Attending My Own Wake
The End of an Ensemble
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?
I was standing in the lobby of a friend's show last spring, talking to an acquaintance from the community. Unfortunately, I already knew what the conversation was going to be: she had smiled too brightly at me and hugged me just a little too long when she saw me, and now, tilting her head with concern and stepping just a little closer, she asked the question.
“So, how are you?”
It had been pretty much the same interaction I'd had in a half a dozen theatre lobbies in the last month: a funereal hug of consolation, a bracing smile, and that inevitable head tilt. I was beginning to feel like a character in an absurdist play.
So, how are you?
The next question was equally predictable. Stepping ever so slightly closer, and lowering her voice to just a murmur: “So, what happened...really?”
I'll back up.
For the past nine years, I had been the Artistic Director of Whistler in the Dark, a small ensemble working on the fringes of Boston. We had been steadily building a reputation for elegantly sparse, smart and moving productions of often-difficult political texts. In the past few years, in particular, a clear and interesting aesthetic was being honed and we were in an enthusiastic dialogue with our audience around the work. Thanks to a new program, pay-what-you-want ticketing, (based off learning from Available Light Theatre) we had seen an increase in both audience size and average ticket price. Our donor base was growing with our audience. We even had, dare I say it, street cred.
All of us create theatre that is meaningful to each member and to our diverse audiences. We prize most highly the benefits that arise from artists working together over extended periods of time.
And then, on February 16 of 2014, I sent out an email announcing that our upcoming production of Caryl Churchill's Far Away would be our final show and that at the end of our current season, the ensemble of Whistler in the Dark Theatre would be disbanding.
Nothing major or dramatic had triggered the announcement—just a quiet and growing realization that our work as an ensemble was done. And rather than soldier on for a few more seasons and let the ensemble become somehow less than it was, we decided to finish out our season while we were still in love with the work, and then celebrate our nine years with a kick-ass wake.
“So, what happened...really?”
Whistler was founded in 2005 by two fellow Middlebury College alums and myself. On the most basic level, we started the company for the same reason that most young artists form companies: the work we wanted to do wasn't being done and so it was our job to do it. We all believed strongly in open collaborative conversations about the work—and believed strongly in empowered actors who could have a strong voice in the shape of the company.
From our inception, enshrined in our mission statement was the goal “to develop an ensemble of theatrical artists and audiences dedicated to exploring plays that celebrate the imagination through linguistic acrobatics and a stripping away of extraneous trappings.” Wordy and clumsy though that is, I've always been proud of the fact that we deliberately structured our vision to include the audience as part of our ensemble. And since the very first show, our audience showed up to be a part of that ensemble—engaging us in lively (sometimes heated) conversations about the work—and becoming passionate advocates for the company in the community.
Over the years, we gathered artists into our ensemble, sometimes officially, as artists joined the formal ranks (and website roster) as “Artistic Associates,” and sometimes very informally but equally powerfully as we started to weave a web of collaborators across Boston. For the first six seasons, this ensemble was largely artistic, with very little formal conversation about the business of the company. We had regular meetings where we talked about the work, dreamed up future projects, discussed other work we were seeing and doing (most of the ensemble free-lanced around Boston at a variety of theatres) and how it informed our own projects.
A sidebar here: let's talk about the term “ensemble.” In its manifesto, the Network of Ensemble Theaters defines ensemble theatre thus:
Some ensembles create original work; others work interpretively or with adaptations. Some ensembles are rooted in the community, whether that community is geographic, intellectual, aesthetic, or ethnic. Other ensembles consciously stand apart from community in order to critique and provoke. All of us create theatre that is meaningful to each member and to our diverse audiences. We prize most highly the benefits that arise from artists working together over extended periods of time.
There are as many different structures of ensembles as there are companies. Sometimes there are multiple leaders who share the responsibility for making the larger decisions of the company, sometimes the group as a whole makes those choices. Some ensembles are comprised of their members only, some audition and bring in new artists for each project. Some spend years developing and devising new work, with scripts or without, some work on existing scripts and approach them through non-conventional ways.
I'm an ensemble theatre artist. I like messy collaborations. I thrive in rooms where ideas are flying from everyone, and our role is to capture them, to explore them—maybe to explode them—and to hone them into a performance that can illuminate something new, or needing-to-be-known about life.
For Whistler, being an ensemble theatre meant that in the room, we were actively working to shed ourselves of a hierarchical structure. Our designers were in the room with us as early and often as possible. Our stage managers were part of the artistic conversation. To practice this outside of the rehearsal hall, we had regular trainings that served as laboratories where different collaborators would lead exercises and ideas for us to work on, as a group.
