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About Ensembles and Universities

100 Questions, 3 Ideas, 1 Story and a Ghost

This week on HowlRound, we're hearing from several ensemble theatres, about both their artistic work and their organizational structures. The participating ensembles represent a wide range of experiences with wildly differing structures, longevities, and focal points for their work. Join in the conversation with us: what does ensemble mean to you?

 a man pointing
Michael Rohd. Photo via Network of Ensemble Theaters.

Network of Ensemble Theaters just concluded a National Symposium called Intersections, looking at the relationship between ensembles and universities across the US. It was held at The New School in New York City and was attended by artists from all over the US. What follows is the text of a talk I gave as the Opening Plenary on the final day of the Symposium, November 2, 2014. It also exists as a video archive at HowlRound TV.

100 Questions
3 ideas
1 story
and a ghost

Question 1
Why are we here?

Question 2
What draws us to ensemble?

Question 3
What draws us to teaching?

Question 4
What do universities, often large, hierarchical bureaucratic institutions, offer us as labs for ensemble values and practices?

Question 5
Why teach?

What do you teach?
Do you share a method for being an artist?
Do you share a set of tools?
Do you share a way of looking at the artist’s role in society?
Do you share your own beliefs and principles as a foundation for understanding the role of theatre in the world?

In a university theatre program, our primary intention can’t just be to train artists—it has got to be shaping experiences and strengthening skill sets that will nurture strong agents of civic presence, bold thinkers, and empathetic human beings.

two actors on a wire on stage
Scene from Sojourn Theatre's BUILT. Photo via Arts and Democracy.

First Idea
In a university theatre program, our primary intention can’t just be to train artists—it has got to be shaping experiences and strengthening skill sets that will nurture strong agents of civic presence, bold thinkers, and empathetic human beings.

To work in ensemble—
which I define in theatre practice as a collaborative community of artists working together repeatedly over time to build and share performance—
you need specific skills;
collaborators need to listen, and they need to make offerings;
they need to make choices and be responsible for those choices;
they need to articulate a strong personal vision while respecting and negotiating a space filled with multiple visions.
In some ways, it’s a fairly radical educational agenda;
a contradiction in our contemporary education context, which is a setting most comfortable when committed to and measured by the acquisition of knowledge; an artist in ensemble has to live safely (though not always comfortably) with uncertainty.

So our students, ideally, must learn to be off balance and learn to find balance.

Individually, and in community. In ensemble.

Question 11
How do you teach balance?

Question 12
How do you teach listening?

Question 13
How do you teach generosity?

How do you grade them?
How does a single teacher manifest the power of multiple-voiced leadership in a traditionally hierarchical space such as a classroom?
Can you be in ensemble with your students?
What does Paolo Freire offer a theatre artist in a university setting?
What are your values in a classroom?
Is professional arts training antithetical to building agents of community change?
Does community change have a place in a room seeking aesthetic virtuosity?
Does ensemble practice automatically correlate with a vision or agenda of community change?
What is aesthetic virtuosity that’s not placed in the context of community?
What do we even mean when you speak the word community?
What virtuosities do you build in the process of training ensemble?
What excellence does ensemble demand that we do not articulate loud or often enough?

Question 25
What does ensemble mean to you?

What do you get out of it?
What do you give up to be in it, of it, with it?
How do you love in ensemble?
How are you loved?

Question 30
What sweet taste does ensemble have that you can’t find anywhere else?

Question 31
What about ensemble have you traveled over mountains and across seas just to touch?

Question 32
What song does ensemble sing that you hum in the dark?

Question 33
What scent would you miss if ensemble walked out the door and never came back?

Question 34
What does ensemble have that you can’t find anywhere else?

Second Idea
Google, the name of a company, has become a verb.
To seek knowledge in the world, you Google.
Google searches.
It is what they do.
It is what they are known for.
So when they seek to expand both their market share and their utility, what do they do?
They take that action, the verb that they have become, and they expand what it means.
They are apparently developing a nano-technology in the form of a pill that will search your body for pathologies. The prototype identifies anti-bodies that would be inside you if cancer were present anywhere in your cells.
Their product will search you, and quite possibly save your life.
Google searches.

Question 35
What is our verb?

