The Ensemble Theatre Movement

by Laurie McCants

in National Conference

Post image for The Ensemble Theatre Movement

(Photo credit: Michal Daniel)

(Laurie McCants gave the following remarks during the general assembly entitled Defining a Movement: Exploring Movement of the Past, Present and Future at the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas)

Hi y’all.

Excuse me just a minute. (Air kiss to Adrian Hall).

Back in 1978, when my fellow young fools and I decided to make our ensemble, we wrote a letter to the Foundation for the Extension and Development of the American Professional Theatre. It was, I suppose, a very foolish letter. Basically we said, “We want to start a theatre. What should we do?” They sent us a packet of information, including some case studies, one of which, I feel pretty sure, was about Trinity Rep. The reason I feel pretty sure that Trinity Rep was a case that we studied is this: we have a resident acting company, we present a balance of world premiere, contemporary, and classical work, and we have a long-standing educational outreach program which we call “Project Discovery.” Sound familiar? Grateful to you, groundbreaker. Thanks, fellow fool.

So. On to the topic at hand. The ensemble theatre movement. Allow me to digress. One of my fellow ensemble members, Elizabeth Dowd, had a mom who lived out her later years in Bloomsburg with her daughter, so we all became Mama Pat’s grown-up adopted kids. Mama Pat was from Mississippi, a true Southern lady, all shiny and bristly, salty and sweet. But there were certain topics that a lady just did not talk about. Example– Elizabeth was in 5th grade, working on a science project. She had picked a petunia from the yard, and she brought it in to do her demonstration for her mother in the living room. “Here’s the pistol. Here’s the stamin. Here’s the ovary.” Elizabeth remembers that Mama Pat seemed awfully nervous during this. And when Elizabeth finished, there was this pause. And finally Mama Pat said, “You know, you, Betsy, are not unlike the petunia…” And that was the launch into the facts of life talk.

So, now let me launch. Let me tell you some facts of life regarding the American theatre ecosystem. And I won’t beat about the bush. I’m here to tell you something a lot of you know already, that it’s a fact of life that ensembles are an essential part of the American theatre ecosystem. Mark Valdez, leader of the Network of Ensemble Theaters, says this all the time. Right, Mark? And he’s right. Our entire theatre field, all of it, flourishes as a polyculture. We need all kinds of theatre, all over the field, if any of our theatres expect to grow. We need the petunias, the native corn, the heirloom tomatoes, the bananas, the plantains, the kale, the hybrid roses, the cilantro, and the bees—bless them, pray we find a way to save them. As Todd London said recently in one of his ringing exhortations about the state of American theatre: “Take a tip from the apples: in art as in botany, monoculture leads to decline; biodiversity and cross-pollination are necessary for our survival. The same is true of a democratic art—and none is more democratic, in its bones, than theater.”

My fellow founders of the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble and I, we were kids of the 60s. We had, and still have, a deep and textured love of democracy. As teens, we were inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, the anti-war movement, the guerilla theatre movement, the experimental theatre movement—the Living Theatre, the Negro Theatre Ensemble, the Performance Group, the Open Theatre, Bread and Puppet, Free Southern Theatre, El Teatro Campesino! In college, in 1974, I took a seminar in 20th century American Experimental and Activist Theatre and I can still see the page in my notebook where I wrote “El Teatro Campesino!!!! Look them up!!!” Excuse me. (Air kiss to Luis Valdez). Grateful to you, groundbreaker!

So, back in 1978, when my fellow fools and I founded the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble, we already knew that we were part of a movement. We were aware of other contemporary ensembles that had already created a body of work: Mabou Mines, the Wooster Group, San Francisco Mime Company, the Talking Band, Pickle Family Circus. Our influences not only included all those wonderful, ornery experimentalists and activists, but also those who had gone before: the Group Theatre, the Provincetown Players, Eva Le Galliene’s Civic Repertory Theatre, Hallie Flanagan’s Federal Theatre Project, the Moscow Art Theatre, the Meiningen Ensemble, Moliere’s company, the commedia troupes, Shakespeare’s players. Yes, we were inspired by not only by our contemporaries like Steppenwolf, but by bunch of dead guys, and a handful of dead gals. Founding mothers and fathers of our movement. We remember you.

It turned out the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble had landed on fertile soil. Our town and surrounding region supported us. They still do. We planted ourselves there in our town, and in many ways, our isolation has been a blessing. But we also yearned to break out of our isolation. We started coming to TCG conferences, where we began to find that there were others like us. We began to find each other in the hallways, on the outskirts of the picnic tents, in the far dark corners of the cash bars. We did what good kids of the 60s do, we began to organize. In those days before the internet, we made phone calls to each other, we wrote letters to each other, we visited each other. When the internet arrived, we were all emailing each other and occupying chat rooms. We were from all over the country. Some of us were already venerable. Some of us were and still are scrappy. Most of us are still around (we are, after all, as Todd London calls us, the oxymorons, “established and alternative”). We created the Network of Ensemble Theaters. Those early organizers included: Actors Gang, Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble, Carpetbag Theatre Company, Cornerstone, Dell’Arte International, Double Edge, HartBeat, The Independent Eye, Irondale Ensemble, The Road Company (we remember you), Roadside, Sandglass, Theatre de la Jeune Lune (we remember you), Theatre Grottesco, Touchstone, and Traveling Jewish Theatre (we remember you). Our movement grew and we had gatherings. We made a manifesto (some of us were kids of the 60s, remember). We had more gatherings. We have great gatherings. Hey, you out there who’ve been to NET gatherings, can I get a witness?

