Producing Ensemble Work

Ensembles are getting a lot of attention lately. If you read back to my earlier posts you’ll see that I was very hesitant to give the nod to ensemble work. While I am ready to accept that great work comes out of ensembles I was turned off by some of the products I had been witness to.

“How can it be polished and adventurous?” asks Dominique Serrand at a recent panel at ATL on ensemble theatre companies, “Most importantly it must be quality.” I feel as though Dominique has given several kernels of knowledge this past month and I’m happy to have swallowed them whole. Quality! Yes! An ensemble must know how to work together to create a product, and not follow blindly without editing.

One of the best things about an ensemble created work is that an ensemble does not work on a strict timeline. If a piece needs to be further developed why not work for 9-14 weeks (or months) on exploring it. It is impossible for a regional theatre to commit 3-4 years to developing a new piece because a regional theatre can’t buy or sell development… or can you? Kirk Lynn and Shawn Sides of The Rude Mechs brought their audiences the entire length of their process. As they developed their piece The Method Gun they invited the audience in to give feedback: “Help us make this something you love!” The audience then was not only arriving on opening night of the piece, rather they were developed at stages along the way to opening. Bringing an audience from concept to product is an incredible way to foster a relationship between the company and the community.

“We need more producers,” said Thomas Kriegsmann, President of ArKtype. I completely agree. In fact, I’m beginning to feel as though I know several people who would absolutely be appropriately named producers, however they also carry with them an incredible artistic capacity as well. Not having a producer means not having a collective eye on the product. Several artistic personalities does not a producer make, in fact, it almost seems to dilute the product (you’d think). However, counter intuitively, the Rude Mechs have several Co-Artistic Directors and all decisions are made by consensus. The counter point to that is they have been around for about 15 years so I guess they’re doing something right.

Beginning with the end in mind is probably the best responsibility of the producer. With that in mind, the ensemble is rising. Keep your eyes peeled.

Physical, Emotional, Intellectual

Recently, I served as Directing Assistant to Aaron Posner for Phoenix, a play in the Humana Festival of New American Plays. Aaron’s approach was exciting to say the least. This two actor show required a strong hand at the wheel, and as our actors were married to one another, we had to rediscover the charged energy of falling in love.

I can safely say that I gleaned a great deal from this experience. The experience alone of working with a living, breathing playwright in the room (Scott Organ — whom I can’t mention without saying that I haven’t read a script this naturalistic since Mamet) is wonderful and fed a very intellectual hunger I had for discussing story/character/etc. nuances.

Today I had the opportunity to experience a Masterclass with Dominique Serrand, formerly of the Theatre de la Jeune Lune, who is in town for another Humana show. His approach to building a performance is so raw and true, and it really deals with the physical being the truth (I think this also reflects some things I’ve talked about in my post entitled, “How does it Feel?”). ”Theatre became psychological,” Serrand states, “and still is today.”

The greatest moments, in my opinion, of Phoenix are the little ones that our physically based actors do in the silence of the script. The expressions of excitement, of wonder, of awe tell us a great deal more in the biggest emotional picture.

Last week I went to the South Eastern Theatre Conference and participated in a Critical Response and Feedback workshop with Liz Lerman. In groups of three we created a dance based on the news (personal news, national news, or other). In our group we had an observer, an interviewer and an interviewee. The intervewer probed the interviewee about their news. The observer watched for natural physical gestures as the interviewee spoke. These gestures, in combination with the other group members motions, created our dance. We followed this by numerous amounts of theme and variation and could have very well created an incredible dance piece based on “the news.”

The six movement dances we created in our groups were obviously quite emotional — which I feel is remarkable having come from an intellectual story about this or that.

I think this all boils down to the thought that I am excited  about the approach to finding emotional depth though the physical, and physical depth after understanding the intellectual. And sometimes it is great to throw it all to the wind and do something altogether different.