What is our action?
What does ensemble do?
What do we know it does?
What can it do that it doesn’t do now?
What do we want potential partners, collaborators, participants and audiences to consider, feel, think, wonder when they hear the word, the term—ensemble?
How do we channel the power that we know exists in our practice and make meaning with it loudly and intentionally?

actors dancing on a table
Sojourn Theatre's On the Table presentation in Portland, Oregon. Photo courtesy of Sojourn Theatre.

Question 42
When was the last time you were invited into ensemble?

Was it in a theatre setting?
Was the invitation explicit?
Do you recall the invitation, or just the acceptance?
Or, do you simply recall the condition, without a clear sense of how you arrived?
When was the last time you made the invitation?

One story
Though I worked with both Cornerstone Theater and Lookingglass Theatre before I turned twenty-three, half my life ago, my first deeply personal experience of ensemble was just after that. In 1991, I helped start an ensemble called Hope Is Vital. What began as me giving theatre workshops at a Washington DC clinic for homeless men and women living with HIV and/or AIDS became that group of adults working with a group of DC teens, creating original theatre and interactive workshops all over town about HIV. This story is about the moment those two groups first met.

I’d been working with adults at the clinic for a few months when Russell, a quiet, charismatic participant who had helped me gather the crowd that now joined us weekly, came up to me and said, “When are you going to bring some of the kids down?” I assumed he meant the teens at the school where I taught theatre, my actor day job. I said I wasn’t sure. And he said, “Next week. Bring some next week.” Everyone in the chapel—our workshop space—was watching. I had no choice. “Yes,” I told Russell, “I will.”

And I did. Six teenagers. Soneela, Meena, David, Lauren, Shonna and Veronica.

I had worked with them all in class, and in shows I directed earlier that year, and I adored every one of them. Couldn’t get a school van, but a couple of parents helped me drive them over to 14th and P.

We took the elevator up to the fifth floor, where the confidential clinic hid above the giant homeless shelter on the lower floors. We walked into the chapel.  And, not surprisingly, the room was quiet. Awkward. Even a bit tense. Tim tried to make small talk with Shonna immediately. I think I recall Jerry playing the piano, and Lauren hovering nearby. As everyone put their things down, and we gathered into a circle, Russell said to me, “Lets do the game.” David’s eyebrow raised—what game? Russell stepped into the circle, pointed at Veronica, and gently said, “You want to play?” Veronica looked at me, stepped into the circle and smiled at Russell.

Russell said, “Okay, you’re my mom.” Veronica immediately started to fuss over him, grabbed a chair, and said, “Sit down, you need to eat. I’m cooking. Sit down.” She became a whirling dervish of pantomime, conjuring a kitchen full of food and utensils instantly. Russell tried to start a conversation, but Veronica’s comic intensity left him no space for actual connection. Which seemed not far from his actual experience. After a couple minutes of hilarity (providing much needed shared release in the larger circle of newly met participants), Russell said, “Mom, I need to tell you something.” He said it with urgency. And everyone in the room—absolutely everyone—knew immediately what he wanted to say. He was playing out disclosing to his mom that he was HIV positive, something he was struggling with how to do…and if to do. I looked at Veronica, suddenly very aware of how out of my league I was. Twenty-four years old, not a counselor, not a therapist, just a person who loved theatre and who figured, sure, I can handle whatever happens. Until that moment. Veronica looked at me, sensing I was about to interrupt them, and she told me, with her eyes—I’ve got it. She turned to Russell, who was now standing, and she simply said, “I know, Russell. It’s okay. I know.” And she opened her arms, and he walked into them, and they hugged. For a while. And the room was silent. And then Russell lifted his head, and said, “Damn, Veronica, you know how to play the game.” Veronica said, “I love this game.” Russell nodded and said, “Who’s up?”

Russell taught me about making invitations.

Veronica taught me about accepting them.

Over the next eighteen months, in correctional facilities, in schools, in legislative offices, in hospitals, in church basements—all over the DC metro area, this newly formed super group taught me about ensemble.  

And eventually, I realized how lucky I was that day—when Russell turned to Veronica, the two of them new to each other, Veronica held the space. I did not. What has become for me a lovely memory of connection could very easily have ended up a story of my failure to make a space safe.

Question 48
What’s the last thing you learned while in ensemble that surprised you?

