Sea monsters have clambered onto the shores of American institutional theatre. Once sighted mainly in out-of-the-way venues, playing for simpatico audiences, these enterprising creatures are expanding their domain to the stages of major U.S. companies.
For almost a decade, for instance, they’ve been showing up at New York City’s Public Theater, doing what they do—making ensemble-created and/or devised work—under the auspices of the Under the Radar Festival, which recently wrapped up its ninth annual edition.
And now these multifarious hordes have invaded the West. In 2011, Under the Radar’s producers, Mark Russell and Meiyin Wang, teamed up with Los Angeles co-conspirators Diane Rodriguez of Center Theatre Group and Mark Murphy of REDCAT to curate a Pacific Rim variant of Under the Radar, called Radar L.A., which is returning in September 2013.
The attention-getting troupes working the UTR circuit and their fellow collectives are like the lizards in Edward Albee’s play Seascape: They show up with their flippers and fins to converse with human beach-dwellers, who are landlocked and producing plays in established regional theatres. Many of these landlubbers, it turns out, have been trying to imagine what it would be like to create theatre beyond the fiscally mandated four weeks to rehearse and six weeks to perform, after which the cast disbands; they’ve grown weary of this model, which can sometimes feel like factory work as much as a creative endeavor. They may even have fantasies of taking the plunge into the ocean of “devised” theatre, in which ensembles sometimes take months to come up with a piece, after which they may tour it for years, often overseas, while its shape continues to evolve.
These creatures with the liberating POV don’t even have a name that people can agree on. Some call them ensembles and what they do “ensemble theatre,” but that’s not entirely accurate, because some of these organisms don’t employ the same cast from one production to the next. The actors and designers and directors concoct choreography and sets and “text.” Some groups use playwrights, some don’t. In earlier times, what they did was called “performance art,” and then “performance” and “dance-theatre,” and then “collaborative,” “multidisciplinary,” “interdisciplinary,” and “hybrid” work. The latest label is “devised”—an adjective spun from a verb which also fails to do the creative process justice, since so much of the work derives from established texts and therefore has a literary foundation. As Russell points out, a high school production of Charley’s Aunt could be seen as “devised.”
So how does whatever it is they do differ from, say, a high school production of Charley’s Aunt? “The way the work is traditionally made in high schools, there’s a hierarchy,” explains Wang, who is taking over the Devised Theatre Initiative at the Public, while Russell heads to Europe to recruit ensembles for future editions of UTR. “Ensembles are, in fact, very good at hierarchy, but I think in devised work there’s a more horizontal feel. The set design doesn’t take precedent over the actors or the text, or vice versa. There’s something that feels very complete and total about the experience.”
Meanwhile, Mark Valdez, who runs the L.A.-based Network of Ensemble Theaters (NET), argues that the word “devised” minimizes the contributions of ensembles to the creative process. “There’s a need for a new language,” says Valdez. “Our aesthetics have evolved, but our language hasn’t evolved to keep up with it.”
Down the coast near San Diego, La Jolla Playhouse’s artistic director Christopher Ashley couldn’t agree more. “The active title is a problem. It’s dated by the time you define it, when you’re asking the audience and the artists together to reinvent what a play is. To get them out of a slot, to put them in a new slot—say, ‘devised work’—is a failure of that invention. The vocabulary is going to have to struggle to keep chasing the work.”
But South Coast Repertory’s artistic director Marc Masterson isn’t losing any sleep over the issue of how to name whatever it is that appears to be shifting the contours of the American theatre.
“What name can you find to describe developments in new music?” he posits. “Or indie film? I would counsel us all not to worry too much about it.”
