Ensemble Acting Companies: A Different Kind of Life in the Theatre

Back Stage, June 13-19, 2003, pp. 24-27

By Dan Friedman


    We all know that a life in the American theatre is, for most of its actors and directors, a life of uncertainty. It is usually characterized, even for those who manage to earn their livings in it, by stretches of unemployment and a constant search for the next job.   
   New York City, Chicago, Los Angles and other cities are full of young theatre artists bursting with energy and creative vision. Yet the financial and social insecurity that accompanies a life in the American theatre not only brings countless casualties, it also often creates diminished expectations among those who manage to stick with it.    
   Actors, hungry for work, tend to accept any role in any play, grateful to have a job in their chosen profession. Dreams of being able to deepen the creative process beyond what can be accomplished during a six week rehearsal period, of helping to shape a production or a season, of creating something new, of impacting on the direction of the theatre, are all placed in plain brown bags of practicality and put on a back shelf in the closet. When spoken about at all, it is often with a chuckle and a sad shake of the head about the happy idealism of youth.   
   Yet even in our intensely profit-driven economy, in the midst of our “show-biz” theatre with its jobbed-in productions, there are those who have managed to build another kind of life in the theatre. In New York and elsewhere, actors, directors, playwrights and designers have managed to create ensembles, theatres in which groups of artists have found ways of working and creating together over an extended period of time.   
   Ensembles have, of course, played an important role in the development of the modern theatre. From the traveling troupes of the Commedia Dell’Arte in Renaissance Italy and Shakespeare’s men at the Globe through the Moscow Art Theatre, Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble and the Group Theatre here in the U.S. ensembles have given the world some of its greatest theatre. They have been the environments that fostered new styles, new approaches to performance, new ways for the theatre and its audience to connect.    
   Unlike in Europe where government funding encourages the development of ensembles, in the United States the dynamics of the market economy, the widespread opposition to public funding of the arts, and our culture of individualism have mediated against the formation and survival of ensembles. Nonetheless, some have been formed and have survived.   
   According to the Community Arts Network, there are approximately 100 ensemble theatres in the United States today. They range from venerable regional theatres such as the Milwaukee Repertory Company and Houston’s Alley Theatre to politically committed collectives like the San Francisco Mime Troupe and New York’s Irondale Ensemble Project. Some of them—including the Living Theatre, Mabou Mines, The Talking Band and Chicago’s Steppenwolf—have helped to shape the cutting edge of American theatre in the last decades of the 20th Century. Others, deeply rooted in local communities, have flown under the radar for years.     
   A few have very long histories; the Barter Theater of Abingdon, Virginia, for example, is 70 years old. (Although it was not an ensemble for all that time.) Many came into being during that flash of political and cultural creativity known as the sixties. Others, such as New York’s Oberon Theatre Ensemble, were founded in the last few years by the latest wave of theatre graduates flooding into the country’s theatre centers.


