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The Audience Ensemble with Rachel Grossman and Colin K. Bills of dog & pony dc

From the Ground Up Episode #10

From the Ground Up

For dog and pony dc pretending the audience isn’t there is not an option. This ensemble from Washington DC is rethinking everything. Founder and Ringleader Rachel Grossman and Conspirator Colin K. Bills get into how they devise for audience integrated performances.

actors on stage

Peep Show at dog and pony dc

Jeffrey Mosser: From the Ground Up is supported by HowlRound, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. It's available on iTunes, Google Play, and HowlRound.com.

Dear artists, Welcome to episode ten of From The Ground Up. I am your host, Jeffrey Mosser. A quick announcement before we begin. I met one of today's guests, Rachel Grossman, for the first time at the Boston Theatre Communications Group conference. So it's quite poetic that we are broadcasting this episode just before the Miami TCG conference at which I will be appearing to talk about the lessons learned from this podcast.

So please, if you're going to be at the conference, I hope you'll join me at Friday at my open session that we can discuss From the Ground Up and the lessons learned about ensemble based work and sustainability from ten episodes so far. If you're unable to join us, we are currently talking with HowlRound about the possibility of live streaming it. So stay tuned to HowlRound and our Facebook page for more information.

When I started this podcast, one of the first ensembles I knew I had to get was dog & pony dc. This is another one of those companies that I met via the Plays for Presidents Festival in 2012 and while I have regrettably never seen a dog & pony dc show. I have kept tabs on them because their mission, values, process and so much more have always inspired me. In fact this episode is quite heavy on their process, which as ensemble based advisors I'm really interested in.

I am a huge fan of eliminating the fourth wall. In fact, I'm in denial of the fourth wall. What fourth wall, right? dog & pony subscribes to this as well. And for me at least it was a joy talking to Rachel Grossman and Colin K. Bills who are radically rethinking what theatre can be and not just in the Washington, DC area. Rachel is one of the founders and a ringleader of dog & pony dc. We'll get into that title in the podcast. And Collin K. Bills is a conspirator at dog & pony dc and is also a company member and lighting designer at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. You'll hear him refer to Woolly a couple times throughout the podcast. There are a couple of other references for your information. Rachel mentions Howard Schalwitz, who is the artistic director at Woolly Mammoth as well as Ari Roth who is artistic director at Mosaic Theater Company in Washington, DC. We also talk about many of dog & pony's productions, but Beertown is one that comes up in particular over and over again. All right. This conversation took place on 19 April 2018 and at the end you may hear my dog asking to go on a walk. All right, here we go.


Collin K. Bills: Hello?

Jeffrey: Hi. Is this Colin?

Colin: Yeah, Jeffrey?

Jeffrey: Yeah. Hi, how are you?

Colin: Hey, good. How are you?

Jeffrey: Good, good, great. Let's say hello.

Rachel Grossman: Hi Jeff how are you?

Jeffrey: I'm great. How are you?

Rachel: I'm good. It's nice to hear from you.

Jeffrey: Yeah, you too. Thank you both so much for taking time to be here. And also I have to say, Rachel, we Skyped about maybe it was seven or eight years ago now. Do you remember this?

Rachel: I know, yeah, okay, of course!

Jeffrey: It was right before I had started my own theatre company in Boston called Project, Project and you gave me such great... I was so greatly inspired and enthused to get started. So I just have to acknowledge that right up front that it was something about the conversation we had that I said, yeah, yeah, we can do this. So we went out and you know, I got a team together and we started working and, and uh, you know, we worked for about four years. But I just have to say it's in great thanks to you for making me feel like all things were possible. So thank you for that.

Rachel: I was afraid you were going to stay and you gave me a lot of grief because that's, I feel like a typical response when I talk to people. I'm, I'm pleased. I'm glad energizing people is. I think there's a vigorous pushing that, I'm known for, so I'm pleased.

Jeffrey: I am so curious about what you are up to right now. I know you've done an iteration of Beertown as Beachtown. And I know you recently had Peepshow. And I think that is closed at this point. Is that correct?

Rachel: Yeah. It closed at the end of February.

Jeffrey: So can you just give me a peek into what dog & pony does? One of the things I really find compelling about your mission statement is that the audience completes you. I think that might be a big focus of what we talk about today. Can you talk a little be about how those shows how the audience sort of completed parts of those shows?

Rachel: Yeah. Okay. Jeff, you have asked in an excited and full of energy way many questions.

Jeffrey: Yes.

Rachel: Okay. So me personally and then Colin can say what he's up to. I'm going to try to say this short and in short form. At this moment I am part of the executive producing team of the Jubilee. Which is a nationwide theatre festival set to occur in the 2021 season that invites theatre companies, universities, anyone that is producing work to examine their framework of normalcy how they produce and say what if you examine producing outside of that? So you are bringing in more artists who are outside of that framework who are traditionally marginalized in that framework. So in a typical not for profit American theatre that's going to largely be women, people of color, artists who are disabled, Deaf artists, native indigenous artists, LGBTQIA artist, et cetera. So I'm a part of that team. I am also helping support a gathering of Deaf theatre artists who are coming together to create an action plan for developing a pipeline for development of new plays by Deaf theatre artists designed, directed, performed, written, et cetera. I'm also completing the writing on a children's play called [inaudible 00:07:32] which is for four to six year olds and their parents about how, and it's really actually—it's for four to six year olds but it's really for the parents about how to talk about race. Parents and children together. I'm finishing a yoga training program. So I'm actually also doing a lot of yoga. Like a ridiculous amount of yoga these days to [inaudible 00:07:57]. That's what I'm doing.

Jeffrey: Yeah. Just to balance it all out.

Rachel: All just sort of small things right now. Colin what are you doing?

