Laughing, Cocke reports an early success: "In one of our first shows, which was about the first hanging in the county, if people in the audience thought we'd left out a fact, they'd just stand up and correct us."

The audience came looking for San Francisco's A Traveling Jewish Theatre. "We began with no particular sense of who the audience was, but rather a hunch that if we created the deepest, best work we could, an audience would find us," says co-founder Cory Fischer. ATJT's commitment to drawing its material from the Jewish experience was never a marketing strategy, but merely a matter of the ensemble's following its passion. Eventually, the Jewish community found ATJT and has since become the core of its audience - "keeping in mind that the 'Jewish community' is about as diverse a group as you can get," Fischer elaborates. ATJT's experience is that the audience's commitment to the ensemble equals the ensemble's commitment to its work.

This is true of another urban ensemble, the 19-year-old Los Angeles company the Actor's Gang. Born as it was on the doorstep of the film and television industry, the Actor's Gang would have been yet another showcase for film and television industry hopefuls had its founders (including actor Tim Robbins) not had a clear mission in mind. In a downtown loft, the Gang circled their wagons and began experimenting. They assumed L.A.'s usual indifference to theatre would include them. "The good news is that the best theatre actors migrate here," says L.A. native Tracy Young, a director with the Gang. "The bad news is that L.A. audiences don't really go to theatre."

It's notoriously hard to seduce even a fraction of the L.A. audience away from its focus on film and TV - unless you're coming in at a pretty severe angle, that is. When word got out about the edgy, intense, ensemble-developed pieces being presented in the Gang's downtown loft, an audience began to grow up around them, and to this day, Young says, "Our audience is mostly people who have some connection to the arts. People in the arts value the kind of confrontation we provide, and because they're artists, they challenge us right back."

Rural ensembles, on the other hand, tend to make audience diversity part of their mission. "We have a moral responsibility," says James Goode of Bloomsburg. "We're one of the places in this town where people with diverse backgrounds can come. In church, you're there with people who have the same beliefs, but in the theatre, you share with people who have different beliefs."

Roadside Theater also strikes more fire from a diverse audience than from a homogeneous one. "Making our performances accessible to working-class people is especially important in our national tours and collaborations with other ensembles," says Dudley Cocke. "The intelligence of the audience just goes up when diversity is present."

Whether urban or rural, ensembles engage their audiences in a symbiotic relationship that is more direct than a larger theatre can manage. For this reason, the longer an ensemble works in its community, the harder it becomes to tell whether the artists or the audiences are driving the work. Corey Fischer says, "I think a case could be made for saying that the art creates its audience just as much as the audience creates the art."

2. What is our source of inspiration? 

An ensemble's driving impulse is likely to be very specific. Yet, because ensemble members commit to working together over many years, the sources of inspiration must be varied - they must include room for growth. For instance, A Traveling Jewish Theatre's inspiration is what Fischer calls "the Jewish experience." which he goes on to describe as "such a vast, rich and inclusive area, there's no end to where we might go."

Bloomsburg is inspired by "great stories," says James Goode. After finding an exciting story, the ensemble examines it in light of the audience they know so well. "As a company, we get excited by a great story, but what keeps us excited is the chance to tell a great story to people who really want to hear it," Goode says.

In Los Angeles, a theatre's most quixotic intentions are too often swayed by the prevailing showcase aesthetic. The Actor's Gang doesn't ignore the distractions, but reacts to them instead. "Making this work is a way to thrive in a place where attitudes are skewed so far in the other direction," says Tracy Young. "It's not about anything but continuing to make art in an environment that is indifferent," she says. "This is the search for meaning in a city that is about artistic commerce and the marketplace."

For Roadside, the audience is the inspiration, first and last. "We wanted to tell the story of our Appalachian people," says Dudley Cocke, "for them, by them and with them." In 1975, Cocke says, "There was no Appalachian body of dramatic literature, so we set out to create one." That mission has remained Roadside's infallible source of inspiration. Dramatizing the Appalachian people's own stories, Roadside plays to local audiences who are invited to respond by contributing still more stories for the development process. The theatre becomes a vehicle for the audience's dialogue with itself. Roadside's commitment to community not only fulfills the company's mission in spades, but keeps the ensemble in contact with its inspiration all through the collaboration and production processes.

3. What is our style?

Because ensembles are small, their approaches tend to be closely aligned with their missions. This helps shape an ensemble's individual style. "There is something unspoken in the way people work together over time that has to do with history," says Tracy Young. "There is a tradition that is part of the Actor's Gang, a way of working that shows up on stage no matter who's doing the work."

The Gang began with a series of workshops in commedia dell'arte, a clear and precise tradition that the Gang members then began juxtaposing onto unlikely source material. Other techniques were added to the mix, but commedia is still an invaluable part of the Gang's development process: "It's from a street-theatre tradition, so it's high stakes," which encourages the actors to make strong choices, according to Young. In keeping with commedia tradition, for example, the actors develop full makeup and costumes for their characters before doing the interior characterization work.

