Ensemble Theater Today

Pamela Gregg

Ensembles are marked by a sustained commitment to collaboration..... The ensemble process allows for the development of a distinctive artistic vision and language unique to all artists involved.

— excerpt from the Flintridge Foundation theater mission

The most unique aspect of ensemble work is that the primary decision-making power rests in the hands of the artists. Ensemble theater is the antithesis of the corporate model that dominates certain theatrical landscapes in America today. Our resources are dedicated to supporting artists and the artistic process.

— excerpt from the Network of Ensemble Theaters mission

Ensemble theaters are hotbeds of artistic exploration and experimentation, yet this form of theater making is not well understood, appreciated, documented, or funded in the United States. Change is underway, however, in large part due to the grassroots efforts of ensemble artists to create the Network of Ensemble Theaters (NET). Among other things, the Network's mission statement says, “NET is sparked by the vital and enduring international heritage of collective theater making.” Few people know that Shakespeare and Molière worked in ensembles.

Founded in 1996 by a consortium of eight companies from around the country with seed money from the National Endowment for the Arts, NET has grown to nearly forty ensembles that have been convening biannually for a festival and conference. The gatherings have provided ensembles with opportunities to address the needs of their field and of individual companies. For instance, ensemble methodologies are seldom taught in this country's academic institutions, and there is scant documentation or scholarly treatment of their contributions to help train artists or teach a complete history of theater. At NET's encouragement and expressed interest, writer Ferdinand Lewis took on two projects to begin to remedy this situation. He edited Ensemble Works, an anthology of ensemble-created plays that will be published by Theatre Communications Group in 2004, and authored a book about American ensembles, entitled Ensemble Theater Works: Traditions, Approaches, Strategies, intended for future publication.

Among NET's other accomplishments is increased artistic exchange. One such example is a powerful collaboration between Touchstone and Cornerstone theaters, with the participation of artists from the Irondale and Bloomsburg theater ensembles to create Steelbound, a play about former steelworkers in Pennsylvania. Other key priorities are documenting and archiving ensemble productions; encouraging artistic and organizational mentoring and peer learning; promoting regional and national touring; improving critical understanding of ensemble work; increasing the awareness of the number and diversity of ensembles; and advocating for the ensemble genre within the theater community.

The Network of Ensemble Theaters will host its most ambitious festival to date in Santa Fe, New Mexico, October 19-24, 2004. NET has been able to expand its efforts thanks to a $100,000 unresricted grant from the Ford Foundation for the festival, and $30,000 from Flintridge Foundation to present ensembles from California, Oregon, and Washington. Organized by NET members, the festival will be packed from morning to evening with mainstage productions from some of the best ensembles in the United States and potentially a few international ensemble companies, as well as lecture-demonstrations, master classes, workshops, symposia, and artistic “interventions.” The festival is open to the general public from New Mexico and national theater-going audiences, artists, presenters, critics, funders, academics, and others interested in creating community through art, dialogue, and celebration.

The grassroots nature of NET and the steady growth of its festival over eight years are fundamental strengths. This is an artist-driven effort to form a “collective of collectives” that serves ensembles as a whole. The forthcoming festival aims to raise the profile of ensemble theaters and educate the public about their unique combination of attributes. Ensembles are characterized by artistic excellence and experimentation; new play development and new interpretations of classics; deep community connections and civic engagement; indigenous artistic expression from many communities whether defined by place, race, class, aesthetics, gender, or other; and the value of artistic process over time.

Few people understand the last point: the importance of the time required to create ensemble productions. Even Shakespeare and Molière typically took a year to complete a new play, and who can predict their accomplishments had they not worked with ensembles. Among NET ensembles, it is not uncommon for a piece to require twelve to twenty-four months to create. (In fact, one ensemble calculated that each minute of a final production required twenty hours of development.) Related to this expenditure of human resources — almost always grossly under-funded — is the fact that the majority of ensemble plays run in their local venue for four to six weeks, and often are not produced again. The NET hopes to redress this loss to our culture by showcasing ensemble productions at the festival, promoting touring opportunities for them, and generating support for the creation and distribution of new ensemble pieces.