Call them what you will, these collaborative-ensemble-devising entities have pervaded Europe for decades—less so here, for any number of reasons, having mainly to do with cultural climate and economics. A cluster of them were reported on the Atlantic seaboard in the mid-to-late 20th century, you’ll remember, with names like the Living Theatre, the Open Theater, Mabou Mines and the Wooster Group—and they certainly spawned American descendents across the country, entities like Anne Bogart and Tadashi Suzuki’s SITI Company in New York, Lookingglass Theatre Company in Chicago, and Double Edge Theatre in Ashfield, Mass. Still, until recently, they were rarely performing on America’s major regional stages. They might on occasion surface at St. Ann’s Warehouse or P.S.122 in New York City, or at Z Space in San Francisco, or in similar hideouts, where they were noticed, reported on and admired by a handful of journalists.
But in the past five years, local and international ensembles have been publicized and presented by major regional theatres, ranging from Kentucky’s Actors Theatre of Louisville, to the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C., to California’s Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis, to name just a few.
Leaders in the field are finding this to be a breath of fresh air.
“Ensemble work has been an ongoing movement,” notes Valdez. “We’re now riding the most recent wave. I think regional theatres have become generalists, programming for a really wide audience—here’s our classic play, here’s our comedy, here’s our Black History Month play. There’s nothing wrong with that—hopefully, these theatres become home for a wide segment of the population.” Ensembles, however, Valdez suggests, “are able to focus more, and to develop a style of working and a distinct aesthetic. That’s what makes the work exciting. Because of that, it has reinvigorated the field.”
The devised-theatre model—starting as a group exploring an idea, having one company member in charge of research and guiding the idea until a director and, maybe later, a playwright will emerge—is duplicated by companies ranging from Sandbox Theatre in Minneapolis to Dog & Pony in D.C. It is fundamentally at odds with the practice of launching a rehearsal process with a script.
Adds Masterson, “This kind of work used to be called the avant-garde. It’s slowly moving to the forefront, as the established order of what makes a well-made play has been broken down over a long period of time. Not everyone is going to feel a part of this movement, if it even is a movement—but it is definitely a reflection of health in the field.”
Thanks to organizations such as NET, the savvy A.D.s cited here and the pioneering efforts of Russell and Wang at the Public—plus a few million dollars thrown their way by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for the purpose of bringing more attention to ensembles in America—more major regional theatres are adding “presenter” and “curator” to their job descriptions, providing their audiences with a kind of theatre they may have had scant familiarity with. And, though devised work is far from novel, its presentation by regional theatres is. Its arrival on those stages represents a new movement in the American theatre that’s been long in-the-works.
To understand why the presentation of ensembles by institutional theatres has become a significant trend, follow the money. There wasn’t much there 10 years ago, and now there is.
Along the money trail, one is sure to encounter a behind-the-scenes player named Olga Garay-English, currently the executive director of the Department of Cultural Affairs for the City of Los Angeles. Early in her career, she served as assistant director for Miami-Dade County Cultural Affairs Council in Florida. In 1990, she was hired by Miami Dade College to reconfigure its cultural affairs program, and it’s there that Garay-English “got very involved with the National Performance Network”—an organization dedicated to the creation and touring of visual and performing arts. Garay-English says she was struck by the importance of “having minimum one-week residencies, so the companies could know the communities they were going to, and the need to provide money for companies to experiment.”
At Miami-Dade College, Garay-English also got involved in the presentation of work, on a national and international scale. “I guess that’s how I came to the attention of Duke [Charitable Foundation] and got head-hunted. At Duke, I created a program I would have wanted to do while I was in the field.”
As founding program director for the arts at Duke, Garay-English launched a major theatre initiative in 1999, funding Theatre Communications Group (publisher of this magazine) to host four regional and two national meetings under the rubric of “Field Conversations”—“to get the people on the front lines to define the salient issues confronting the theatre community,” she recalls. TCG moved on to a “New Work, New Ways” convening in Portland, Ore., in 2002 that brought producing organizations and presenters together.
Mark Russell remembers those meetings. “The way I decided to try to go at this problem was asking the question, ‘How do you make new work?’ People from TCG theatres were saying, ‘I make new work—I have readings of plays.’ ‘No no no, we make new work,’ other people were saying, ‘We’re ensembles!’