I'm an ensemble theatre artist. I like messy collaborations. I thrive in rooms where ideas are flying from everyone, and our role is to capture them, to explore them—maybe to explode them—and to hone them into a performance that can illuminate something new, or needing-to-be-known about life. I am at my best when my ideas are never treated as the best ideas in the room, but when the ensemble creating the piece feels free and safe enough to bring in anything and together we can shape it. My job, as I've always expressed it, is to, with the designers, make sure the world is as clear and understood as possible, and then to get out of the way for a little while.
However, somewhere around our sixth season, something started shifting in the way the ensemble worked together. Our ensemble was, at the largest point, comprised of twelve artists—actors, directors, stage managers and designers—and while we functioned beautifully in the rehearsal hall, something was starting to turn outside of it.
Part of it was growth—with so many of us working, we began to do more and more work. It felt almost impossible to say no—after all, we were all passionate about our projects, and we had the framework to use to approach them. By our sixth season, we had ballooned from two to three projects in our early years to six to seven projects. And the work was still good. Actually, the work was getting better each show—it's just that we were getting burned out. We were all holding down full-time jobs outside of the company as well (I take it as a point of pride that we always paid our artists—and paid every artist the same—but at our most lucrative, that stipend capped out at $500 a show) and with projects backing up on each other, we all felt the strain.
Time and money. It is a lesson learned by every ensemble, I think. We were just learning it the hard way. And so for two years, the company sprinted forward—doing excellent work, but tired and poor and not seeing a way off the treadmill.
And then, at the end of our eighth season, we met to talk about what was going on. We had a tough, tight meeting—the kind of meeting you can only have with people in whose pockets you have been living for years—and what came out over and over again was surprising.
We loved each other. We loved working together. We loved being in process together. We loved each other's work. And for all that, it wasn't working. There was something about the alchemy of these people in a room together that no longer was helping us grow. Instead, it was hurting us.
The meeting ended with a stepping away. Some of the ensemble wanted a year away to work with other companies exclusively and learn about themselves outside of the context of Whistler. Some wanted a year away from theatre entirely. And some of us wanted to keep working, but to put the brakes on in a very real way. So for our ninth season, we produced just two full-length plays, both with small casts, both by Caryl Churchill. We allowed ourselves long, luxurious rehearsal periods. We took a long break between the two processes.
The work was good. And the room was healthy.
And in the time we had bought ourselves for reflection by paring down our schedule, we all started to realize the same thing: we were done. Whistler in the Dark had been the name for a specific group of people working in a specific time, and that time was ending. We still loved each other, respected each other's work—in fact, still wanted to collaborate with each other. But Whistler, as it had existed, was ending.
“So, how are you?”
I think I expected to have a bigger mourning process than I did. After all, for close to a decade, really for most of my professional life, Whistler had been my artistic home, my second (mostly unpaid) job, and my community of collaborators. But when we met to discuss disbanding the company, I felt so strongly that we weren't taking action against the company so much as realizing what was happening organically, and naming it so that we could make the process as healthy as possible.
At the end of my letter announcing the disbanding of the company, I wrote:
We are in a very special place right now—a place that few companies get to inhabit. While we look towards the future and see the closing of the company, we still have three months of work...and so we are in this unique moment of getting to be both generative and nostalgic at the same time.
That three-month window of time between the announcement and the wake was critical for both the ensemble and for our community. So often when theaters close or companies disband, we learn about it in shock the next day, after it is too late for us to say goodbye or rally in support. For small theaters, like Whistler, often the end is marked by a fading away rather than a specific moment in time.
But our moment in time gave us time to process, and the wake was a wholly joyous event. It was filled with casseroles and whiskey and singing and memories and pop-up performances. It was attended by former and current Whistlers, by our audiences and by our community. In celebrating our closing, we had an event that mirrored the company at its best.
At the end of The Fervent Years, Harold Clurman's account of the Group Theatre (an ensemble that lasted ten years), Clurman declares:
What is a true theatre? It is a body of craftsmen—actors, directors, designers, technicians, administrative staff—united on a permanent basis to develop its own technique, to embody a common attitude to life that an audience more or less shares. Such theatres may be socially, politically, or religiously motivated, but each of them must develop an identity, a style, a “face,” a meaning of its own.…Above all, true theatre sets itself a goal and plans its work as a lifelong continuity, very much as the individual artist does.
I believe this to be absolutely true. My love for ensemble ways of working is caught up in this idea of creating a culture of continuity for the growth not just of individuals, but of ensembles as well. But that very continuity cannot be how a company defines success. Continuity comes in the form of perseverance over time to the values of collaboration and dialogue around the work. Sometimes, as in our case, success is knowing when to step back and let the next thing begin.
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Lovely description of a company celebrating its success with grace and allowing artists to move on as part of the natural life cycle of an ensemble.