Colin: So I'm predominately a lighting designer and so work all over the place and I think what's interesting in the context of this conversation is that I, because of dog & pony and because of Woolly as well, I work with Woolly as well, there's always the question about how activated the audience is in any design and that pertains to the set design. That's the lighting design and the action as well and the direction. And so I am always asking that question of how the audience can be activated. Or how the audience can be deactivated in some ways and then be let off the hook. And that pertains to my work in lighting quite a lot. Because it's difficult to truly activate an audience if they are not used to that kind of experience. So like right now I'm working on a rock musical called Girlfriend which is a collection of Matthew Sweet songs. Which are totally heteronormative '90s songs. Guy based, girl based, love based, ex based, and then it's put on his ear by actually making the two performers coming of age. It's a coming of age teen love story. And then they are backed by a lesbian band who is like in a sound studio behind them. So the whole thing is meant to feel in our design but I think just in the writing as well. It's meant to feel like it's a giant rock video. Like that kind of '90s era rock video. Not even '90s era just rock videos as they have always existed. You know that cross between the live playing and then the kind of scene lits that are interspersed. But I think that the way we've approached it even though there isn't really a whole lot of action in and out of the audience is really how do we get the audience to bring the nostalgia that they have for these songs and kind of push that energy onto the stage? And then that energy goes back and pushes from the audience and the action on stage and the performers on stage. So that's what I'm working on right now. And again I'm making that point because I think the work that dog & pony has done in term of the audience completing the ensemble actually has a great deal of application in quote traditional theatre that can be very subtle that actually really meaningful for the audience experience.

Rachel: It's funny because I realize the thing I didn't say that I'm working on is of course the reading that I'm doing is Theatre J on Sunday. So I'm doing a staged reading. I don't even know if I've ever done a staged reading. I'm sure I've done a staged reading of a play like directed a staged reading. They have a Discovering Yiddish Theatre series and so I have this play called God, Man and Devil by Jacob Gordin who is known as the man who brought realism to Yiddish theatre at the very beginning.

Jeffrey: Oh.

Rachel: This play was written in 1901. It's this sort of melodrama and the first thing I ask the artistic director Attanor is like why would you think this play of Rachel Grossman. And I think it's about exactly what Colin was just saying is just the possibility of dog & pony and therefor also what's sort of deeply embedded in me which is obsessive fascination with the relationship with the audience and a refusal to acknowledge the fourth wall. To say what possibilities does that provide us in any sort of theatrical event? So it's a staged reading, we have five hours. We're not doing seated at music stands. It doesn't allow, actors seated at music stands. The audience, there's two different seating positions for the audience so that they have a different proximity to the actors.

Rachel: And that's in relationship to the story. And they just move at the intermission break. There are some projected texts and instructions. It's a small amount but it just invites the audience to think about what they are hearing differently. And then there is a small amount of casting that's involved. That grounds the play in contemporary Washington DC in a way that mirrors what Gordon was trying to do in bringing this sort of language of the people, Yiddish, to his audience in that time. And what he was doing trying to transition the role of Yiddish theatre. Some of that was intentionally done by me and some of that it sort of turned out to be a happy accident. But I think it's all about how are we constantly thinking about what is the audience bringing as much as, if not more important and what is the role of the audience in the theatrical event as like what is my concept? What is my impulse? Why do I love this play as a director?

Colin: dog & pony doesn't come in with the idea of breaking the fourth wall. We come in with the idea that the fourth wall was never a concept to begin with, was never an idea to begin with. It doesn't exist.

Rachel: I mean we don't even talk about it.

Colin: Yeah. So it's not across the table. So if a director comes to me and says well I really want to break the fourth wall at this moment in the play. My reaction is well I don't think the fourth wall was there to begin with so what is? You know what I mean?

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Colin: I think that fucking Ibson put that wall up and that was that and then it's been up forever.

Rachel: I know. I was just thinking of Ibson but no, it's electricity. I'm blaming electricity.

Jeffrey: Oh yeah. Right.

Colin: Well no, I blame gaslight.

Jeffrey: Yeah. I was going to say the gas lamp is what said we could do it at night.

Rachel: I knew you were going to say that because I was going to say electricity and then I meant to say gas. And Jeff you have to interrupt us because-

Colin: We'll just tangentalize.

Rachel: We're in our fifteenth year of marriage so it's really.

Jeffrey: This is great. I love it. I'm for it. I will listen to this kind of banter all day. It's great.

Colin: Great. But anyways for-

Rachel: But gaslights' fault. That's what I'm saying. It's gaslight's fault because as soon as the audience was plunged into darkness-

Colin: Right

Rachel: That's when the fourth wall was invented.

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Rachel: Whether it was, it was just never said that was what was happening but then, that's when we were like screw the audience. Not literally but that's when we started to ignore them.

Colin: Ignoring them.

Rachel: Yeah.

Colin: And that's, you know, I think one of the most revolutionary things that I've ever done in a play is find a way to leave the house lights on the entire time without the audience realizing that the house lights are still on. And that they are not actually in the dark and that they are actually more activated than they realized.

Rachel: What play have you done that for that was not a dog & pony production?

Colin: The Julie, How to Present a Presentation...

Rachel: The Jackie Sibblies Drury...

Colin: Jackie Sibblies Drury, right?

Rachel: We Are Proud to Present a Presentation... of the blah blah blah blah blah.

Colin: Of the Herero...

Jeffrey: Oh. Yeah.

Colin: And we actually made it a, the house lights were on for the first maybe, well over half the play. And then actually the surprise was when the house lights suddenly went out and we were plunged into like scene for the first time in the play. That was actually meant to be an alienation technique. So I think that kind of thing, that's actually really fun. It's really juicy for how the audience doesn't realize it's role but still has a role.

Jeffrey: What's the role of the audience in the example that you just gave? We Are Proud to Present versus a dog & pony show?

Colin: For Proud to Present the role was to remain completely attentive. Which I hope that's always the role, but quite frankly the houses go out and it's not always. But to react not just to the people on stage but to each other.

Rachel: And to witness.

Colin: Yeah, and to witness.

Jeffrey: There we go. Yeah.

Colin: To actively witness. And to actively... but witness is a little passive.

Rachel: Yeah but I think. So I want to do a challengebut because when I was at the Black Theatre and Dance Museum, Shirley Jo Finney was saying, an amazing Black female director, when she would continually use the word witness when there was call back and acknowledgement from the audience to something she was saying. So I think the word to witness something is actually a very active because taking it in and recalling it is not a passive.