“And that sparked these connections between producers, regional theatre folk and presenters who are supporting a lot of this work, for them to see what commonalities they had. It began to seem that maybe there was a way to share resources in a larger way.”
Russell says that if you were to write a history of the theatre, the role played in the ’90s and early 2000s by the Wooster Group (“the Rolling Stones of experimental theatre”) would be very important—but equally important was that group’s failure to connect with the regional theatre system.
“The regional theatres have resources, capacity, audiences, yet all these companies like the Wooster Group were being handled by presenters, not theatres. The foundations were asking, ‘What’s up with that?’ Why were these intriguing ensembles not intersecting with these slow-moving institutions? Can we take some of this energy and raise all boats?”
Russell says that the idea, and eventually the funding, for Under the Radar came out of these conferences. “I received money to do a one-day conference, and I took that with a little duct tape and spit and made it into a seven-day festival at St. Ann’s Warehouse. That was with money from the Duke Foundation.” Meanwhile, still at Duke, Garay-English approached the Mellon Foundation, which has a long history of working in the theatre community, suggesting a collaboration.
Soon after, Garay-English says, 10 leading ensembles received substantive two- or three-year grants, followed by a re-granting program, then a smaller grant for the Association of Performing Arts Presenters. “We started discussions between the theatre producers and the presenters, we started Under the Radar, so I was steeped in the ensemble theatre world,” Garay-English continues. “It generates, to me, more relevant and compelling work.”
Diane Rodriguez concurs, pointing to Center Theatre Group’s 2009 grant of $1 million from Mellon for the express purpose of presenting ensemble-generated work, which would account for recent appearances by the Civilians from New York and the Rude Mechanicals from Austin at CTG’s Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, Calif.
Also on the West Coast, and slightly pre-dating these discussions and their subsequent release of funding for ensembles, Costa Mesa’s South Coast Rep, perhaps unwittingly, pioneered a curating/presenting template in a hybrid form. It was in 1998 that SCR invited in the Latino sketch comedy group Culture Clash and then teamed the company with a playwright who also happened to be SCR’s literary manager, John Glore (now SCR’s associate artistic director). Glore collaborated with Culture Clash and shared authors’ credit for an adaptation of Aristophanes’ The Birds. Center Theatre Group followed suit when it premiered the company’s play about the creation of Dodger Stadium, Chavez Ravine (2003), and Culture Clash company member Richard Montoya’s cityscape drama Water & Power (2006), using the outsourced dramaturgical expertise of director Lisa Peterson and dramaturg Glore. Oregon Shakespeare Festival premiered Montoya’s U.S. history play American Night: The Ballad of Juan José in 2010, directed by Jo Bonney. Many of these works toured nationally.
More recently, however, as Masterson explains, the intention of inviting in ensembles is not only artistic collaboration but “to provide resources they might not otherwise have, so they can do things they’ve never done before.”
Yet there are profoundly different approaches used by artistic directors to accomplish this goal. One is illustrated in the 2004 collaboration between Whit MacLaughlin’s Philadelphia-based ensemble, New Paradise Laboratories, and the Children’s Theatre Company of Minneapolis, helmed by Peter C. Brosius.
While MacLaughlin was developing a piece called Prom, he says that Brosius asked him mid-rehearsal, “What is it you think you’re doing?” MacLaughlin tried his best to explain.
Says MacLaughlin, “Peter made two scalpel-like comments that changed the course of the piece. I went home and didn’t sleep for a day and a half. He’s like radiation therapy—he sees the tumor and he doesn’t care about much else. I killed the tumor and it hurt, but it became this great relationship. I felt it was a New Paradise show that worked really hard to be a Children’s Theatre Company show.”
The artistic director’s approach was quite different in 2007 when MacLaughlin’s troupe was invited by Masterson, who was then running Actors Theatre of Louisville, to develop a piece that came to be called BATCH: An American Bachelor/ette Party Spectacle.
