Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Thinking about the ensemble

What does it mean to create an ensemble?

The word “ensemble” gets tossed around a lot these days, whether its theater, dance, music, the circus, vaudeville, or whatever…It’s a word that is watered down, misconstrued, misused and abused to a point where you think just about anyone and everyone is making an ensemble or creating ensemble-based pieces.

To confuse matters, many theater companies even have that word in their name. I worked at Ensemble Studio Theater in New York City …in fact, just google that word and you might find a lot of theaters calling themselves “ensemble” this or “ensemble” that…It seems anyone can lay claim to it.

Well, yes, but aren’t they an ensemble? I mean, if I cast a production of Hamlet, aren’t all those actors working together in a collaborative way? Haven’t they formed as a group to work harmoniously together to create a work of art?

Sure, but…

Okay, etymologically, it’s just French for “the same together” and then somewhere around a hundred years ago it started being used for musical groups and then became an adjective to describe a particular way of being—as in ensemble acting, defined by merriam-webster as “emphasizing the roles of all performers as a whole rather than a star performance”.

Ah, there might lie the difference…between ensemble as a group of artists to a way of working...

As a director casting Hamlet, I’m going to want a specific Hamlet for my vision of that well-defined play—this is why we go see Ralph Fiennes or Liev Schreiber or Kevin Kline’s Hamlet. It is a star vehicle. Sure, the rest of the actors are just as important and there have been some great ensemble-based Shakespeare pieces (ala Peter Brook) but mostly, that is a play about that central character with others revolving around him. Many plays are like that. This is a simplistic way of looking at it, but bear with me for the illustration of the point.

I’ve been re-reading my Joseph Chaikin book THE PRESENCE OF THE ACTOR and he understands the ensemble to have two principles:

“The first is empathy: one actor, instead of necessarily competing with another, instead of trying to take attention away from him would instead support the other…There comes a point when you no longer know exactly which actor is in support and which actor initiated the action; they are simply together.

“The other has to do with rhythm, with dynamics, and with a kind of sensitivity which could be rhythmically self-expressed…”

He then goes on to talk about a singular person’s inner rhythm, going on all the time, which adds a certain energy to the room and sometimes these rhythms are in battle with each other, contrary to what is being said. It’s this dynamic and idea of rhythms which fueled much of Chaikin’s work with the Open Theater.

It’s also important to note that many ensemble-based works were focused on physical theatre, rather than text-based theater. The truth is, the elements of theatre become an ensemble, working as a harmonious whole—text, movement, music, design—all having equal importance. It creates a multi-layered experience.

The problem I’ve seen with some ensembles, especially as they form theater companies is a limited view of the ensemble. They see only the acting ensemble as an ensemble, rather than viewing the director, playwright, designers, dramaturg, and stage manager as integral parts of the collaborative process.

One can even extend the idea of the ensemble to include the audience as well as the theatre-makers (as Grotowski did…).

Few ever do this.

The reason is simple: we like the comfort of the fourth wall. It protects us and keeps us safe.

Chaikin also said that we should never be too comfortable as we make our art, always pushing ourselves…This is why he concocted so many exercises during rehearsals, exercises that he used and discarded like paper plates.

Constantly forcing yourself out of the comfort zone and creating new ways of surprise is one reason why few people actually make ensembles and/or do physical-based theatre work. The work requires more time and energy and we live in a country that is very much about “get it up fast” and is concentrated on the end product of the opening night performance. Also, simply making traditional theater is hard enough as it is, why add to to it?

Ensemble-based work is usually more focused on the process, the experiential aspects of theatre-making, not the end product. Most producers are not down with that, which is why you don’t see it much in regional theaters like at Seattle Rep. Sure, you will get the rare mainstream success like Metamorphosis on Broadway, but this is the exception to the rule. Ensemble-making usually happens in alternative circles, those with little or no money (like the downtown or lower east side of NYC). The positive is that these forms of theatre-making are very conducive to those alternative groups who are usually the disempowered ones in the economic/social spheres of the city.

But I think I’ll write more later in this blog about my thoughts on physical theater (what Joane Schirle of Dell’Arte calls “total theatre”) and “devising” theater, another catch-all phrase getting close to distortion by its usage, since there are so many different types of companies and methodologies behind devising (Mary Zimmerman, Ann Bogart, Ping Chong, Richard Foreman, Theatre de Complicite, Soujourner, etc.).

As I delve into the beginnings of building my ensemble for 7 MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT and the many thoughts I have about what theatre is for me, what we’re making and why…It is no surprise that I am filled with a little bit of fear of what lies ahead, but only in the sense of adventure…as if I’m getting into my car and heading across country without any map, just knowing the general direction.

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