The Gang also encourages its members to keep the barriers between disciplines as low as possible. For their current project,Dream Play, director, actors and designers all conducted extensive research before rehearsals began; then the designers attended rehearsals right alongside the actors.

Bloomsburg has also refined its approach to making original pieces. BTE tends to begin the development process with "a pile of research," according to Laurie McCant. "We have an outline of how it's going to go, but it starts with all this background material that we need to sift." BTE's Hard Coal: Life in the Region was created in this fashion by an ensemble of actors, a choreographer and a composer, drawing from oral histories, interviews and archival research. "We start out going through this material," McCant says, "then small groups will break off to go figure out how to do particular moments." Slowly, the pile is sifted down to story, dialogue, music and staging. The process of working in groups isn't exclusive to BTE's original shows. "Even when we're working on a 'regular' script, the directory will send groups off to work on things, and they bring back what they've found," McCant adds. "Of course, the director ultimately decides."

Roadside begins its development process with three critical questions. First, says Dudley Cocke, the company asks, "What's the next important story the region needs to hear?" Second, since Roadside sometimes employs non-actors as performers, they ask, "Who's available?" and finally, "What are their talents?" Cocke says, "Once we decide those things, we craft the story around the ensemble and its artistic strengths."

In the case of New Ground Revival, the crafting of the play began with what Roadside calls the "story circle," a technique adapted from the Appalachian storytelling tradition. All the performers get in a circle, the playwright presents a theme, and each ensemble member tells stories or plays music or sings a song around that theme. The writer takes the material away as inspiration for the developing script and score, then brings it back to the next story circle, in this way building a show story by story, song by song. Each cast member learns all the roles and has responsibility for the entire story.

Like Roadside, ATJT's process often starts with a question - in relation to the Holocaust, "How could those German-Jewish intellectuals not grasp what was going to happen?" or "What is Kabbalah, and does it mean anything in these times?" "Often," says Corey Fischer, "the question comes from an individual member tossing something into the collective arena, then the process takes over." ATJT's process is based on the ancient rabbinic tradition of midrash, a Hebrew term coming from a root that means "to delve" or "to dig." Says Fischer, "It's not analytical. It's more like coming up with counter-stories." The ensemble applies midrash to sources ranging from modern Yiddish poetry to the assassination of Trotsky, from Kabbalistic mysticism to the conflict in the Middle East. This approach generates pieces that are structured like poetry, with layered and intercut text, music and movement.

4. How do we avoid burnout?

Plain and simple, ensemble work is hard. It is less about "putting on a show" than it is a sort of cultural mission. Add to this the fact that the American ensemble theatre movement is largely undocumented, and until recently had no forum for companies to meet and share experiences. Each new ensemble reinvents the wheel, every time, from scratch. The NET will provide an invaluable resource for ensembles, but the uphill struggle continues. After years or decades, ensemble resilience can flag. BTE's Laurie McCant says, "It's really hard. Over the years we've had times when we're just so tired. But you get through them. You get rejuvenated - there's a new person or a sign that you are needed or a new project."

BTE members take leave, too. "We had to get over the feeling of abandonment if somebody left for a little while and see that it was actually a very good thing." says McCant. James Goode points out that one of the advantages to being in a close-knit ensemble is that " when you're feeling burned out, you can take it easy and let someone else take the lead until you get inspired again."

Roadside members have found a way to renew themselves while continuing the work. "Right now we're documenting our work over the past decade," says Dudley Cocke. He and his collaborators find that "documentation serves the function of renewing." Writing books, papers and reports and archiving the work of the theatre creates a landscape of reflection in which the sustaining spirit can be revitalized. Also, because of the ensemble's commitment to this documentation, their work is widely published, and their performances are recorded in a variety of media.

There is an additional activity that Roadside finds renewing, says Cocke. "Helping other communities to do what we've done clarifies what we do and strengthens our own work." To this end, all ofRoadside's methods, approaches and results are made available for other theatre makers. And Roadside does multiyear residencies in communities around the country that want establish their own ensembles.

At first it seems ironic that the ensemble theatre movement would flower in an era that has so devalued the ensemble ideals of patient craft, collective community and tradition. On the other hand, perhaps it is because we live in the simulacrum that the authenticity of this work keeps audiences coming back. Or perhaps ensembles have just plain earned their luck.

I asked James Goode if he feels he's changed the world in some way, and he said, "There are kids growing up in Bloomsburg now who've had access to a professional theatre their whole lives. It's as easy for them to come here as it is to go to the mall. If changing part of the world changes the whole world, then my answer is yes.

Cite This

Ferdinand Lewis. “In Sync? For American ensembles.” October 22, 2015.

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