An Artistic Home

   These ensemble theatres vary in many ways, including in their understanding of what exactly an ensemble is. 
   Yet whether they produce the classics or experiment with the collaborative creation of new performance pieces, each provides a stable collaborative environment for theatrical activity and growth. Many of those involved with these theatres speak of the ensemble as a creative “home.” 
   “Having an artistic home is invaluable, really,” said Sharon Fogarty, one of the five artistic directors who form the core of the 34-year-old Mabou Mines.  “I’m not worried about where I’m going to get my next job, so I can actually think about what interests me artistically.”  She became an artistic director in 1999 after nearly 20 years of admiring their work and occasionally performing with them.
   “We’re not auditioning everyday. We’ve got a job and we can grow,” said John Hedges, who has been a member of the acting ensemble at the Barter Theatre for five years during which time he has performed in 30 plays and musicals.  “In this context an actor can actually have a life. My wife and I have bought a home and we have a three and a half year old daughter who is growing up in and around the theatre with both of her parents around.”
   Ruth Maleczech, who helped found Mabou Mines in 1970, made much the same point. “The fact that you can do this at all and actually make a living at it and raise a family was the big surprise,” she said. “To be able to that while doing what you really want to do is very rare in the American theatre. It is a gift.”
   The stability that an ensemble provides can have an artistic, as well as personal, impact. 
   “I’ve come to value working with the same people, people whose creativity I admire, over a long period of time, counting on them and building with them,” said Paul Zimet who helped to found New York’s Talking Band in 1974 along with Ellen Maddow and Tina Shepard. They had all worked with the Open Theatre, which helped pioneer the collaborative creation of plays in the sixties. “The way we work and the nature of the shows we create are very connected.  It would be very difficult to give the script to another set of actors and say, ‘Go do this show.’”
   Jim Niesen, artistic director of New York City’s Irondale Ensemble Project, also considers the longevity and continuity a key to the art that Irondale, which he founded 20 years ago with Terry Greiss and Barbara Mackenzie-Wood, creates. It is firmly rooted in improvisation even when they are doing scripted plays. 
   “The work we’re doing only works if you have a company there for a long period of time,” he said. “Our process leads our product, each project is really an accumulation of our entire history.”
   Evalyn Barton, who has been a member of Barter’s ensemble for two years and recently become an associate artistic director, says that working with a group over a long period of time allows for much more development than a typical jobbed-in regional production or show on Broadway allows. She has done both for most of her career. 
   “The conventional level of achievement always comes quickly (in rehearsal). Then we can go further and try new things. Being an ensemble allows us to go much deeper,” she reported while taking a break from directing 1776. “We can challenge each other in the context of knowing that we can fall off the trapeze and be caught.”
    “As an actor, it’s really important to me to have a say in what’s being made,” said Laura Siner, an actor who doubles as marketing director for Oberon, which is based in the Janhus Playhouse at 74th Street and First Avenue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
   Last season Oberon did Of Mice and Men because one of the ensemble members was interested in playing the character Lenny, and he succeed in getting the whole company interested in the play. “Ensemble members can have input into what we’re going to do as artists. You can work to fulfill your vision rather than work to fit into someone else’s vision.  That makes so much difference.” 
   Decision making processes vary in different ensembles. Some groups have a traditional artistic director with the final say. Others function as collectives in which all decisions are made by vote or consensus. Yet across the board the artists involved speak of an increased sense of artistic empowerment.
   “As a Black artist, there are not many theatre companies where I’m not going to have my point of view filtered through someone else’s set of priorities,” reflected Michael Sullivan, a performer with the San Francisco Mime Troupe who is also its chief writer. “If you’re in the Mime Troupe you have your say.”
   At the Milwaukee Rep, which has been an ensemble since 1963, artistic director Joseph Hanreddy meets weekly with the ensemble for what he terms, “research and development” sessions.  They talk about plays they’re interested in, novels they’d like to see adapted to the stage, writers and directors whose work they find interesting. “When we finally announce a season, it’s not a surprise to anyone; sometimes a project may be in development for two or three years,” said Hanreddy. 
   He added that as far as he was concerned the most valuable thing about ensemble work was the deeper involvement of the artists, particularly the actors, in the work. “Ownership of the work is the main thing,” he explained. “It’s our theatre, it’s our audience, it’s our stage, they’re our rehearsal rooms, they’re our projects. It’s a sense of being able to own the work in a much deeper way.”


