Interview with Benny Sato Ambush by Jeff Freeman

Sitting down with Mr. Benny Ambush to talk about his work with Emerson Stage, I was struck by the sense of showmanship that blends into his every motion. Mr. Ambush has been a prolific contributor to the theatre landscape both home and abroad and as such it seems only natural that a dramatic sensibility might infuse his personality. With passion tempered speech, and a declarative tendency to make each point count I felt like I was getting to see the show offstage.

Speaking about the performing arts program at Emerson College, I was intrigued by the dual nature of the discussion. On the one hand we spoke about an established structure in which Mr. Ambush takes great pride. Emerson College is a well-known presence on the East Coast with over six theatres, and more performance space than any institution in Boston. However, there was also a sense that Emerson College an institution that is growing; moving towards a redefined sense of identity and an even deeper connection with the American Theater project. From both angles, the program’s core seems to be innovation and a constant reevaluation of its own capabilities and purpose. The result? A school that is teaching itself, and its students, how to take that next step.

a man smiling at the camera
Benny Sato Ambush. Photo by Emerson 
Stage. 

Jeff: How many years have you been working with Emerson Stage?

Benny: I came here in September 2008. This is my fifth year.

There’s mentoring of all the students involved by working professionals at every step. It is the most evolved production apparatus that our department has, and we operate according to industry standard work ethic and protocol.

Jeff: And after those five years, what would you say the purpose of Emerson Stage is? The website says it’s “to enhance the cultural life of Emerson College and the larger local community through the presentation of meaningful, diverse, and multicultural programming that upholds high artistic standards and a commitment to open-minded cultural exchange.” Is it achieving its mission?

Benny: Well that mission statement was probably written years ago by other people, and we’ve evolved a great deal since then. And although the new iteration of our mission statement isn’t on the website yet, those of us on the Emerson Stage Advisory Committee do have consensus on what it is.

This is what I think it is. It’s the professional training laboratory for the performing arts department. It’s where our students get to put into active practice the pedagogy and the curricular instruction that they get in class and as such, it’s a necessary compliment to their training. What distinguishes it from other production activity that the performing arts department does is the level of professionalism—the productions are directed by working professional faculty or guest artists. There’s mentoring of all the students involved by working professionals at every step. It is the most evolved production apparatus that our department has, and we operate according to industry standard work ethic and protocol. Students learn what is expected in terms of rigor and discipline, and their roles and responsibilities as a working practitioner operating in as close to a professional work situation as we can provide.

It’s process oriented. It gives many of our students a chance to build their portfolios, especially in the design areas. It’s a collaborative growth experience. And without actually doing it, my feeling is that training is only half complete. I have a metaphor I use. Classes are absolutely essential and there’s a certain amount of practice that takes place in class, but without going through the entire production process and then performing in front of a paying audience, you are only doing flight simulator work. It’s important. And, before pilots get up in the air they do flight simulator work. But you cannot get licensed as a pilot without logging in significant time in the air with a mentor right next to you making sure you don’t crash the plane! Emerson Stage can provide a master-apprentice relationship between grown up practitioners who have been at it a long time with students who are learning. We expect the process that’s involved in Emerson Stage productions to be a growth experience. We don’t expect it to be perfect.

So along with the chance to actually do it under professional circumstances, it’s where students also get to learn about the responsibilities, the ethics and expectations essential to becoming qualified, confident professional artists and practitioners. And we get a chance to work in any one of the six, count them, six theatres that this college owns. We have an embarrassment of riches in terms of the facilities that we can use. And in and around all of that, as we’re doing what we do from whatever angle, onstage or backstage we hope to be carrying out the mission of the college, the school of the arts, and the performing arts department: nurturing students to become informed, imaginative, socially conscious, risk taking, critically thinking, civic minded, ethically responsible, creative, entrepreneurial, communicative global citizens engaging with the world! All of those things! We just do it through the arts. It’s all of that.

So that’s what Emerson Stage does—all of it in the service of the larger human understanding.

Jeff: Is there anything you feel really sets Emerson Stage apart from other producing organizations at other schools? Is there anything Emerson does a little differently?

Benny: Well I don’t know about differently. Because I’ve seen other departments do similar things. That said, our department is amazingly collegial. You know as individuals we don't always agree about everything, but we don’t go to war over it as opposed to other places where the air might be a bit more acrimonious. We have people who look out for each other. We feel that if one of us looks good then we all look good.

One other thing that might make us different is that we do a lot. We do eight productions a year. That’s more than most professional theatres. Eight! And a variety at that. Two of them are musicals. One, X-Dance, is a dance performance that is student performed and student choreographed, and open to the entire college. Newfest is available for any student on campus that writes a play, and every year we do a TYA play. Most people don’t know this but TYA, Theatre for Young Audiences, as a concept and as a subset of the theatrical universe was born at Emerson College in the 1920s.

So we do a lot. We do more than most theatres, and we do it all out.

Jeff: Have there been unanticipated challenges? Especially challenges arising from working in a collegiate setting?

Benny: We run into them all the time! One of the things we do here is a post-production assessment after every show closes with the entire creative team, students and faculty. We actually just did that for our show Small Steps that just closed last week.

