In this series, David Dudley looks at the different models of theatre education around the country through interviews, with the hopes that a new student will have an easier time finding the model that works for them.
Colleen Sullivan is a theatre director and teacher, mostly in the NYC area. Currently, she is a Visiting Theatre Professor at Gettysburg College. Her artistic focus is ensemble theatre, Shakespeare, and new play development, working whenever she can with NYC’s Ensemble Studio Theatre. She is currently directing Clare Barron’s Obie-winning play You Got Older and with her wee ensemble, Duomuži, creating a two-man Antony & Cleopatra.
Amanda McRaven is the founding Artistic Director of Los Angeles ensemble theatre company Fugitive Kind, for which she won a 2014 Ovation award for Best Director. A Fulbright scholar in community-based performance, she spent two years in New Zealand working with refugees, incarcerated youth, and multi-cultural groups of all ages. She teaches at California State University Northridge. Currently she is creating with her company Shine, Darkly, Illyria, a modern fable inspired by Twelfth Night.
Thadd McQuade is a director, teacher, and designer whose theatrical interests range from Shakespeare to the Avant-Garde. Based in Virginia, for the last twenty-five years Thadd has led workshops in Shakespeare, movement, and composition for high schools, colleges, and professional theatres in the US and abroad. Thadd has performed, directed, and taught for the American Shakespeare Center (1993-2005), and is the founder of the award-winning Foolery Theater.
David: When was Make Trouble founded? When did you join?
Thadd: Like most good things, this was years in the making, largely in bars, cars on road-trips, and empty theatre spaces after the close of a show. Things really clicked when Colleen brought the three of us together in a program she created for the Shakespeare Academy at Stratford in Stratford, Connecticut over the last couple of years. The Academy ultimately decided it wanted to go in a different artistic direction, but we thought the structure that Colleen had created was too valuable to waste, and could in fact be taken further and deeper.
Colleen: The Stratford program was a reflection of the last fourteen years of my artistic life, which was this weird and wonderful mix of Shakespeare and devising and ensemble, Thadd being an important early influence. When I was in grad school at Sarah Lawrence College, I started combining the devising techniques I was learning from two of my mentors there, David Neumann and Dan Hurlin, with Shakespeare. It worked like mad. Bringing Thadd and Amanda on board in Stratford was this perfect coming around full circle.
Amanda: When Colleen and I met, we knew that we had found a unique partnership: to find someone who believes in art the same way you do, with the same motives and intentions, is rare. It shouldn’t be, but it is. We respect each other deeply and are inspired by each other every day. Thadd was an early inspiration to both of us. When I was fresh out of a very traditional theatre major, he’s the first one who showed me what it means to make theatre, on a production of The Winter’s Tale. So we’ve come full circle. Make Trouble was in our stars, obviously.
David: What does your training program offer potential participants?
Amanda: A deep dive into what it means to be a community; a heart-driven approach to Shakespeare as a living, fluid source text; space to fail and find your truest voice as a performer.
Thadd: Challenges. All good trainings use an external form to test yourself against as an artist. Our focus on training, and our insistence on the pressure of true ensemble performance give the students many ways to push themselves, and to test the limits of their will, imagination, curiosity, and vision.
Colleen: The chance to be part of something bigger than yourself. Continued mentoring.
David: What makes your program different from others?
Colleen: Our students are truly a company. Performance and training are integral to each other—they aren’t separated. The three of us work together to respond to the dynamic of the particular ensemble, so we can adjust and adapt training and rehearsals as we guide them in the making of their productions. We are also deeply committed to staying a part of our students’ lives as much as they need us after the program is over. Our students from last summer were an extraordinary ensemble, and we have kept them together through fierce and dedicated virtual communication since last August. Most of them will be reuniting with us this summer for the second year advanced level of training and performance. This is a rare opportunity, to be able to return to work with your ensemble again.
Amanda: Aside from the fact that we think of Shakespeare, ensemble, and devising as a non-hierarchical three-headed monster, we are a two-year program designed to help college students and recent graduates bridge the gap between their academic training and their lives as theatremakers. It is designed to supplement their university training and help them find their place in our fast-changing theatre landscape. Our first-years create two Shakespeare plays and perform them in repertory. Our second-years come in with seeds of ideas they have for new work. Not only do they create a Shakespeare piece together for touring, but we also require them to develop smaller solo or group pieces with the aim of taking them to festivals.