For many ensembles, touring is an essential part of the work and can extend the life of a performance from a four to six week run to months and even years. These companies find that audiences reached through touring are often a critical artistic and financial support system. Unfortunately, recent economic downturns have severely curtailed the touring market, putting this source of earned income into jeopardy.

A 1980s NEA program dedicated to ensembles was eliminated by budget cuts. Since then, no national funding program has been available for ensembles. Most ensembles rely on support from their local foundations and compete with other organizations for artistic grants from funders such as the NEA and Rockefeller Multi-Cultural Arts Production program.

The mix of earned and contributed income that ensembles cobble together often falls short of their needs. Most of their grants support arts education, outreach, audience development, and capital improvements. While this funding meets important needs, ensembles often struggle to fulfill their primary mandate — creating and presenting theater. Budgetary shortfalls are often so severe that artists cannot be paid, or if they are, they receive pennies on the dollar. Some young ensembles are exploring for-profit alternatives; one ensemble, for instance, runs a coffee shop by day to support their ensemble work at night.

Despite this gloomy picture, support for ensembles is gradually changing. In recent years, we have begun to see ensembles performing on Broadway, which indicates a capacity for commercial success and its commensurate compensation. The Ford Foundation's support gives hope that other national and regional foundations will begin to recognize the merits of ensembles.

Creativity and artistic excellence first drew Flintridge to ensembles. We believe that ensembles' emphasis on experimentation and learning in the atmosphere of an artistic laboratory is critical to the health of the theater community overall. Our dissatisfaction with the floating nature of the labor force in the theater arts also directed our interest to ensembles. This shortchanges both artists and communities. We see ensembles as an answer to deepening the conversation among artists and between communities and artists. Overall, we want to support the long arcs of time that are integral to creating new work, and we fund the process of theater in its earliest stages of development. This gift of time — the time to experiment and search, to play and create — is essential to the ensemble process.

At the 2003 GIA conference, a roundtable session on ensemble theaters featured a lively discussion among funders and ensemble practitioners. The following excerpts from the conversation are evidence of both reasons for and challenges in supporting ensemble work.

In general, our culture is trained to honor the individual genius. But there is such a thing as group genius which is built from the notion that the group can create something entirely unique and powerful and which is distinct from what the individual can create. And it is from this that the ensemble model is built.

— Theresa Chavez, About Production

Whether because of the artistic urgency of the work or the new innovations in governance and organizational structures, ensembles are emerging as an increasingly vibrant and important part of the theater field. Young people especially are finding the unique rewards of working in an ensemble setting and are creating or turning to existing ensembles in greater numbers.

— Ben Cameron, Theatre Communications Group

The commitment to people and craft over time explains why ensembles are attractive to young artists.

— Michael Fields, The Dell'Arte Company

Funding ensembles is like funding individual artists; ensembles are about the people.

— Pamela Gregg, Flintridge Foundation

There is a deep disconnect between the theater sector and presenting sector. The two party's language and issues are different, and presenters do not know the work. This has meant that, in most instances, ensembles have to become their own producer.”

— Olga Garay, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation

There are challenges to supporting ensembles. For instance, ensembles typically have long development periods, often precluding them from one-year grants, and thus having less opportunity for support.

— Angie Kim, Flintridge Foundation

For more information about NET, visit www.ensembletheaters.net or contact Terry Greiss at Irondale Ensemble Project, 718-488-9233, terry@irondale.intranets.com.

For more information about ensemble theater, see:

  1. The Performing Communities section of the Community Arts Network www.communityarts.net, which contains ten critical writing pieces based on the Grassroots Ensemble Theater Research Project.
  2. Frye Burnham, Linda. “Community Building: An Undiscovered Arts Mainstream,” an essay commissioned for the 2002 GIA conference, “Creative Connections,” and published in the GIA Reader, vol. 14,1.
  3. Leonard, Robert H. and Kilkelly, Ann. “Knowing the Secrets behind the Laughter: Findings of the Grassroots Ensemble Theater Research Project,” February 2003. http://www.communityarts.net/readingroom/archivefiles/2003/03/knowing_the_sec.php.
  4. Lewis, Ferdinand. “A Most Ingenious Paradox.” American Theatre, November 2002, pp. 28-30.
  5. Lewis, Ferdinand. “In Sync?” American Theatre, May/June 2000, pp. 24-27.