What It Takes

   Ownership comes with a price tag. 
   Building and maintaining an ensemble in a culture and economy that do not support ensemble efforts takes a huge amount of determination and work—and it’s not for every one. 
   “An ensemble builder is above all is a gym rat,” said Niessen. “You’ve got to be like the guy on the basketball team who stays around after practice shooting hoops until the school janitor throws him out. There has to be no place you’d rather be than in a rehearsal room or back stage. You need to be a lover of the sweaty part of the theatre.”
   Niesen is clearly just such a “gym rat.”  However, love of the theatre is not enough, he added.  In our culture, which is so geared toward “getting,” an ensemble builder has to be someone who is interested in giving.
   “You need to have a sense of, ‘It’s not being about me,’” he said. “It’s about what makes the piece work, what makes the company work. Besides in-born talent, I’m convinced there’s such a thing as being an in-born sharer. It’s a real quality needed in ensemble work.”
   Tony Sportiello, artistic director of the Workshop Theatre Co., sort of a drop-in ensemble in New York City consisting of 170 actors, directors and playwrights who do readings and showcases of new works, fights a never-ending battle with the ethos of getting. “The most challenging thing is keeping everyone together,” he said. “Even with our two new spaces (which opened on East 36th Street in January) there’s just not enough for everyone to get what they want when they want it.”
    Certainly when an ensemble is just beginning, the going can be very tough. “We’re not paying people, so an ensemble member has to be someone who sees the value of having a community in which they can grow,” said Brad Fryman, managing director of The Oberon Theatre Ensemble, which was founded in 1997. “They also have to see the value in having some control over their artistic lives and careers. We get a lot of people who understand those first two things. What is much more rare is understanding the level of work and responsibility it takes to make it happen.”
   What it takes to make it happen varies from ensemble to ensemble, but “just acting” is rarely enough.  The San Francisco Mime Troupe, which has been performing in the parks of the Bay Area since 1959, not only creates its own plays, the performers do all the technical work as well. 
   “On the day of a show, we get up early in the morning, drive to the park, put the set up, have a big lunch together, then do the show, then take the set down,” explained Sullivan. “That’s part of what we want to show the audience. If you want to be in control of your workplace, you have to build it.”
   “You really have to be committed to this type of work,” noted Zimet. “There are so many distractions. If you have talent there’s just so much more money in television and film. Most of us (long term members of the Talking Band) have chosen to work as teachers because we can earn a living without taking away from our theatre work.”
   “You certainly lose the ability to make a great deal of money,” agreed Mabou Mines’ Maleczech. “You have to put in a lot more time than most actors or directors ever dream of putting in. Many more hours over many more years.”
   Even the most well financed ensembles demand a lot from their members.  The Milwaukee Rep, for example, where the average tenure of ensemble members is 10 years and where some actors have worked steadily for 30 years, put up 15 to 17 plays a year.
   The 16 ensemble members of the Barter Theater do eight performances a week of two different plays, plus at any given time they are putting in at least 20 hours a week rehearsing two more plays scheduled to open later in the season. A typical day for a Barter actor lasts about 12 hours, and they do it six days a week, with three weeks off a year.  
   “We get it all done,” laughed Barton. “It nearly kills us, but we’re happy at the end of each day. It some ways it’s an actor’s dream come true; we really use ourselves very, very thoroughly here.”


Footing the Bill

   In addition to hard work and a commitment to giving, ensembles face, as do all non-profit theatres, the on-going challenge of funding themselves. 
   Most of the nation’s regional theatres, which were founded as not-for-profit institutions in the 1950s and ‘60s, modeling themselves on the European theatre system, started out with the intention of maintaining ensembles. Ensembles, however, have proven expensive and most regional theatres have now abandoned the effort, instead bringing in actors from New York or elsewhere for a season, or even more commonly, for a single show. 
   “Our company is now 13; that’s a lot of people,” said Hanreddy, noting that the depth and variety that can be found with an ensemble comes with a cost. “It doesn’t allow us to do too may two or three person plays.”
   Ensembles that have survived have come up with a variety of ways to fund their work. The Mime Troupe’s is perhaps the most direct; they pass the hat after their free outdoor performances. 
   “Our audiences in the park are between two and five thousand people and our income is directly related to how they liked the show,” said Sullivan. “If they liked the show they might give us twenty bucks. If they didn’t like it much, they might give us five, it’s directly related to our work.”
   In addition to their park performances, the Mime Troupe through the 1970s, ‘80s and much of the ‘90s also made money through national tours, primarily to college campuses.  In recent years, however, many colleges are tightening their belts and are less willing to pay for visits from traveling theatres. The result is that the Mime Troupe’s work outside the Bay Area has been considerably circumscribed.  The Troupe, like most other ensembles that have survived for any length of time, has also developed other sources of income, including running a youth theatre for “at risk” youth.
   Indeed, for most ensembles economic survival is achieved through a sometimes complex and fluid combination of grants, private donations, box office receipts and various forms of partnering with local community organizations. 
   A number of ensembles, for example, generate income by working with local public school systems. Such performance work in the schools has been the cornerstone of Irondale’s finances from the beginning. The founders, who met while doing improvisational shows in schools with the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, were able to leverage that experience when starting up in the Big Apple.
   “We found someone at the New York City Board of Education who was really excited about what we were doing,” recalls Niesen. “They wanted a theatre to come in and shake the students up.  The city schools paid the actors’ salaries for going out three mornings a week; the rest of the time we were able to develop theatre pieces.”
   Early on Irondale created plays for the schools, now more of their work in the educational system consists of leading workshops and helping the students to create performances of their own. They are currently doing similar work with prisoners on Rikers Island as well.
   Other ensembles that work regularly with local school systems include the Cornerstone Theater Company in Los Angeles, The Dell’Arte Company in Blue Lake, California, the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, and the Jump-Start Performance Company in San Antonio, Texas.
   In addition to working in the schools, many ensemble theatres work to bring shows to and do workshops with local community organizations. The Carpetbag Theatre of Knoxville, Tennessee, which was founded in 1969, has, for example, done projects in the last few years with the city’s Sexual Assault Crisis Center, the East Tennessee Coalition Against Killing, African American Appalachian Arts Inc., Knoxville College, Moses Teen Center, the Center for Literacy Studies at the University of Tennessee, the Beck Cultural Center, and the Phyllis Wheatly YWCA, among others.
   “Groups that have been successful over an extended period of time have a commitment to the community as well as the company,” said Robert Leonard, the founding artistic director of The Road Company, an ensemble theatre based in Johnson City, Tennessee.  He is a professor in the Department of Theatre at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia and a founder of the Community Arts Network, an information and communications resource for community-based theatres.
   “You can’t fabricate the connection between a theatre and its community,” he added. “It’s about finding that wonderful commonality of cause and interest.”