Colin: Taking it in, recalling it, and then spitting it back out. Or not.

Rachel: I think it's an acknowledgment of seeing the thing. Like a witness in a court of law is recalling. It's like saying I get this. It's an acknowledgement of the seeing of the thing. And so you can't be a passive witness because there is no acknowledgement of that.

Colin: Okay. And then also, I mean, we all know that witnesses have a point of view.

Rachel: Right. Exactly.

Colin: Okay.

Jeffrey: I would almost say that a witness is sort of a job. You take something and then you go away with it and it's you job to like talk about it elsewhere. Or your encouraged to in that court instance you gave.

Rachel: It's literally a goal. That's the thing. If you are casting the audience as witness then you can manipulate them. Manipulate in a positive way. You can use them and you can cast them and you can give them acts. You can bring their experience. Observer is not, nothing happens with observer.

Colin: Yep. That's good. I like that.

Jeffrey: But you were asking in dog & pony that your audience particip- within your audience participation they are more than, I don't mean to say that a witness is less than. They are, they have more hands on throughout the show than perhaps a witness might.

Rachel: I think it is difficult because if you take a show like each show. Which I want to be really clear what is not. Like Peepshow had five spectacles or scenes. I call them spectacles because they were not, I don't think of them as scenes. They were, and I don't think of Peepshow really as a play it was a piece of, it was five pieces of performance art. And that's how it was intended to be experienced. In one room. Sequentially experienced. The audience, there was an experience or goal for the audience which was coming into this art show, right? To be a peeper. To be a voyeur of women's bodies. To be a gazer and then to enter into dialogue about the gaze. And sometimes there was gaze and touch.

Jeffrey: Okay.

Rachel: There was looking and touching. Sometimes there was looking and touching and calling back.

Colin: There was tasting.

Rachel: And tasting.

Colin: And smelling.

Rachel: And so there was sometimes there was a full sensory engagement. Sometimes it was just auditory and visual. I mean, to be clear any... it was all accessable to Deaf audiences. When I say auditory, it might have been 100 percent visual even though, anyway.

Jeffrey: Yeah. Yeah.

Rachel: I don't want to get into the semantics of that, but-

Jeffrey: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

Rachel: Ultimately the audience was cast in many ways as themselves. I mean that they are members of society acting and clutching is this something we want to keep engaging with. Right? But the point is we approach the art. Every show the art is approached by saying who is the audience? How are we involving them? Do they have a task? Because having a task or something tangible to do during the show is not the definition of audience integration. It is audience participation but it's not the same thing as audience integration.

Jeffrey: And your goal is integration.

Rachel: Well the guiding principal that, or the organizing principal of our art making is audience integration. The intentional interweaving of audience into the narrative or experiential art. But we could just as easily create a show where audience is a witness.

Jeffrey: Yes.

Rachel: It wouldn't just be a concept, it would be somehow more explicit? But in our art making. I don't know if it would be more explicit in the end to the audience. Because we had, for instance, in Peepshow we had the audience of act to move, like literally shift their perspective with every scene. Each scene took place in a different part of the room. And so there were chairs. They could either move their body or move their chair.

Colin: Or get out of the chair and just mo-

Rachel: And just stand up. And so that action, the play was inviting audience to do what we were largely inviting the audience to do about their view of modern male bodies in society. You start changing your perspective.

Colin: Right.

Rachel: Now that's subtle and arty but that is because we were casting, that is a way of expressing that idea. We actually thought about based on what is the audience doing?

Colin: Jeffrey, I think there is a question that you haven't asked that might be worth answering. What's the difference between audience participation and audience integration?

Jeffrey: Yes. Absolutely. Go ahead. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

Rachel: It's about agency.

Colin: Well it's about agency. And it's also about I think when audience integration is truly working you can't turn it off. And when audience participation is working the way it's supposed to work it can be turned on and off by the performers. And that kind of contract between the audience and the performers. So I'm thinking like a show. Rachel will give the classic example of Sheer Madness as being the type of theatre that dog & pony does not do because it is participatory. But the performers are completely in charge of that participation. They have it planned, and the script has it planned how the audience will participate. And even though they do change the ending every night, or every performance there is only three or four possible endings. And yes there are a few improv level touchstones along the way. But ultimately the audience is participating in the narrative but they are not integrated into the narrative.

Jeffrey: Yes. Yes. Yeah and that's-

Rachel: There is no contract with the audience in an audience participatory show. The audience does not know what to expect. The audience, there's no levels of engagement. It's for people that want to dive in or not. Or audience will get dragged on stage. And it's honestly, most of the participation is often at the expense of the audience. Audience participation instills fear in audience members.

Jeffrey: Yes. Yes. I feel like audience participation also still requires that there needs to be a sense of fourth wall. Even if the fourth wall is like Swiss cheese. Like we can, the actors can choose to look through the fourth wall.

Colin: Yeah.

Jeffrey: Or can choose when the fourth wall is up or down. Whatever metaphor you want to make out of it.

Rachel: That's a great point.

Jeffrey: But I'm glad that we made the distinction because I think that you're absolutely right that integration when you said it's a part of the plot that for me crystallized the idea of okay that is a huge difference from participation. And though improv is sort of necessary in both worlds it's where the fourth wall is built that sort of says oh we're going to engage with you now. Hey come on on stage. Or hey let's do a gimmicky thing where we haven't told you this is going to happen it's still a surprise. Which is what you alluded to as well.

Rachel: It's a whole different level of, I mean in an execution for actors there is a whole different level of skill set. I mean there is a whole different skill set that an actor needs to acquire. There is a level of self awareness and vulnerability that actors need to-

Jeffrey: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Rachel: -act up and allow audience like complete strangers to be able to witness. And it is so not, I mean just having come away from a brand new set of actors in San Diego. One, it goes against almost everything that you are taught as a professional actor to do.

Jeffrey: Right.

Rachel: I mean, like, my big joke is like the secret to audience integration is eye contact.

Colin: Yep.

Rachel: So the big is eye contact. And of course you are taught never to look at the audience.

