We can all feel that ‘ensemble’ suggests something highly desirable. We can all instantly feel what it isn’t. No one can say what it is…. The proof of the pudding is in the eating.”
That’s iconic director Peter Brook’s response to John Britton’s question, “What is an ensemble?”—evoking Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous “I know it when I see it” definition of obscenity, albeit in a positive context. And while Britton’s new book Encountering Ensemble goes to great lengths exploring exactly what “it” is, in the end, he agrees that the concept defies easy description.
Whatever it is, ensemble has many passionate devotees. As of this writing, 250 companies belong to the U.S.-based Network of Ensemble Theaters (NET). Countless more can be found all over the world, particularly in Europe and Russia, where the roots of contemporary ensemble run deepest. Britton’s Encountering Ensemble is one of three new books on the subject, each of which, like individual theatre companies, plays best to a particular audience.
If you direct, or aspire to direct, an ensemble of any sort, Ensemble Theatre Making: A Practical Guide makes a friendly and helpful adviser. Authors Rose Burnett Bonczek and David Storck, both theatre professors and directors with extensive backgrounds in improvisation, leave the artistic choices to the reader and focus on what it takes to recruit, lead and maintain a productive ensemble.
As a result, the book ends up being mainly about managing personalities and creating healthy group dynamics. But that’s not a bad thing. In fact, it stems from the simple but hard-to-dispute premise that groups of people who trust and support one another usually make better theatre. Just as certain atmospheric conditions make dramatic thunderstorms more likely, Bonczek and Storck argue that the right social atmosphere can help spark flashes of artistic brilliance, and that a large part of ensemble leadership involves cultivating that conductive atmosphere.
Despite the clinical-sounding title, it’s an enjoyable read. The authors’ breezy, conversational tone falls somewhere between Keith Johnstone’s Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre and Charna Halpern, Del Close and Kim Johnson’s Truth in Comedy, two classic guides to improvisation that this book nicely complements. Personal anecdotes, liberally sprinkled into the main text, help keep the conversation lively. The writers are unflinchingly frank, but never in a way that would scare the reader into looking for a desk job.
The authors start with a few broad but satisfying attributes of successful ensembles, identify several fundamental, deep-rooted social fears that can get in the way of the work, and invite the reader to examine his or her innate leadership style. Then comes an extensive tour through the audition and rehearsal process, in which we meet a gallery of archetypal performers that tend to turn up in ensembles.
Though the names sound simplistic (“The Complainer,” “The Wounded Puppy,” “The Sparkplug”), the depictions of these archetypes are surprisingly specific and recognizable. Especially useful are “red flag” comments that are easy to dismiss at first but may actually signal deeper problems down the road. One passage, for instance, breaks down all the ways in which sentences beginning with “I heard…” may portend danger.
Not that all the archetypes are negative; some represent ideal and essential team members, while others could swing either way over time. The authors readily acknowledge that these abstractions have their limits, but it’s that very abstractness that makes them useful lodestars for navigating real-life conflicts, in which it’s easy to get bogged down in the immediate circumstances and lose sight of larger trends that may be at work. Aside from personality types, the book also includes nuanced strategies for dealing with common disruptive behaviors, from chronic lateness to drug abuse.
It should be noted that not all ensembles endow any single leader with the level of authority this book presumes. But, leaving aside a few specifics, its insights can benefit collaborative leaders and company members as well. In fact, although aimed at theatremakers, it’s a useful reference for anyone guiding a group of people toward a common goal.
Both John Britton’s Encountering Ensemble and Duška Radosavljeviì’s The Contemporary Ensemble: Interviews with Theatre-Makers cover more conceptual territory, which broadens the conversation but narrows the audience. Both books may appeal most to readers with a passionate interest in ensemble craft and process, and with a substantial knowledge of its practice across the globe.
Radosavljeviì’s is primarily a collection of interviews she conducted over several years with members of ensembles all over the world. She delves into artistic goals and rehearsal processes—both in general and with respect to particular works—as well as the mechanics of how each ensemble operates (summarized in an interesting and unique table comparing the methods of all 22 companies profiled).
The interviews were all conducted specifically for the book, so there’s consistency and continuity across the otherwise wide-ranging discussions. Many anecdotes will be vivid and thought-provoking to even a casual reader: Katarina Pejoviì and Boris Bakal of Croatia’s the Shadow Casters, for example, describe how they won over a paying audience after revealing that the show they came to see had not actually been written yet. Dan Rothenburg of Philadelphia’s Pig Iron Theatre Company describes co-directing Shut Eye with the Open Theater’s Joseph Chaikin, who had become aphasic from a stroke and had difficulty understanding or reproducing basic sentence structure.
Other elements of the book can be disorienting, especially in the aggregate. At times, the theoretical commentary could slip comfortably into one of Woody Allen’s absurdist faux-lit-crit essays of the 1970s. Radosavljeviì explains, for example, that Poland’s Song of the Goat Theatre “[has] developed a singular aesthetic and training methodology which combines movement, text, song and voice through the so-called ‘co-ordination technique’ rooted in Bral and Zurbrzycki’s personal practice of Buddhism.” That may be the most succinct way to put it, but with equally abstruse ideas casually popping up every few pages, I pity the overwhelmed BFA student asked to plow through the book in a weekend.
The same effect occurs in Britton’s Encountering Ensemble, which begins with several essays on ensemble theatre history and its seminal practitioners, then proceeds to firsthand accounts from contemporary artists (surprisingly, duplicating only one of Radosavljeviì’s contributors). John Collins of Elevator Repair Service not only offers a vivid recollection of creating one of the company’s signature projects, Gatz, but also speculates about his non-authoritative directing process and how the group has survived constant turnover. Britton himself describes the remarkably rich and challenging variety of exercises that his own troupe, DUENDE, has built around the simple act of throwing and catching a ball.
As promised, though, the primary goal of Britton’s book is to unpack the definition of ensemble, finding clues in theory, history and modern practice. Some common threads emerge. Ensembles favor egalitarianism over star-making, encourage overlapping artistic roles, blur the line between process and product, speak of “devising” work rather than “producing” or “writing” it, view preexisting text (if any) as inspiration rather than instruction, engage in shared training, adhere to mutually accepted codes of conduct and maintain some degree of continuity in personnel.
Still, the details vary wildly from one group to the next, and, as in Radosavljeviì’s collection, comparing dozens of companies in rapid succession can feel both overwhelming and strangely repetitive. One limitation is the lack of a crucial reference point: the experience of the ensemble itself. Ensemble performances thrive on immediacy and audiovisual complexity, and often intentionally defy verbal description. Even voracious theatregoers will have witnessed only some these groups in action; typical audience members, a few at most. In all other cases, they’re left to engage with the question of “how’d they do that?” without really knowing what they did.
For reasons like this, attempting to devour either of these volumes in a short span of time may feel much like eating caviar from a cereal bowl. The rarefied flavor becomes overwhelming, and the contents difficult to digest. That’s not to detract from the impressive scholarship, in-depth case studies and insightful interviews with practitioners around the world that these volumes contain. It’s just that they’re best sampled chapter by chapter, with ample time to reflect, experiment and discuss before taking another bite.
Justin Warner, a founding member of Washington Improv Theater, D.C.’s leading improv troupe, is a journalist, lyricist and librettist living in
New York City.
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