“Marc asked me, ‘What do you want to make a piece about?’ and I said, ‘What do you want?, and he said, ‘No, it goes the other way, it’s about the playwright,’ and I said, ‘We’ve never had a playwright.’ He gave me handful of playwrights to think about, but I didn’t quite know what I was looking for. I eventually decided on Alice Tuan, who was crazy enough to say yes to this. Over time, it became an extraordinarily fruitful relationship, an artistic romance, but it took time to figure out what we meant to each other and how not to kill each other.”
Eight months later, and still with no central idea, MacLaughlin and Masterson finally settled on exploring the idea of “marriage.” Masterson sent over his dramaturg, Adrien-Alice Hansel. MacLaughlin recalls, “We almost killed ourselves trying to figure out how we were going to work on that project. Marc was very supportive, and put a lot of resources into the process, which was really about a year before we even came to Louisville to actually rehearse.”
“I had a great time working with Whit,” Masterson recalls. “The production came to be about bachelor parties, and they eventually staged it inside a Louisville drag queen bar. Most of our regular subscribers had never been inside the place, so there was something new for everyone.”
Masterson now oversees South Coast Rep’s Studio SCR series, dedicated to presenting ensembles, some of them long established in L.A., that have rarely performed beyond the city’s petri-dish theatre universe. That’s not necessarily true of Critical Mass Performance Group, whose space-program trilogy, Apollo, was written and directed between 2001 and 2009 by artistic director Nancy Keystone. The show was developed and performed at both CTG and Oregon’s Portland Center Stage; the latter engagement was underwritten by TCG and the Pew Charitable Trust’s National Theatre Artist Residency Program. Keystone builds her plays from research and improvisations with her company. SCR brought Keystone’s Ameryka, a kaleidoscopic epic of associations between the U.S. and Poland going back to the American Revolution, to its Studio Series at the end of 2012.
SCR has also introduced Theatre Movement Bazaar, a dance-theatre company combining the talents of director-choreographer Tina Kronis and her husband playwright, Richard Alger, to audiences beyond the L.A. microcosm. Recently, the troupe has been fixated on Anton Chekhov, performing a four-man spin on Uncle Vanya named Anton’s Uncles (which premiered at Los Angeles City College Theatre Academy and was later invited to SCR). Alger’s lean stage adaptation of Chekhov’s short story “Ward No. 6,” called The Treatment, was about a psychiatrist eventually committed to the very mental ward he administered. Theatre Movement Bazaar’s latest, a riff on Three Sisters that goes by the name Track 3, premiered in January at L.A.’s Bootleg Theater before transferring to SCR in February. Other brainy and delightful L.A. ensembles appearing at Studio SCR in 2013 are Rogue Artists Ensemble and sketch-comedy company Lost Moon Radio.
Meanwhile, La Jolla Playhouse—which has a history of presenting ensembles such as Philadelphia’s Pig Iron Theatre Company, which appeared on its stage in 2010—is holding its inaugural site-specific Without Walls Festival this coming October, spawned by its popular WoW Series. One of last year’s WoW hits (invited back this year) was L.A.’s Moving Arts presentation of 10-minute Car Plays (conceived by Paul Stein), staged in a parking lot: Multiple audiences of two get escorted into the back seat of cars lined up in rows, while pairs of actors in the front of the cars enact microdramas mere inches from the patrons.
La Jolla’s Ashley is also looking internationally for ensembles. He says he’s gearing up to present an Australian company, Polyglot, performing their We Built This City—Ashley describes it as “a giant public construction site that uses thousands of cardboard boxes which the audience builds into a city and then destroys”—and the German ensemble Rimini Protokoll—“a reality-based piece on the population of San Diego as represented by 100 people.” The latter show’s cast becomes “as perfect an ethnic and gender representation of San Diego as you can get—each cast member gets to pick the next cast member, so that it starts simply as ‘pick a man.’ But by the time you get to the 99th person, it’s: ‘Go find me a Somali grandmother who lives in National City.’ It’s a living breathing portrait of the city. This group has already done the piece about Berlin and London.”