How we define ensemble was something we struggled with for a few years. But we decided to take a lesson from the apples and deliberately made our definition as polycultural as possible. Because that’s what we are. Polycultural. Diverse. Some of us are dedicated to developing distinctive regional voices, some of us are primarily engaged in social and political change. Some of us are on the technological cutting edge, some of us are really into sock puppets. Some of us unpack contemporary culture, some of us dig deep into ancient traditions. Some of us do new plays, some of us re-animate the classics. Some of us perform in storefronts, some of us perform in cyberspace. Some of us are devoted to multi-disciplinary image-making, some of us are devoted to text. Some of us make work really fast, some of us take years in creating a piece. Some of us are international, some of us are locally-sourced. What we share is that we are artist-centered and we engage in collaborative process. We honor artists and we honor the collaborative process. And through the NET, we are more and more collaborating with each other. There’s a lot of cross-pollination going on.

That said, here’s NET’s definition of ensemble: “An ensemble is a group of individuals dedicated to collaborative creation, committed to working together consistently over years to develop a distinctive body of work and practices.” NET is deeply committed to supporting the growing movement of collaborative performance makers, uplifting the values intrinsic to ensemble process: transparency, mutual respect, equity, inclusion, and democratic structures.

Along the way, we’ve gathered up a lot of ensembles. Here’s a partial list, a sampling of names of ensembles that I haven’t already mentioned. This partial list includes those who’ve been active in NET in some way or another and are current members. I’ve also thrown in some ensembles whose names I think are really cool. Here we go: American Blues Theatre, Annex Theatre, Arial Dance Theatre, ArtFarm, ArtSpot, Beau Jest, Bedlam, Blessed Unrest, Bond Street, Buffalo Soundpainting, Carpetbag Brigade, Chance Theatre, Cleveland Public Theatre, Critical Mass, Cultural Odyssey, DNA Works, Dad’s Garage, dog & pony DC, Flux Theatre Ensemble, foolsFURY, Grand Guignolers, Goat in the Road, Ghost Road, Hand 2 Mouth, Honolulu Theatre for Youth, IBEX Puppetry, In the Mix, Jump-Start, Junebug, Ko Theatre Works, Lookingglass, Los Angeles Poverty Department, Maryland Ensemble Theatre, Mondo Bizarro, MUGABEE (Men Under Guidance Acting Before Early Extinction), NaCl, New Paradise Laboratories, New World Performance Laboratory, NeoFuturists, Olive Dance Theatre, Out of Hand, Pangea World Theatre, PearlDamour, Performance Project, Pig Iron, Ping Chong & Co, Playbuilders of Hawaii, Pontine Theatre, Post Natyam Collective, Progress Theatre, PURE Theatre, Quest Visual Theatre, Ragged Wing Ensemble, Rude Mechs, Salty Shakespeare, Sandbox, Single Carrot, SITI Company, Sledgehammer, Sojourn, Son of Semele, Strange Attractor, Strike Anywhere Performance Ensemble, TeAda Productions, Team Sunshine, Teatro Americano, Theatre Ninjas, Theatre Novi Most, Theater Offensive, Theatre of Yugen, Theatre Simple, Universes, Watts Village Theatre Company, Workhorse, Wreckio Ensemble, Vortex.

That’s a lot of names. It’s by no means everyone. NET membership now totals¬¬ close to 200, urban and rural, all over the country. So I’ve been asked in this talk to say how I define a movement. Hey, y’all, do a wave. There you go. That’s our movement.

NET is a movement that moves. Literally. We’re wrapping up our latest cycle of MicroFests, which took us to Detroit, to Appalachia (urban as in Knoxville TN and rural as in Harlan County KY), to New Orleans and it will end up next week in Honolulu. Photos, mixtapes, response essays written in partnership with Animating Democracy are all on our website. Look it up.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite take-aways from this MicroFest journey so far. In Detroit, we saw an amazing work in progress by an artist collective called Complex Movements, led by a hip-hop lyricist/activist named Invincible. Their piece, called Beware of the Dandelions, explores the relationship between complex science and social movements. It’s an immersive interactive performance inspired by their mentor, the great Detroit activist/artist Grace Lee Boggs (Look her up!), and the current scientific study of the phenomenon of “emergence,” which investigates how change occurs in nature, and how those lessons might apply to social change. Through music, creative technology and rhyme, Invincible and her collaborators draw the parallels between the forces that cause a field of fireflies to light up in synchronous rhythm to the grassroots movements springing up to rebuild Detroit. They both are emergent forces, or as Invincible says, “networks leading to communities of practice, out of which suddenly and surprisingly emerge systems of influence that produce sustained change.”

Pretty neat definition of a movement, I think. The ensemble movement is a back-to-nature movement, if you believe that the nature of theatre is grounded in the collaborative work of its artists and that theatre, like democracy, thrives on diversity. As Invincible says, “From the ground up, say let it grow… From the ground up, say let it grow… From the ground up, say let it grow!”

LAURIE McCANTS co-founded the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble in 1978. Her original work includes THE ALEXANDRIA CARRY-ON (with composer/performer Theo Bleckmann); OUR SHADOWS, a bilingual puppet play (with Egyptian theatre WAMDA) ; and SUSQUEHANNA: MIGHTY, MUDDY, CROOKED RIVER OF THE LONG REACH. Recently, she played Winnie in HAPPY DAYS, and directed BATTLES OF FIRE AND WATER at Perseverance Theatre. Her solo show, INDUSTRIOUS ANGELS, opened the 2011 Ko Festival of Performance in Amherst, Massachusetts. She’s on the Board of the Network of Ensemble Theaters. In 2010, she was named an actor of “Distinguished Achievement” through the Theatre Communications Group/Fox Foundation Fellowship.