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Rachel: You are taught look it, really.

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Rachel: And, you know, the second thing is you have to accept what audience members are telling you. Complete strangers who just really haven't come to rehearsal yet. They are coming for the first time at a show. And you have to treat the shows like rehearsals.

Jeffrey: Oh!

Rachel: And so nothings set. And that's terrifying.

Jeffrey: That's fantastic. I mean, treating it as rehearsal is a fantastic way. Because you are leading, my next question was going to be so it's one thing to sort of teach a show or to rehearse a show that you know is going to have audience integration. But it is another thing to sort of like prepare or devise the show that is going to have audience integration. So can you talk a little bit about either of those worlds?

Rachel: Yeah. One thing I want to say is, so if you have a show that is an audience integrated show, the show, the production itself is audience integrated. It doesn't have audience integration. Which is like a [inaudible 00:28:20] name match.

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Rachel: I know it's... to wrap around. You can't do a show that has some. You can do a show that has moments of audience participation. But you can't do a show that has moments of audience integration. It's either-

Colin: You're all in or not.

Rachel: You're all in or your not.

Colin: Once you open the door you can't close it.

Rachel: And the whole production is designed that way.

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Rachel: The network design.

Colin: Yeah.

Rachel: Box office. I mean it's a holistic approach. Anyway. Your question was about what?

Colin: Including the audience. How the audience which gets to be part of the ensemble whether they enter the rehearsal process and how do you rehearse and struggle with that?

Rachel: Yeah. I mean you start as soon as possible.

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Rachel: So a show like Beertown, I mean I, I feel like Beertown I try to have any production we've done the second act is the most audience involved. So I always start by rehearsing the second act first. I always tell the actor you know how to do the actor stuff. Line is memorized. You know how to do the actor stuff so let's do the audience. So I would say you bring in the audience if you have a standard four week rehearsal process you bring in act audience sometime the first week and you get accustom to having invited audience in rehearsal and rehearsing with strangers. Or people that aren't in the show. So you are doing tech. There is a certain amount of tech process in just making [inaudible 00:29:53]. Like why would you have people there for a cue to cue but you can't actually run certain shows or even for some shows that dog & pony has done there is a point that you can't even rehearse things without audience.

Colin: Right.

Rachel: And it's not about, there's shows that we've done that you can't even have other ensemble members in there because they just can't stand in. They know how it works. They can react. They can do something. They can react. It's just not the same. You can do it once, but once they know what's happening they can't authentically respond.

Jeffrey: Right. Right. You can't unlearn this bit.

Rachel: Yeah.

Colin: Right.

Rachel: And like I'm, I have over the years only with a show like Beertown I have learned how to be a good pusher audience debate. But that's only because I become the sexist, the rapist, the whatever audience member who says things that challenge the actor to think about things they never would have thought about.

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Rachel: In a safe space. So like somebody brings something up and I'll raise my hand somebody will say this one over here and I'll go hi my name is Rachel and I'm like I work at the library in Beertown or Beachtown. And I said you know I just all this talk about the birdseed I just don't think it's going to make people really uncomfortable. And I just think, could we just you know be more inclusive and stop focusing on everybody else? And for me as a white woman to say that like the actors go what?!

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Rachel: You know. And I say people say that.

Jeffrey: Right.

Rachel: So how are you going to respond? But that's a big difference between me doing that and a complete stranger doing that in a room of 150, 200 people.

Jeffrey: Of course. So even from the outset. Say you are in development for a piece that you're developing a piece that doesn't exist yet and you know this a moment where we sort of need to turn to the audience for the next step. How do you devise the moment open enough to be able to receive it when it changes even when you do bring audience members in?

Colin: I want to bring up another show which is a show we devised and created called A Killing Game. Which early on conceptually was about having the audience play along with us in the game about death and dying. Very early we had some just conceptual ideas about how the audience could react to perform death scenes with us. We actually just did a series of workshops and just tried stuff out. We brought, I think the very first time we did it we said we are going to try this in three or four different ways. And so we just want you to be patient with us and just, we are going to try, we were working the first scene of the show. And we had given the audience they had these like playing cards that they were supposed to play as part of the that gave them prompts in the scene we were creating for them to react and with specific tasks related to dying.

Rachel: Like start coughing.

Colin: Yeah. Like start coughing or just die quietly in your sleep. Or have a giant operatic death where you make it as big as possible. So each audience member was given one of these three or four prompts and we just tried it and we tried it three different ways. Like giving only one person an operatic death versus giving like half the audience an operatic death. You know, and how that changed it. So we actually kind of had a rehearsal rehearsal with the audience as if we were just okay we've got three or four different things we want to try, we are going to try them all. And as long as we were honest right from the outset that that was the point of this rehearsal and then they were totally on board with that.

Rachel: And we called them testing sessions.

Colin: Yeah.

Rachel: So we gave them the idea that we wanted to test out. We'd go in with a certain assumption. It's a really scientific approach.

Colin: Yeah.

Rachel: And then that way we could have said we assume that the audience will do it. And just to be clear, at this point that's an underlying assumption of everything at dog & pony. If the audience can and will do the thing. Whatever the thing is.

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Colin: And that's actually good because we often, that's the biggest question we get is from other producers or whomever is: but what if the audience won't do it?

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Colin: Our answer is always they will.

Rachel: They will.

Colin: And they do.

Rachel: And they do. Or they won't and we'll deal with that. Or they'll do it in their way and we deal with that.

Colin: Yeah. Exactly.

Rachel: And honestly we spend way too much time as well with some new people who are invested in the process but that are apprehensive, I mean scared or worried is not the right word-

Jeffrey: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Rachel: But they are like I don't know if the audience is going to do this and I'm worried and whatever. And so we just made that like I don't know two years ago I made that we do agreement before every meeting and rehearsal process. Share agreements. And one of the ones that everyone agrees to. That we ask everyone agree to is that the audience can and will do the thing, whatever the thing is. And it makes for a more joyful and imaginative process. And in this case, they are, going back to the Killing Game we assumed that the audience would do the thing. It was just about should it be everyone? Should it be three and three? And it was asking the audience how they felt.

