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Making and Paying for the Art

Creating ensemble-based theater is one thing. Paying for it is another. Jeffrey Mosser does three case studies of established ensemble theaters exploring the creating and paying for the art.

“Model the Movement,” Theatre Communications Group’s 2012 slogan, was stuck in my head for a long time. In particular it was the word “Model” that I couldn’t shake. At the conference I found myself surrounded by all kinds of theaters large and small, established and fringe, who followed a business or artistic model. But it was at the Network of Ensemble Theatres breakfast where I met some that said, “there is no model for what we’re doing.”

A light bulb was illuminated. Sometimes you just need someone to state the obvious.

Rewind to 2008. I’m an education intern at Actors Theatre of Louisville. Every classroom I’m in I get to devise how to get from A to Z. I’ve brought with me a bunch of improv and Forum theater experience, but it would be a while until I was making theater with a group of people with the same artistic goals as mine. Throughout those years in Louisville I was very fortunate to observe ensemble-creators at the Humana Festival for New American Plays. In particular I was able to observe three companies with three very different methods: the SITI Company, the Rude Mechanicals, and members from the former Theatre de la Jeune Leune.

Truth be told, I still was a hair skeptical on how companies can truly work like this. How can they get anything done without a more hierarchical structure? So of course I sat in rehearsal as much as I could. While each group developed their production in distinctly different ways, one could tell that they had it. And by it I mean a plethora of things individual to those groups, but most importantly they were working with a focus that comes from understanding one another.

But how did they get to this it? And how are they still together— financially, artistically? The non-traditional model of creation is frequently mysterious if only because it is hard to understand without doing. How do you work as a group? How do you work without a script? How do you ask someone to fund a group without a script?

Before we go any further, I want to be sure we’re all on the same page with the definition of “non-traditional”—at least how I intended it above. A few definitions for your consideration.

Traditional Theater = an organization that offers a season of programming. Programming includes plays that may be new, classic, or contemporary. Works have been selected by an artistic and/or literary committee, and are rehearsed in a condensed set of weeks before being performed. Works are also decided considering risk and budgetary constraints. New plays may receive attention or some form of development. Structurally hierarchical, its personnel retain titles. Actors and directors are frequently auditioned or selected as part of an audition or for particular interest/ability in a piece/style.

Non-traditional Theatre or Ensemble Theatre = an organization that may or may not: generate one project over a long period of time, have one playwright, or utilize titles such as actor, director, or playwright while creating. Personnel may have several slashes in their titles, such as: playwright/director, actor/administrator, etc.

That was hard.

Let’s also agree that it is very difficult to pigeon-hole any theater into either of these definitions, and that to pigeon-hole is to lose flexibility. Yes? Certainly both kinds of organizations do what is conducive to their process. The Network of Ensemble Theatre’s defines “ensemble” as “a group of individuals dedicated to collaborative creation, committed to working together consistently over years to develop a distinctive body of work and practices.”

I’m interested in those practices, especially how they’re funded. In the following blogs I hope to shed light on how three companies, The TEAM of New York City, foolsFURY of San Francisco, and Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble of Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, invested in and built their ensembles from the ground up. Three groups with unique approaches, backgrounds, and structures.

That being said… to each group let me ask some “traditional” questions:

What is your earned versus contributed revenue?

When did you develop a board?

How do you fundraise when you don’t have the title of the play?

And some “Non-Traditional” questions:

How do you tell someone that they have a bad idea?

Who decides when the group needs another member?

Does everyone get paid?

Throughout, I aim to highlight similarities in order that future ensemble artists don’t let a fear of the unknown bar them from attempting to create. Let’s get started.


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Thoughts from the curator

Jeffrey Mosser does three case studies of established ensemble theatres exploring the creating and paying for the art.

Ensembles Making and Paying for Art


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I'm definitely interested in this topic, but at the risk of getting hung up on semantics, I think your terms of "traditional" vs. "non-traditional" are off the mark. Moscow Art Theater is pretty much as traditional as it gets when it comes to theatrical "tradition" and they take years to rehearse a work. Groups like The Wooster Group, SITI, Complicite, etc... have long been established and important parts of what could easily be labeled the "modern theatrical tradition." If you want to go back as far as Comedia, you'll find groups that frequently worked without a script, and merely put characters in different situations. What you seem to be focusing on is what many people would call "devised" work, and more specifically, devised work within the context of an ensemble. There are many "ensembles" who would focus more on what you're calling "traditional" here, (Steppenwolf being one example, though you could argue about whether or not they truly function as an ensemble.)

It's certainly an important discussion to have, but I think it's equally important not to use misleading terms, and to have this conversation within the context of the broader theatrical discussion that has already been going on, without reinventing and relabeling things.

I also want to bring up an interesting notion that a very talented friend of mine pointed out when i was lamenting the lack of successful and innovative ensembles operating in the united states. His argument was that having a reliable stable of actors all working in the same city, all ending up in the same shows together on a regular basis, start to form a sort of community-wide ensemble. They build up the kind of history that you need in a more "traditional" "ensemble" in order for that group of actors to really cohere as a unit. I don't know if I'm fully on board with his suggestion, but I do think he has a very interesting and very valid point. Particularly operating under the understanding that ensemble theater has never played as significant of a role in the American theater as it has in Europe, and most likely never will.

Hey Ben,
First, thanks for starting the discussion.

I wholeheartedly agree that we could get caught up in semantics. For sake of argument I meant to separate "ensemble" models from "regional non-profit" models (or artist-based decision making models vs. artistic/managing dir. models). I do not deny that there is an entire spectrum of devised, ensemble, (non-)linear, etcetera-created work being done in the US which avoids all these pigeonholes. The Venn Diagram could be huge! (Let's make it!) A previous draft of this article included a case-in-point description how the SITI Company straddles the line on these definitions, but then my editor reminded me that I was already over my word count. Also, Universes (for profit) at Oregon Shakespeare Festival is a curious case. Ok. Over my word count again.

I should say that I meant to focus on these models in the United States, because funding for arts here is unlike anywhere else. An ensemble-based group creating from scratch in the United States is working against the grain of what grant funding may understand as a "traditional" development for a production timeline. We're at a turning point in how non-profits work (see Gordon Cox's "Defining the Relationship" article American Theatre's March 2014 issue http://www.tcg.org/publicat... -- so why not with ensemble models vs. the non-profit model. Isn't your friends European-Ensemble-Style a model worth exploring amongst our current non/commercial theatrical models?

That being said, would you mind pointing out the current terms within the broader theatrical discussion? Is there a particular article with terms already defined that I might be able to reference?

I don't think there's really a definitive source, but i feel like "devised theater" is a well accepted term, as is "ensemble based theater." Delineating your discussion between "traditional" and "non-traditional" just doesn't feel quite right.

Everything you're saying makes sense though. You're right that there are certain models that funders have an easier time wrapping their heads around, and that would fall within what you are labeling "traditional."

You're also very likely correct in suggesting that it's a turning point in how non-profits operate. No one can really predict the future, and maybe there will be room in the American landscape for some true ensembles, with full time actors earning a full time salary to develop work together year round. I would love to see it, and I think that it could be done with the right people who have the right kind of motivation, and can earn the support of the right kind of open minded donors.

Looking forward to reading more - I'm building a company in Reading, PA, and these are all questions I'd love to ask to give us something to consider as we find our own answers.