You’re Either With Us or Against Us

So our cast/crew had a brief debriefing regarding “Theatre for Two.” The general consensus of it was that A) it was great fun, B) the audiences were exceptional — regardless of participation level, and C) it was a stretch for everyone involved.

As I mentioned earlier, this project was an experiment in all kinds of capacities. One variable we were increasingly interested in was the audiences’ willingness to participate — which we found to be very high. All participants knew that this was an interactive production, but nobody knew to what degree.

I should probably mention some logistics before we move beyond this point.

My co-creator and I wrote five scenes to be performed at five tables simultaneously. Each table would have 1-2 actors and no more than 2 audience members at it at any given time. Each scene was approximately 7 minutes long thus creating a 40-45 minute experience. When each scene finished the audience members had to be moved (via our wonderful stage managers posing as caterers or wedding photographers) and our actors had to be reset (by their own devices and our crew’s brief check in as they dropped off new audience members). This rotation of audience members happened four times after their initial seating. Our actors resilience shone throughout as they were playing the same scene ten times in one evening.

The sequence of scenes was as such:
Table 1: The Groomsmen
Table 2: The Mother
Table 3: The Caterers
Table 4: The Bride
Table 5: The Bloggers

After the show was over we brought everyone, actors and audience, together for a group photo as a sort of curtain call.

Yesterday evening the Apprentices at Actors Theatre of Louisville had an opening for another project of similar nature but larger scale. A production entitled Heist! by Deborah Stein. As an insider I’ve had great opportunities to hear about their process, but the proof was in the pudding last night as 250 theatre goers willingly participated in a very interactive and exciting performance. I had seen a run of the show previously so I spent a majority of my time gauging audience interest and participation.

My last topic which addressed “what kind of theatre do you like to watch?” feels a little stilted as I flesh out these ideas more and more about experiential theatre. I feel most excited about creating something that is an experience for the audience, however I am slow to embrace my own participation in experiential theatre. When it comes down to it  (and I reserve the right to change my mind at any given time) I want my theatre experience to take me into another world to be entertained and challenged.

I was incredibly grateful to have sold out all of our performances of Theatre for Two. In fact, recently we remounted it for an audience of 200. As this was very counter to the work we did it was great to hear that the audience still understood and were receptive to the moments that were taking place — sans the intimacy we meant to incur.

The actors who worked on Theatre for Two and Heist! said that their experience on the former really informed their experience on the latter. I felt pretty excited to know that somehow, indirectly, we fostered a degree of freedom and improvisation for so nine great actors. At a panel discussion I heard an apprentice describe their performance as vulnerable. They’ve been rehearsing scenes for four months where their scene partner, the audience, was unavailable, “Then they show up on opening night and they don’t know their lines!”

That was a huge digress….

Let me begin (again) by saying that the actors on this project were brave, vulnerable, and incredible improvisors.

As I’ve mentioned before, our actors interacted in varying ways with the audience. Each script varied: some scripts used direct address, sometimes it was a gesture, sometimes we intended the audience to be flies on the wall.

The actors in The Mother scene, which had the lowest amount of audience interaction, is where a huge plot point was given. At the very end a very direct line was improvised. Audiences most often came from the more garrulous scene immediately before and felt as though they could jump right into the conversation, however this scene was rehearsed with the intention that The Mother (in-law) would dominate the conversation and tell the audience to “shut-up.” Before audiences moved on from this station the Mother also stated, “You didn’t hear anything.”

This simple line impacted the interaction for actors two stations away. When audiences were asked at The Blogger table if they knew any good gossip they were significantly quieter than those that truly didn’t know the large plot point.

Of course, none of the script hinged on the audience communicating one set of information from one table to the next… but that does sound like an interesting project.

I believed it before I started this project, but now it has been confirmed that the audience will do whatever you ask them to. They don’t want to do anything wrong; they want to be a part of the action (in varying degrees); and, most of all, they want the actor to succeed!