Colin: Right.

Rachel: And then over the next year or however long we were playing with it we just were able to sort of go okay so this finessing touch, that finessing touch. But that was a huge component of that show. With the first scene. Not finale of that scene. What was it? It was like a-

Colin: By the end of the scene everybody dies.

Rachel: Everybody was dead at the end of the scene.

Colin: And the idea behind the whole experience was that at the end of every scene a portion of the audience, up to 100 percent of the audience would be dead and then every scene they would reignite and then start another scene and then die again. And it was just a series of different kinds of death-

Rachel: Death.

Colin: -scenes based on different ways we negotiate crises.

Rachel: And then you get into a show like Toast where we had all of these small groups with locations that were creative, like we're going to make a movie to think about how to evolve the electric toaster into a way to save the world. And the problem is we would have five groups but not enough audience at these testing sessions-

Jeffrey: Uh-huh (affirmative)

Rachel: Because they would make these changes to our facilitations and we wouldn't have enough audience to run all the facilitations.

Colin: Oh yeah.

Rachel: So this is the downside of that is that we just didn't have enough people to run things and everybody needed to run their facilitation. This is where, and we could have solved this problem in many different ways, but this was the down side of that. The up then you look at a show like Squares where we were inventing games and adjusting playground games to the four systems of privilege. So with that we did a lot of just gameplay and then said we just play games with people and said what do these games make you think of if we said racism and Mother May I? Or like privilege and Mother May I right? Or Jack or Four Square or whatever? So we'd talk about that. And then we'd make an adjustment and play around with the game and then we'd come back and then we'd play it with that lens on with another group and then see what they said. And then we would make up rhymes and can we teach a rhyme? Like I made a game and we did it with a group or like a rhymes game, played it with a group, and it seemed fine. We got to our first workshop performance and it was supposed to be a ninety-minute experience. Just executing that with the audience took over half the show.

Jeffrey: Wow.

Rachel: And that was supposed to be the first ten minutes of the show. So like these are the things, there is no way, and that's because that audience struggled with it. And you're like great. What do we do now?

Jeffrey: When you ask something of the audience. I have come down in the world that the audience wants the play to succeed. Which is on your side as the theatre maker. But also the audience doesn't want to do something wrong. They want to do the right thing and they want to fulfill the needs of the play. Unless you have that one person who is an egomaniac who sort of takes the room away from everyone else in some way. But in the right kind of group that person is sort of slowly squelched in a certain way. Have you found that to be true? That's certainly my personal experience.

Colin: I think more often than not the audience polices itself. Rachel do you agree with that?

Rachel: I agree with that. But I also think that person, like why that person is trying, the person is likely still within the experience. They are just trying to center the experience on them. And it's about, a blackout analogy, which is all the analogies I make, it's like about how white people make racism about them.

Colin: Right.

Rachel: Like situations of racial tension in the workplace about them and not actually centering the experience on the person of color and what's going on with them.

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Rachel: So there still in the experience they are just centering it on them. But then most of the time Colin is right the audience self regulates.

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Colin: I think also to that end one of the things that is really easy to do in a situation like that for the acting ensemble and the audience ensemble is for the acting ensemble to blame that audience member for trying to fuck with them.

Rachel: For trying to ruin the show and fuck with the show. Right.

Colin: Yeah. And I don't think we've ever had an experience where somebody has actually been doing that.

Rachel: No.

Colin: They've actually been honestly and authentically trying to push the show to a different place that would be interesting for them in that way.

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Colin: And often that happens with return audience members who are like oh what can I do? I've seen it, great what can I do to take it to the next level?

Rachel: Yep.

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Colin: And like that way they are actually the perfect part of the ensemble because they are pushing the show. They are making it progress. The pitfall we have to remember as the acting ensemble is they are not fucking with it. They are trying to make it better.

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Colin: And that's really hard to confront. The first time especially. Because we've had to have that conversation post, uh, after a performance where it has kind of gone off the rails for that reason.

Rachel: Yeah and I spend a lot of time, I'm so Zen about it now as a director. I love the audience so much that even I can be like oh that guy and that guy was so into it. So I spent a lot of time like out in San Diego allowing the actors to vent because that is important.

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Rachel: You've got to validate their experience and then be like yeah and think about how much fun he was having. Or think about how much fun she was having. Or think about-

Jeffrey: Sure.

Rachel: And then that clicks in because you have to sort of teach that framework. Because the actors are taught that the audience is the enemy somehow. They are either with us or against us.

Jeffrey: That's fantastic. Have you seen a difference in the audiences from town to town with Beertown?

Rachel: Yeah. For sure. I think it is interesting. Beertown the audiences immersion in Beertown there definitely it's difficult to draw a variation from Beertown to Beachtown because the plays are really different. And the audience therefore was different. But all the audiences were much, you know some of this is time of year. So my biggest regret is that we did not have this whole time a social scientist following us around. And measuring all of it. Because as someone who is like super into measurements I wish there was something I could prove. I mean we did a lot of measuring of Beertown in the workshop, in the premier and in the second run. And I think the third performance too and then we stopped because it was just like we were proving the same things over and over again of what the show was doing for us. For the audience rather. Time of year, time of day, day of the week you can see some regular patterns in theatre audiences kind of everywhere. But some of the audiences tended to be a little more playful and raucous. I don't know they weren't they weren't like all over the place. They were, Cincinnati audiences were a little more serious and thoughtful or reserved. New York audiences were closer to DC audiences but I don't know. None of the audiences have all audiences participated in the same way. Like this is the thing, we heard similar things. I have heard similar things get brought up in every single production.

Colin: Right.

Rachel: The show premiered in 2011 it's going on seven years old now. And I'm still, like in Beachtown I heard the same things that came up in the workshop production.

Colin: Wow.

Rachel: Like some of the same arguments. But I can tell you that the structural changes of Beachtown, I have presumed that some of the structural changes that we have wanted to make have caused some of the things that came up over the years to come up more. And I can't, this going to be the night—so it is interesting to think about for me now. And this is why I think a study would be fascinating, but you know, too late.