Ensemble and Community

   Indeed, for many involved with ensemble theatres the connection to community is an essential part of their life in the theatre. 
   Hanreddy spoke of the pleasure the audience in Milwaukee gets out of seeing actors appear in wildly different roles year after year, sometime decade after decade.
   “The actors here get to know the audience and the audience gets to know the actors,” he explained. “That brings a whole other dimension to the theatre experience. Quite separate from what a play has to say, one of the pleasures of watching a play is appreciating the virtuosity of the acting. … Part of the anticipation our audience each season is seeing particular actors do very different roles than she or he have done before.”
   Fryman said he is happy with Oberon’s move from the theatre district to the Upper East Side because downtown, “people were always in motion and community creation couldn’t happen. … Here there are people who want us in the neighborhood and we’re working to make them not just our audience, but our community. … If we concentrate on community, we just might be able to succeed without becoming the Roundabout, which used to be an ensemble but now jobs out all their talent.”
   Zimet said that for The Talking Band ensemble work and connecting to an audience, to a community, go hand-in-hand. “Often ensemble theatres are thought of as some sort of esoteric or inaccessible form of theatre,” he said. “But for us experimentation and ensemble creation is about making work that is fresh and exciting for an audience.”
   “You got to have a passion for where you are doing theatre, otherwise how are you going to see yourself through the bad times?” asked Barton who left a four-year stint with Les Miserables on Broadway to work with the Barter Theatre. “If there’s one thing about Barter, it’s that we care about each other and we care about the community. I’m 55 years old and I’m just getting this—theatre, to flourish, needs to be rooted in community. It’s about home.”
   Her colleague at the Barter, John Hedges, added: “When you’ve been here for a while like my wife and I, you run into audience members in the grocery store or the barbershop and we talk about the plays they’ve seen, we talk about theatre. We’re part of the community here. They take care of us. We are their actors.”


Living Legacy

   It’s a far cry from a typical New York “open call” to the “call of community.’ Yet it is a call being answered by ensemble theatres around the country—and there are some indications that the ensemble movement is consolidating and growing.
   In recent years ensemble theatres, many of which have labored in relative isolation for many years, have made moves to reach out to each other. The Network of Ensemble Theaters, a consortium with 22 member theatres, was formed a few years ago.  As part of its goal of facilitating communication and exchange among its members, the Network holds a festival each summer at which the member theatres lead workshops and perform show for each other.
   The Community Arts Network, founded in 1999 by Art in the Public Interest and the Virginia Tech Department of Theatre Arts, is a research organization that studies the work of ensemble theatres. It also works, as does NET, to increase communication between those who are attempting to build a different kind of life in the theatre. 
   “There seems to be a revival of ensemble work over the last five years. More and more groups are trying to work collaboratively and collectively,” observed Zimet. “Young people looking at the scene are frustrated by their choices—or the lack of choices—they have.”  He credited the work of New York University’s Experimental Theatre Wing and other university programs with “teaching ensemble work and the values of collaborative creation.”
   Citing Mabou Mines’ resident artists program, Fogarty added, “We interested in keeping this way of working alive and flourishing in the next generation of artists.”
   Concluded Leonard, “If you like the idea of having relevance and interconnectivity with a community, ensemble work can be very rewarding. The art you make really blossoms and is nourished by having a home, both artistically and in a larger community.”