That scared you?
That made you question your own constants?
When did you last fail?
Is it okay to fail in ensemble?
In what contexts are you willing to fail, and in what contexts are you not?
What do our students have to gain when ensemble holds them amidst mistakes, hesitancy, fear?
What about our colleagues?
How does ensemble, as a practice, strengthen us as individuals and members of groups?
How does ensemble move the personal into the social?
The social into the public?
The intimate into the political?

Question 60
Where do you see ensemble outside the arts?

Is a sports team ensemble?
Are the researchers working together in a lab?
What about the nurses and doctors mid surgery in an operating room?
Is a state legislature?
Is it about work together, or is a family that lives and eats and makes a life together ensemble?
Is this the wrong question?
Is it not about who is an ensemble, but rather, what is ensemble practice?
Where and how can it be deployed?

Third Idea
Recently, I was working with employees of a Chicago City Department to help them develop a collective vision and better collaborative practice.

After lots of small group work, we brought together supervisors and staff from this department’s sites around the city for the first time to engage together in identifying shared challenges and build problem-solving strategies. It was a remarkable gathering, given how many workers from across Chicago attended.

As the work progressed, something became clear—these city employees experienced their role in a large bureaucracy as so disempowering, that when it came time to imagine possible visions and new tactics, they could not release the voices of the system in which they were embedded.

They could not enable themselves to see possibilities outside their daily, lived experience. 

In this instance, it was my job to help craft a space where possibility was present.

a group of performers on stage
Sojourn Theatre ensemble. Photo courtesy of Sojourn Theatre.

Question 69
What does ensemble practice have to offer your school outside the classroom, outside the theatre department, outside the arts programs?

What does it have to offer your Provost’s office?
Your student services?
Your student government?
Your faculty senate?
How does ensemble craft spaces where possibility is present with those who do not self define as artists?
In what ways can we be useful in rooms where policy and structure are dependent on vision, but where systemic lack of imagination literally means vision rarely comes from the best idea?
What does ensemble practice have to offer your public bodies of decision-makers?
What does it have to offer as your communities engage in public dialogue?
Do your communities engage in public dialogue?
Should they?
Do you want them to?

As the work progressed, something became clear—these city employees experienced their role in a large bureaucracy as so disempowering, that when it came time to imagine possible visions and new tactics, they could not release the voices of the system in which they were embedded.

Question 82
How can we, through ensemble practice, bring our assets to the dramaturgical requirements of public conversation?

Question 83
How can we, through ensemble practice, help build the muscles of civic imagination that a healthy democracy demands?

Question 84
How can we, through ensemble practice, use universities as labs where we co-create opportunities and explore innovative pedagogy and radical approaches to change in and around and through the theatre we make?

A Ghost
is something I remember and I don’t know how.
A ghost
is someone who stays with me long past the moments we shared.
A ghost
is the person I was
who is gone
but walks in my shoes nonetheless.

A ghost is not memory.
A ghost is not fear.
A ghost is not want.

A ghost is present and absent, missed and forgotten, known and utterly anonymous.

Who is not in this room that you would have in this room?

What ensembles are conjured when we do our work, a foot in the past, an eye to the future?

What do you tell your collaborators, your students, your friends, when you tell tales of ensemble before you?

Do those tales reach into your circles today?

If so, are they bridges or postcards?

Question 90
Who is in your circle, now and forever?

Question 91
How open is your circle?

Question 92
Do you include only people who share your eye and heart?

What do you tell students when they ask, “How do I find my tribe?”
Do you tell them—for god’s sake, don’t just look for people like yourself?
Do you tell them—the world is messy, and ensemble should be as well?
Do you tell them—this university isn’t a bubble, it’s a part of the world—make sure your work is as well?

And what about the network of ensemble theatres—how big is our circle?

Should we be of like minds, hearts, eyes? Or should we be a collision of values and ideologies?

What chair is left empty for the people who will be in our circle not yet appeared?

A ghost is everywhere something known isn’t.

So I want to be where the ghosts are—especially when I’m in ensemble, making.

Which is why I’m here.

And why I ask—

Question 100
What next?


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Thoughts from the curator

A series featuring ensemble theatres speaking on their artistic work and organizational structures.

Ensemble Series


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Love this in about 40 different ways: form, content, spirit... Thanks so much for your insight. (I'm a longtime fan of your work, from afar.)