Jeffrey: Yeah. Yeah. So how does your ensemble come to a consensus about your sort of decision making process?

Rachel: Well the dog & pony is really about ideas and my people having ideas. I've been thinking about this idea. I've been reading this book. I've been listening to this podcast. And getting others on board and seeing what about that idea is interesting for both. And that is just doing a lot of talking, reading, investigation, coming together, asking questions, interrogating, and then doing some devising and play making. Like if I've been play making around the idea and seeing what came up about that play making. So sort of a going back and forth between drama critical research, a little devising and play making, then going back to the research and then trying to create a sort of form or structure around that.

Jeffrey: Yeah. As I see on your website you have ringleaders and conspirators in terms of like titles you give your ensemble members.

Rachel: Yeah. It's really just a way of differentiating hierarchy.

Jeffrey: Sure.

Rachel: So you can think about it in terms of I'm in an executive position at the ensemble, director. Ivania Stack is our ringleader for audience integration. It's really like an associate artistic director. And then the ensemble is-

Colin: Conspirators.

Rachel: Conspirators, the ensemble members. The core ensemble members for dog & pony.

Jeffrey: Got it.

Colin: I think it is core ensemble members but I think you could just as easily used the traditional term and that would have been fine. But I think in order to get outside of the box.

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Colin: You just have to reconstruct the nomenclature and be more playful with how we are approaching everything. And I mean everything.

Rachel: Yeah.

Colin: Because it's, the minute you start going into the known nomenclature. The known structure. The known hierarchy. You start falling into the same trap that you do in any other kind of collaborative art form. You know, this is my role at this point so I'm not going to participate in the process because that's not my role. I think that the ringleader/conspirator thing is just as much about breaking down those perceived traditional roles as anything.

Rachel: Yeah.

Jeffrey: Sure.

Colin: It's just helpful. And then it also kind of tells an outsider what kind of company this is that we refer to ourselves as conspirators and ringleaders as opposed to artistic directors and ensemble members or company members or whatever.

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Colin: It's a little less stuffy.

Rachel: And it's so funny because ten years ago this was so, everyone was like this is so crazy. That's so wild. And I was in, we were in this equity, diversity, inclusion cohort locally with five other theatres and we were recently in a cohort meeting and they divided us up into positions. So they were like get with people that are your position. So the artistic directors all got together, and I just started looking around going like I don't see what I'm going to do. Because there were some outliers. There was like a grants manager and there's not a grants manager in every group.

Jeffrey: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Rachel: Or from every organization. And Ivania went with the, I think it was like the production manager or type and I looked around and then I'm like who am I doing to go with? And I honestly didn't know who I was going to go with. And then like Howard and Ari, so Howard Shalwitz and Ari Roth-

Jeffrey: Uh-huh (affirmative)

Rachel: Were like Rachel, Rachel, we're over here. It was a very weird thing for me to have them identify me as like belonging to the artistic director and be like we're over here, the artistic directors. And I was like oh, okay I'm an artistic director.

Jeffrey: I love that. I love the playfulness. I love that idea. But what do you do? And this is sort of going to lead us into the world of paying for it. But how do you apply for grants when you are using a set of terminology that is different than what a grant board might be used to reading on the page?

Rachel: Just explain what we mean. I mean I think that, you know one, if they ask who is your managing director? I mean, we don't have one. So we don't leave it blank because I am the managing director, right? If I'm producing artistic director, which I basically am. And they said who is the, and that's the wrong example but, if they say who is your executive director? I mean in that instance and I've found across the board they really want to know who is in the executive position. So I put my name.

Jeffrey: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Rachel: Right? And it is this point in the grant application there is a place for me to note the organizational structure. And so it is explained. And this we're talking about if I'm applying for a grant and it's completely like a cold call application for the thing. I have not experienced, in so long I have not experienced push back about that. And I don't even know that I had pushback in the day. And if there was it was because I just didn't know how to explain us. But it had nothing to do with our titles. It had to do with explaining dog & pony and what our intention was. And our plans for the future. I have never had a problem. And everybody that said but you can't do it. They won't take you seriously. That's wrong.

Colin: Yeah. And actually I think this is a larger tangential question which is people put into grants what they think the grant committee wants to see or read and that not on the grant committee, that's on the people writing the grants. If you use the buzzword like outreach or reaching minority communities or any of the bullshit that goes into grants to get the grant money that's on the grant writer not on the grant reader. So there are creative ways to sell yourself that don't go into the quote traditional nomenclature and traditional terms that yet that would ordinarily would ordinarily get the money. But that's on the writers not the readers.

Jeffrey: In terms of grants and funding and rehearsal, I want to know do you pay all of your actors throughout the rehearsal process and through the performance process?

Rachel: Yes.

Jeffrey: How long have you been doing that for?

Rachel: So I want to make sure I'm representing myself correctly here. When you say rehearsal process what does that mean to you?

Jeffrey: Any time humans are in the room to work through a process leading to production.

Rachel: Okay. So I'm going to let you know then how I define those terms. So there is devising work and then there is rehearsal.

Jeffrey: Okay.

Rachel: Because when we are rehearsing for a production that's rehearsal and we pay everybody for rehearsal.

Jeffrey: Okay.

Rachel: And we payed people for rehearsal and performance starting I don't remember when. I just don't remember.

Jeffrey: Well long enough ago that you don't remember.

Rachel: I know we did it for Toast.

Colin: Yeah. I think-

Rachel: At least four years ago if not five years ago.

Colin: It was always differentiated between who was, because quite frankly not everybody in the ensemble wants to be a part of the writing, devising part.

Rachel: Yes.

Colin: The like sitting around the table devising.

Rachel: But now, yeah.

Colin: They want to be a part of the kind of active devising. Which is rehearsal, actually.

Jeffrey: Got you.

Rachel: Well but no because there is also.

Colin: Right.

Rachel: Right. That's what I'm saying. Rehearsal is for the show. You are rehearsing for a part.

Colin: Right.

Rachel: Now the devising work is creating the show and you might rehearse for anything. So if you are rehearsing for a performance you might devise and then present something. But those people might be like Colin, part of devising and he might show something but that's not rehearsing for a performance. Those people are also paid.

