I am the founding artistic director of Theater Grottesco, a Lecoq-based company formed in Paris in 1983. We create devised physical theater, producing one show a year. When we moved to the United States in 1985, we approached American regional theaters with a win-win proposition of collaboration between artist-based ensembles and regional theater producers. We were bringing a new kind of theater to American audiences that seemed to resonate especially well with young adults, along with a broad palate of outreach activities and professional training.
Ensembles are often considered a research and development wing of American theater. Theater Grottesco‘s work is generated through many months of rehearsal. Performing just one production a year, we have never had our own theater. In contrast, regional theaters work hard to maintain buildings and audience subscriptions while producing 5-7 shows a year or more. We imagined, perhaps naively, taking one of those slots and saving the host theater some production expenses, while helping to develop a new generation of audiences and expanding the skills of local performers and directors.
We’ve had two collaborations with regional theaters and one with a New York presenter that are worth sharing. In the late 1980’s we did a 10 day residency with The Attic Theater, Detroit’s largest regional theater at the time. The residency included a week of public performances and a 10 day masterclass for Attic company members. Full houses led us to believe that we could sustain a longer run the next year and continue to build this working relationship. But it wasn’t meant to be. The Attic closed its doors before we could collaborate on a second production.
In the early 1990s, we filled a subscription slot at Chicago’s Wisdom Bridge. We brought a farce that had been receiving rave reviews and standing ovations on national tours. Our first obstacle was negotiating a union waiver, managed by the Wisdom Bridge’s knowledgeable staff and a union representative willing to make it work for the benefit of us all. Then other obstacles emerged. We never got the full details and I don’t wish to misspeak but problems arose around marketing which left audiences ill-prepared for our work. The result was an unsatisfying experience all around and of course, a great learning experience.
Ensemble – regional theatre collaboration is not simple. Each organization has its own culture. Each regional theatre has its own audience and marketing machine, and their own way of running the space. In an ensemble, tech, administrative and artistic teams might all be the same group of people. In the regionals, they are compartmentalized and each group might understand or support a collaboration with varying enthusiasm. The union has grown up around a regional model that makes moving from regional to regional much easier than crossing the murky line into the world of ensembles where artists wear many hats, work is often pushing the boundaries of form and challenging to describe, and design and tech can be intricately unconventional.
Towards the end of the 1990’s we performed at the New Victory Theater in NYC, just Off-Broadway and right across the street from The Lion King. Again, there were marketing issues that dampened the experience for the audience and prevented a healthy dialogue with the press. Tech issues arose. The union only agreed to let us install our very complicated set when it was clear that we weren’t going to be ready to open on time with the Grottesco ensemble members directing from the lip of the stage and the poor union hands trying to figure out which end fit where and what piece had to go in first.
Despite the complications, I’m still a strong advocate for partnerships between ensembles, regional theaters and the larger presenters because I firmly believe that the potential benefits for us all – especially for U.S. audiences – far outweigh the obstacles. I have heard stories of other ensembles running into similar experiences and I have also heard stories of very successful collaborations. Like scientists conducting a study with enough empirical data to draw acceptable conclusions, I think we can now say that whenever two organizations collaborate, there are potentially two very different cultures trying to enact a single project. It is almost guaranteed that conflicts in working styles will arise and that communication will be tested. But we are artists, we solve problems. We learn from our experiences. Unfamiliar territory becomes familiar and we can begin to anticipate the obstacles and either avoid them or move through them with grace.
I would like to see a new wave of organizational collaboration that will enervate our audiences and spark an evolution of the art form.
Have you engaged in a regional theatre/ensemble or ensemble/major presenter collaboration? What were the challenges and opportunities you faced? What would need to change in our field to make these kinds of collaborations more successful and wide spread? Share your thoughts in the comments below, and we’ll take them into the room with us at the Conference.
John Flax is the founding artistic director of Theater Grottesco and has been creating devised works since 1979 including works with the Theatre de la Jeune Lune, London’s Theatre Complicite and San Francisco Choreographer Della Davidson. Flax has taught internationally, was a board member of the Network of Ensemble Theaters and is a graduate of the Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris where he also studied with Phillipe Gaulier. He holds a BA in Environmental Studies from Prescott College and an ABD Ed.D in Anthropology and Philosophy. In 1975, he led a 2,000 mile kayaking expedition across Canada.