Well, one of the challenges that happened during that show was a little thing called super storm Sandy! The hurricane knocked out a whole day of work right during tech period. There was a lot of scrambling and adjusting and plan B strategizing to get the show open on time. And it was a massive effort by many people. But, we got through it. It was difficult, but we got through it. That was a challenge generated by an act of god, but stuff happens. Stuff happens all the time, and we like any theatre, just find a way to deal with it, to get the show up and running. The show must go up on time, no matter what. And often with insufficient resources. We make it happen! We should be running the country!

Some of the challenges are in the people realm because we deal with human beings and human beings are erratic, and volatile and surprising. For instance, we make arrangements with a guest artist and they fall through because something changes in that guest artist’s life.

But we constantly look at what we do and try to make systems better—to make communications better.

So the show I directed this year, Tartuffe, opened the Emerson Stage season. But as a result of years of discussions about scheduling, we decided to start rehearsal for Tartuffe a week before classes began. This meant the cast had to shorten their summer, get here and find a place to live before the dorms opened. But man, did that make a difference! It not only served the play in terms of our preparedness but it solved all kinds of scheduling issues with our production calendar. That’s an innovation that came out of our talking about it for a long time, asking “How can we make life easier?”

Stuff happens all the time, and we like any theatre, just find a way to deal with it, to get the show up and running. The show must go up on time, no matter what.

Jeff: When you look at the program, what do you see as the next step? Where is there room to grow?

Benny: I don’t see how it’s possible but I wish we could do more productions than we do because our department is so large, and everyone wants to work. If there’s one thing that Emerson students know, it’s doing. There’s a lot of doing on a lot of different levels here, but at the Emerson Stage level I would love to be doing more productions.

We only perform five times in one week. It’d be great if we could do two or three weeks, but in terms of staffing, space budgets, people’s energy, calendars, all of that, we’re pretty much at our limit here.

Jeff: Is there anything that ties the shows Emerson produces together? Is there a sort of through line.

Benny: I don’t think so. There have been attempts during my five years. We had looked at the possibility of doing theme connected seasons. But it’s difficult, because we’ve got all these different degree granting areas with needs that have to be fulfilled.

Virtually every corner of the performing arts department intersects at Emerson Stage. We’re a theatre training program. Basically theatre is about performance, right? Plays are literature, yes, but they’re meant to be performance. And because we train actors, every kind of designer, stage managers, production managers and dramaturges, all the different areas have curricular, pedagogical, artistic and aesthetic needs that Emerson Stage can fulfill. That’s a lot of territory to cover in just eight productions. So, what’s really driving the decisions about plays is more how can play selection fulfill as many of those needs as possible. So at times there may be connections, we try to make connections, but it’s really driven more by departmental needs.

And it’s not possible with eight productions a year to meet the needs all in one season. So sometimes we have to plan who gets the love when. Sometimes we have to say, “the year after we’ll get to that.” Sometimes people have to be patient.

Now that we have the Office of the Arts, ArtsEmerson, and the Center for the Theatre Commons, wonderful things can come out of that cocktail of possibilities.

Jeff: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

Benny: I’d just like to say that at base we are training tomorrow’s working professionals. The artists of tomorrow onstage today. But it’s not just onstage, it’s offstage and backstage. We are open to the public. Although a lot of the people in the seats are students, there are also members of the public, and in that regard we are a producing theatre at a theatrical college in this city.

Now that we have the Office of the Arts, ArtsEmerson, and the Center for the Theatre Commons, wonderful things can come out of that cocktail of possibilities. Because we’re all under one roof! We’re in different parts of the college but we’re all under one roof.

Cafe Variations could be a template of what’s to come. That was a joint venture between three distinct producing entities who on their own could probably not have pulled that project off, but together ArtsEmerson, SITI Company, and the Department of the Performing Arts made it happen. We had eleven of our acting students working onstage, side by side with Anne Bogart’s SITI Company. We had a bunch of students working behind the scenes, in the shops in the various design capacities, to put that trifecta producing entity together to create Cafe Variations, the theatrical staging of Charles Mee’s Cafe plays.

And so we’re looking at that example as possibly a new way for new play development. A different way of doing it. A different model for creating new work by combining resources. And we’ve got a bunch of really exciting resources. There’s a big buzz going on in the country about what’s going on in Boston. And that’s not just me saying it and being a cheerleader. As I go out around the country, and I’m involved in a lot of different things...last weekend I was in New York for their national TCG fall forum on governance, and people wanted to know what we’re doing up here! Couple of weeks earlier, I was at the National Theater Conference and theatre practitioners and teachers from all over the country have great interest in what we’re doing. Stuff is going on in Boston, and we’re a part of it. Emerson Stage is a part of it.

The other night I saw Ted Hughes’s Tales From Ovid at ArtsEmerson. Meg Taintor, the Artistic Director of Whistler in the Dark Theater formed her company in Boston, and now her company is doing work that is flying under the banner of ArtsEmerson in one of our spaces that Emerson Stage performs in. I saw it last night and it was wonderful.

And this weekend I’m attending this Third Bohemia retreat, an artist gathering with artists from all over Boston that Todd London from New Dramatists started and is bringing to Boston in collaboration with the Center for the Theatre Commons. They’re coming right here, it’s here at Emerson in the very spaces that Emerson Stage uses.

Things are percolating....

 

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Those of us in the Bay Area have known for years about the force of nature that is Benny Sato Ambush. Boston and Emerson are lucky to have him. And having been a joyful participant in the first Third Bohemia retreat, I can't think of a better match. I look forward to hearing great things.

terrific interview. So interesting to read all these articles about Emerson! And good to hear from my friend Benny Sato Ambush.