Colin: Right.

Rachel: It's not the same scale, but they are also compensated just like a playwright would be compensated and just like you would pay royalty. I mean that's the equivalent. And so that started with Beertown. With the devising of Beertown and that was, that started in the fall of 2010.

Jeffrey: Okay.

Rachel: And we paid everyone $100 a month for any work that they were doing on Beertown because it was unclear how much work people were going, we just didn't know.

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Rachel: We'd never done, there were twelve people that were in that ensemble to start out with. We had no idea how many people were going to work. We had a self reporting form.

Colin: We were really into, I mean part of the challenge with the devising portion is that it's just as much about gestation as it is about growth. Or active work versus passive work.

Rachel: Thinking about it.

Colin: You know the kind of just letting things percolate in the back of your head and then coming back to it.

Jeffrey: Yeah. Yeah.

Colin: We did the initial devising of Beertown. It was a long process but it wasn't a constant process. So just to get some context for how much access force we were doing. And we did a lot of like, especially with Beertown with them and a little bit of Killing Game as well. We were given like individual assignments to go work on on our own. And it's hard to gauge kind of what anybody was doing.

Rachel: But every process is different and it has to be clear. I don't think, and i think that one of the, you know a hallmark or a dunwoody process is there is always a leader. It's very much a democracy side. It's a consensus state democracy or democratic consensus. I don't know what to call it. Each show we have sort of a general idea for what the show is about and then we have sixteen non male identified people get together for a Friday night, a full day Saturday, and a full day Sunday devising retreat. And came up with all sorts of stuff. And then there were four of us, essentially the core artistic team got together and said okay what is the container for this show? And I said just to get this conversation started there is two directions we can move in based on what we created. We can make it like a peep show type of thing and this is some drama critical stuff. This is some stuff they came up with. Or we can make it a fairy bedtime story little girl's bedroom thing. And the interrogator wrestled with those ideas and ultimately the three of them chose the peep show version and eventually we called it Peepshow. That's how it was all done from show to title. We just called it the contest name because we can't think of a better title. And that show was crated, the structure, the scenes, everything Percy, Tosin, Ivania, and I got on a video chat once a week for the next three months and there was another devising session with less people but it was mostly the three of us that created the show. What do you do with that, you know?

Colin: Yeah. And I think, Jeffery, if you wanted to do a little more research there is, for the Killing Game process we had a reporter embedded within our ranks for an article in the Washington City paper-

Rachel: Oh yeah.

Colin: Talking about her observations. So she came to a lot of the devising sessions and was there for audience sharings or outright audience-

Rachel: Testings.

Colin: Testings.

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Colin: So we were opening up the first iteration of the show. Which then had a second iteration.

Rachel: About 75-80 percent difference. The show changed drastically.

Colin: But I think she could at least, or that article, I think give some context for an outsiders view of what the show, how the process works. Which you know it was an article so it was highly edited down. But I think it was an interesting-

Rachel: Yeah.

Colin: A way of looking at what it is we were doing and just observing kind of our process.

Jeffrey: Yeah. Though you are paying folks at this juncture and you have been for a while now. Have you always had a full time staff member? Have the ringleaders always sort of been able to take any sort of stipend or anything for the sort of organizational work that goes on?

Rachel: No one is a W-2 so there's never been full time staff, but all administrative staff has been paid, yes.

Colin: For their time.

Rachel: For their time.

Jeffrey: Okay. Okay. And how many administrative staff do you have?

Rachel: One and currently one and a half.

Jeffrey: Do you have your own space? Or where do you work?

Rachel: We rent office space from Woolly Mammoth. And then we rent rehearsal and performance space wherever we need to have it. And those decisions are made, the performance space is based on what the show is, completely. The rehearsal space is based on flexibility. You know, parking, metro, co-op.

Colin: Co-op. What's available.

Rachel: What the show needs. How long the rehearsal process is. More and more it is also about an inclusive environment. We want to be in a space that is welcoming to people of all and diverse background and identity expressions and not all buildings are.

Jeffrey: What would you say is your, and you don't have to put a price tag on it, but if you could give me a percent of like what your contributed versus earned income is, that'd be great.

Rachel: Yeah, so we have also, just to be clear, I have really started transitioning us away from dependence on earned income. I think the work that we do based on our mission, which is about self discovery, building connections and relationships between people. And championing social change that is a greater good for the community and it's not about an earned income, so our contributed to earned income is extremely high and it goes back aways. Anywhere from 65, I'm stating the contributed first. It will be like between 65 and 90 percent contributed on any given year. Because we're a devised ensemble and every year's budget changes. Last year our budget was like $119,000 and this year it is closer to $200,000 and that's again based on activities, production, projects, are we touring, have we been commissioned for something?

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Rachel: And I'm sure you know this, but that's typical of every single company.

Jeffrey: Sure. Sure. Sure.

Rachel: The Rude Mechs, the... whatever.

Jeffrey: Yeah, yeah.

Rachel: Right now I can't think of a single ensemble theatre company to save my life, sorry.

Jeffrey: No and that's totally true. Your whole season can change in a day. What is the greatest hurdle that you wish you could eliminate? What would make dog & pony be able to take the next big step?

Rachel: The cost of ASL interpreters.

Jeffrey: What did you absolutely need to get started? When you're looking in the way back machine you wouldn't have been able to get started without this thing or this resource or this person. What do you attribute to saying here's how we got started?

Colin: Can I answer that from an observational point of view?

Rachel: Yeah.

Colin: Well, so-

Rachel: I was going to do the TPN but I figure you go into a much more serious example.

Colin: Well I think the company was started by three people, so Rachel, Lorraine Slone, and Wickham Averly. And I would say the reason they started was that they all worked together at the Shakespeare Theatre. They had a kind of common understanding of each other. And a common desire to do work that they wanted to do but could not do their existing job situation. And so the commonality of that desire I think was the necessary thing. So the ethos was the necessary thing. At that point it wasn't about money. It wasn't about space. It wasn't about time necessarily. It was because they made the time. They found the space. You don't need a lot of money to put on a show when you're just kind of throwing it, you know when you are kind of coming up with it on your own. And so it's based on the way to do that. But it was based on having a shared common goal.