This is the kind of programming you might have found on university campuses and in an occasional international theatre festival, but hardly at all on the stages of America’s regional theatres before 2000.
Buzz22 Chicago is an ensemble created in 2010. “We’re still babies,” figures co-artistic director Sara Sawicki, “still finding our way.” The company recently completed its first original work, Ellie Reed’s Inside/Out, about teenage bullying, created in partnership with a high school in Deerfield: “We do a lot of movement-based work and games,” Sawicki says. “We’re interested in stories that can be told physically—not dance, but playing with the juxtaposition of words and movement.”
Though Buzz22 Chicago is in its infancy, it’s already been spotted by Chicago’s heavyweight Steppenwolf Theatre Company—specifically Steppenwolf’s Garage Rep program, dedicated to recognizing the work of up-and-coming local theatre companies and luring younger audiences.
At Garage Rep, Buzz22 will present an already-produced play by Qui Nguyen, She Kills Monsters, hardly an experimental project but nonetheless a new brand of collaboration. “We’re in rehearsals right now,” Sawicki explains. “We’ve been meeting with Steppenwolf’s staff. A lot of the development has to do with the mentorship of Steppenwolf, ways of operating, ways of conducting ourselves—all their suggestions are very helpful.”
It’s fortuitous when the proliferation of ensembles and the availability of big theatre venues for showcasing them intersect, as in Chicago—but that’s not always the case. In New Orleans, for example, no fewer than 20 ensemble companies have emerged since 2006. “There seems to be enough energy and creative momentum and a desire to be in this place that keeps people here,” ventures William Bowling, co-artistic director and co-founder of that city’s Goat in the Road Productions. “So we are constantly partnering, sharing and being in communication with these other companies. We need to do this to survive.” The city’s only fully professional company, Southern Rep (recently invited to take up residence at the Contemporary Arts Center, a multidisciplinary warehouse space), has neither the resources nor the real estate to bolster local ensemble work, Steppenwolf-style.
Bowling describes Our Man, a piece about Ronald Reagan, created with co-artistic director Chris Kaminstein. “It took place inside a small Plexiglas box, and Reagan was played by a tennis racket.” Most of the troupe’s pieces take up to six months to create, Bowling explains: “We start from scratch, from an idea, building movement scores and blocking scenes before we end up with any text. We’ll come up with a parameter of scenes, and create 30 minutes of abstract blocking. We’ll go away and put that on the shelf, write for a while, come back with text written collaboratively and individually.”
In addition to the camaraderie among NOLA ensembles, Bowling finds support further afield. Our Man was presented in Pennsylvania by the larger Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble, for example, and the company’s Instant Misunderstanding toured to upstate New York’s NACL Theatre and to the Ko Festival of Performance in Amherst, Mass.. In Amherst, Goat in the Road performed alongside the sound-alike L.A.-based Ghost Road Company, run by Mark Seldis and Katharine Noon, which similarly builds text through improvisations and theatre games.
“We use the road to find presenters,” explains Noon, whose company seldom performs in L.A. these days. In addition to the Ko Festival, Ghost Road has a fruitful relationship with the Polish cultural attaché Joanna Klass, which has led to the upcoming presentation of two Ghost Road works in Warsaw later this year.
International possibilities aside, ensembles are generating vitality on the home front. Something alive and kicking and ready to procreate has found its way from sea to sand to stage, and it’s altering the scope of theatres’ seasons as well as the artistry they aim to nurture. This is simply not the theatre scene as it was 20 years ago, or even 10.
Russell sums it up: “I see this as a new movement, where there’s a sharing of resources in a much larger way.”
Steven Leigh Morris is L.A. Weekly’s theatre critic-at-large.
A just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. If you are able, please join us in this mission by making a donation. As we reckon with the impact of COVID-19, the theatre field needs committed and nuanced journalism. Free and unlimited access to AmericanTheatre.org is one way that we and our publisher, Theatre Communications Group, are eliminating barriers to crucial resources during this crisis. When you support American Theatre and TCG, you support these emergency resources and our long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!