Thadd: We all three have a very deep connection to and familiarity with "classic" texts, but none of us are remotely dogmatic about staging or performing it. I have seen Shakespeare performed all over the world in literally dozens of languages, and as many styles or forms. When you've been brought to tears by puppets performing Lear, you can't be too literal about the emotional state of the performer. When the best performance of Measure for Measure you've ever seen was a contemporary German translation, you can't be too precious about the text. It's not to say we don't respect these things, simply that we try to take historical and contemporary performance practices into account when we work with them. This is the connection for me to the whole idea of "devising." Even if you work with a fixed script, you are always devising the moment.
David: What are the guiding principles of the company?
Amanda: Rigor, joy, compassion, bravery.
Thadd: I would add curiosity and honesty, but I'm not at all sure they're separable from bravery.
Colleen: It’s not about you, it’s about everything else. It is not enough to speak, but to speak true.
David: Following that, what's working?
Thadd: The building of community. Our students, guest teachers, even observers have all found themselves drawn to the growing community spurred, or at least nourished by, the work and environment we have been able to create, even in a short time. I'm not even sure why! But it's working and immensely pleasing.
Colleen: The love and trust is deep. Also, when our students return to their university and start teaching thei community of artists new ways of making collaborative theatre together.
Amanda: It works to make theatre with love and generosity. That is neither idealistic nor unfeasible. I’ve seen it work over and over again.
David: What kinds of challenges have you faced? How do you intend to approach them in future?
Thadd: Money, as usual. We have been fortunate enough to find students who are able to pay for the program, but we would love to offer reduced rates, scholarships, and the like while still not paying for everything out of pocket ourselves. For me, the most honest fundraising comes from the public's response to the work, rather than a pitch. In our case, the work is the performances, but also the effect on the students, individually and collectively. I feel confident that, as people come into contact with the work, they will see something of value and something worth supporting, and that we will be able to expand our programs to other communities.
Colleen: My dream is for Make Trouble eventually to be tuition-free.
David: What's missing, in your opinion, from the current education/ training programs available?
Amanda: Ensemble, devised, actor-created work as a viable training trajectory and career path. We aim to model for young artists that what’s necessary for a fruitful life in this field is commitment to an idea, good people around you, and a space to play.
Colleen: I’ve been teaching college theatre students for years, and the conversation I have with so many of them as they are getting ready to graduate is “What do I do now?” They don’t know where to begin. I worry that these talented artists will lose their way and get discouraged because the path is not clear or too daunting. We want to provide these young artists with the tools to be independent theatre artists, to not wait, to keep working, to make their own work.
Thadd: Permission and accountability. I think students should be able to pursue quite individual impulses in their art, as long as they are also held accountable for their choices. Whether by design, or because this combo is difficult and time-consuming, one of these two things is almost always missing.
David: Who do you feel is the ideal candidate? Who are you trying to encourage to Make Trouble?
Colleen: We interview every candidate who applies. The three primary things I look for are exquisite listening, kindness, and honesty. These three are vital for building an ensemble. Curiosity, a sense of humor, a sense of wonder and excitement, impeccable work ethic and indefatigability. We like to work hard—an essential attribute for making trouble.
Amanda: Fearless lovers. Lovers of words, of image, of music, of each other, of adventure, of making fools of themselves. And any actor who has ever been told she doesn’t fit someone’s idea of an ingénue, he has to lose weight, she is between types, he'll grow into his type, etc.
Thadd: I love people who not only ask questions, but are interested in staging them. If you're also willing to work hard, even if you're not sure what the result will be, you're my ideal student, and indeed, my ideal collaborator.
David: What do you hope your graduates/ trainees do, once they move on?
Amanda: Make their own trouble in the American theatre—be driving forces in a culture of theatremakers. They will be at the forefront of the generation who returns theatre to its exuberant, ensemble, spirited roots and separates it entirely from the naturalism we long ago turned to film and television for.
Thadd: Precisely whatever they want to, hopefully surrounding themselves with brave and enthusiastic collaborators. I've always admired programs like the one Lecoq ran, where graduates went on to create wildly divergent work. What they had learned was to how to make something, and how to make something good. After that, their own sensibilities and interests took over.
Colleen: Be happy with themselves as an artist and a human. To make work that they love and are proud of. To know how to relentlessly move forward.
David: Any changes planned for the future?
Amanda: Not yet.
Colleen: We’ll see after this summer—a lot will be informed by the dynamics of these two ensembles we are working with.
David: Success stories?
Amanda: Watch this space. There will be many.
Thadd: The students who have come back to us, saying they want to work harder, learn more, and give more. I can't think of a better form of success.
Colleen: Our students from last summer are returning from around the world to be together again with us. That’s a big success, for them more so than for us. Because they have found something they believe in. And now they are able to articulate their beliefs and aesthetic as an artist. That’s a profound realization for such young artists. They believe in theatre and are holding on with tenacity.