Rachel: A shared common goal.

Colin: And a shared common experience within the art form that they were trying to create and then I think the people who were simpatico with that they kind of fell into it in the early years. Rachel?

Rachel: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. It's interesting because I would say the things that we had I think the shared common goal yeah. I think that we had a, that having a shared common goal is what allowed us to be accepted into the cultural DC which wasn't called cultural DC back then and this program doesn't exist anymore. The flashpoint. The theatre lab flashpoint play producing. Like after we did the first show then we were able to do Punch our second show allowed us to submit that application and be accepted into that program. Which we would not have been able to do had we not had a shared common goal. And I would say the third thing that we had which we needed was you Colin.

Colin: Oh okay.

Rachel: Well because we didn't have a designer.

Colin: Right. Oh okay. A production person.

Rachel: A production person and a production person/designer. And I think I could have production person vest but we didn't have a designer.

Colin: That's actually a really-

Rachel: I'm being cheeky but, because I would say looking back you weren't, there were some decisions that you made construction wise that we regret. Keep laughing. I'm not going to talk about them right now. Or possibly ever. But I think the designer and I think that's why courage was so successful because we got Ivania involved and that's when Ivania came and we turned a corner. Because that's when I became really imaginative in design and we became a really stronger design forward company. So I would say those are the three things that made the company. That solidified the company. The shared common goal. And I'm going to say there are four things. Sorry I know you said one thing but I'm going to say there are four things. Is that the shared common goal was not put in cement which is a very decent thing to do. You like memorialize that shared common goal and put it in a base and say that's it for eternity. But the goal was allowed to grow over time.

Colin: Yeah. And evolve.

Rachel: And evolve. And I don't believe our goal now is different from what our goal was then it's just that it is mature.

Jeffrey: I'm looking at the clock and I just want to hit some lightning round questions with you all. You ready?

Rachel: Yep.

Colin: Sure.

Jeffrey: Okay. What's your favorite salutation?

Colin: Yoga salutation? What are-

Jeffrey: Oh! Even better! Yeah whatever you interpret that as. But what is your favorite greeting I guess is what I normally understand, get.

Colin: Good morning, a very cheery good morning.

Rachel: Hi and a hug.

Jeffrey: Great. What is your favorite exclamation?

Colin: Son of a bitch.

Rachel: Fuck me.

Jeffrey: What is your favorite form of transportation?

Colin: Bicycle.

Rachel: My feet.

Jeffrey: Great. What does ensemble mean to you?

Rachel: A group of individuals that have been working together over an extended period of time that have a shared vocabulary and test out the technical... and a shared vocabulary mindset and spirit.

Colin: A group of people who trust each other unconditionally.

Jeffrey: What would you be doing if not theatre?

Colin: Park ranger. So maybe not any more [inaudible 01:07:31] to fuck with.

Rachel: No shit.

Colin: But park ranger.

Rachel: I don't know. Teaching yoga I guess. I don't know what I would be doing.

Jeffrey: It's all good.

Rachel: That what I ask myself every day.

Jeffrey: It's too late for me to start driving race cars. I don't know. I'm with you though. What is the opposite of dog & pony?

Colin: Ford Theatre.

Rachel: Oh my god. I was going to say. What's the show Exit to Margaritaville? What's that show that's online?

Colin: Exit to Margaritaville

Rachel: Exit to Margaritaville.

Jeffrey: Fantastic. And what is your favorite kind of ice cream?

Rachel: Vanilla frozen yogurt. With colored sprinkles on it.

Colin: I don't know. Peach.

Rachel: I hate you. I can't believe you just said that. I can't believe you just said that.

Jeffrey: Oh.

Colin: She hates peach ice cream.

Jeffrey: It sounds like this is a good place to end.

Rachel: He just said that to annoy me.

Colin: Or pumpkin pie I think.

Jeffrey: Oh my gosh.

Rachel: I hate that too.

Jeffrey: See I find ice cream to be the most divisive thing. Sorry about that team. Listen. We need to find a way. I've been waiting to see Beertown for a long time. And I'm just saying Chicago is waiting for it. So I hope you can find a way to bring it here.

Rachel: I've been pitching it to a number of theatres in Chicago so finding one that will partner with me to write an adaptation of it. So I'm happy to do it.

Jeffrey: All right. Thanks team. We'll talk to you soon.

Colin: Bye Jeff.

Jeffrey: Bye bye.


Jeffrey: I'm not gong to lie. This entire episode was so satisfying to me. Rachel and Colin put words to a lot of ideas and topics that I like to float around in. But they do the deep, deep dive into ensemble and audience relationships and I am really grateful for their conversation around everything. But in particular audience participation versus interaction. I really love what Colin had to say about thinking outside the box when describing work. The whole framework of de-centering traditional practices connects precisely to what I asked Quita Sullivan from NEFA about regarding how ensembles can sometimes stray from the traditional titles or roles or other language that other grant seekers go through.

Also I had an aha moment when Rachel said that they consider devising time separate from rehearsal. And the fact that some actors really don't want to be involved in the devising process. This is so true and so great to know about oneself. The way in which you want to contribute and your capacity and interest as a creator. Okay. That's all for now. As I mentioned I hope to see you all at TCG this week. Remember I'll be presenting on Friday 7 June so please go to the beach early. Don't wait until Friday afternoon. I cannot wait to see you there. Remember to find us on Facebook or Twitter at FTGUpod or email us at [email protected]. All right, thanks. And we will see you all next time on From the Ground Up.

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Thoughts from the curator

From the Ground Up is here to ask questions about ensemble-based creation. Who’s doing it? How is it practiced? Are they paid? Are they able to thrive? We’re also examining that word: Ensemble. What does it mean? There is no roadmap, format, prescription, description, or rubber stamp to the way ensemble-based work is made from place to place and process to process. This podcast interviews companies from around the country on how they make and pay for the art. If you have questions about where to begin or what to do next with your own company, stay tuned.

From the Ground Up Podcast


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