A Living History of Ensemble Theatre (or Bob Leonard’s Ensemble Encyclopedia)
Jeffrey Mosser: Dear artists, welcome to another episode of From the Ground Up podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. I’m your host, Jeffrey Mosser, recording from the ancestral homeland of the Potawatomi, Ho-Chunk, and Menominee, now known as Milwaukee, Wisconsin. These episodes are shared digitally to the internet. Let’s take a moment to consider the legacy of colonization embedded within the technology, structure, and ways of thinking that we use every day. We are using equipment and high-speed internet not available in many Indigenous communities. Even the technologies that are central to much of the work we make leave a significant carbon footprint contributing to climate change that disproportionately affects Indigenous people worldwide. I invite you to join me in acknowledging the truth and violence perpetrated in the name of this country, as well as our shared responsibility to make good of this time and for each of us to consider our roles and reconciliation, decolonization, and allyship.
Dear artists, this is a big fish. Bob Leonard, a founder of so many things “ensemble” has had his hands in the creation of the Network of Ensemble Theaters and Alternate ROOTS. He also invokes so many names, including Steven Kent, a prolific creator; someone who has touched companies we’ve interviewed, including Urban Bush Women—again, season three, episode one—and Junebug Productions, season one, episode six. He is also a prominent member at Alternate ROOTS, which is one of the big arenas we will discuss with Bob today. I’ll leave some info about him in the show page.
Bob also mentions Jeremy Rifkin and the People’s Bicentennial Commission, a figure that I didn’t know much about until I started my own Google searches. There are so many other organizations and people he mentions, including Jo Carson, the Living Theatre, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, Bread and Puppet, Bob Alexander and the Living Stage Improv Theatre, Augusto Boal, Paulo Freire, Myles Horton, the Highlander Folk School, and past members of the Network of Ensemble Theater boards: Lisa Mount, Carlton Turner, and Linda Parris-Bailey.
While you don’t need to know everything about everyone here to enjoy this conversation, I will be sure to link things to all of them on the show page at howlround.com. I say all of this in advance in order that I might tell you that speaking with Bob was like speaking with the Encyclopedia Britannica of ensemble theatre. You read one little thing that has about fifteen footnotes, and then each of them are also the makeup of the American ensemble experience. Fascinating, to me at least. He also mentions Rhiannon Giddens, who is now in heavy rotation on my Spotify. So, that’s a fun reference in here as well.
A quick note to you all. I had significant audio issues in the recording of this episode. I don’t know what it was. This is one of my first interviews with a new computer, so I’m not exactly sure what happened. So, I hope you can forgive me when my voice gets a bit choppy about forty minutes in. Deal? Okay. Thanks. I’m so sorry. Again, I’m trying to deal with it, trying to figure it all out, y’all.
Also, Bob wants me to tell you that he misspoke in the episode. He said “supreme carrot” when he meant to say “sublime carrot.” All right, cool? That’s a neat little Easter egg for you to figure out what that’s all about when we get to it. To those of you who really look forward to the sound-check lightning round at the end, you’re going to be a little bit disappointed as we actually included it at the beginning of this episode.
I do like to ask all of my guests, “What does ensemble mean to you?” And the way that Bob responded to this was such a great transition into our actual conversation that I just wanted to keep it at the top of our episode today. The question is so fascinating to me because it actually tells me something about the interview I’m about to have. It’s like sort of a Rorschach test. And so I love that Bob will come right out of the gates and basically open up our episode with it.
Okay. That’s about all for now. Please join me in listening to Bob Leonard, legend of the ensemble-theatre world and teacher at Virginia Tech University, Zooming in from the Moneton and Tutelo lands. We chatted on October 6, 2022.
ROOTS began to grow when we started playing together. And the shape of ROOTS, the organizational shape of ROOTS, emerged out of play.
Jeffrey: Can you tell me your favorite salutation, how you greet people?
Bob Leonard: “Hey,” it’s usually something I do, or “Hey there.”
Jeffrey: What’s your favorite exclamation?
Jeffrey: How about favorite transportation?
Bob: I really love my little pickup.
Jeffrey: How about your favorite ice cream?
Bob: Chocolate, but it goes right to my nose. I wear it like a teenager.
Jeffrey: What does the word “ensemble” mean to you?
Bob: Oh, well, here we go. Ensemble, when applied to theatre— I think ensemble’s been around for a while in the music world, referring to a group of musicians who are not conducted by a director but are self-conducted. That’s sort of an old classical-music frame. Of course jazz ensembles— it’s possible to speak about jazz ensembles. And again, it has to do with the collective guidance of the music rather than a particular conductor or lead.
In the theatre, it’s another place, but theatre has a long, relatively recent affection with the director, and organizing of theatre has been predicated around an artistic leader, whether it’s called artistic director, producer, executive director, something like that in which the flow of organizational direction is top down.
And within that, there can be an acknowledgement that the creative process is not necessarily top down, but there’s very often a kind of assumption in contemporary, if you will, mainstream thinking that the director runs the show. And ensemble in the theatre is relative to music—use of that term in music—quite recent.
When I started out with my company, I tended to use the word “troupe.” We were a troupe or a company, but not in the sense of an incorporation, but in the sense of a company of people. We didn’t use the term “ensemble.” But when “ensemble” started becoming around, I realized that’s indeed what we were, even though we didn’t call ourselves that.
And over time, I’ve become more rigorous, particularly in the conversations that emerged as we were trying to put together the Network of Ensemble Theaters: Okay, what is it we’re talking about? And I think this is true for— in the music world as well. But the commitment of a group of artists, theatre artists in this case, to a long-term inquiry into the making of theatre that is collective in nature, that there is a collective whole, whomever that group might be.
And that collectiveness also begins to inform the organizational structure. However, I think that there is a pretty good range within the practice of ensemble theatremaking that includes some form of a vertical structure of power that has to do with how the group chooses to do. I think it’s possible to maintain a collective artistic voice in both the immediate iteration of any particular work and long-term growth of the company, of the group, without having it necessarily mean that you don’t have any titled functions.
I mean, some folks just say, “Okay, there is no director, there is no hierarchy. Everybody pitches in and does everything.” But many people find that they’re more comfortable when there are assigned functions. A really dear man, a mentor of mine, a colleague by the name of Steve Kent, liked to make a very careful distinction between role and function. I have held to that pretty strongly myself.
There are different functions that need to get done, and some people are more able to do a particular function than others. That’s just part of reality. But that doesn’t mean that there is a role that is, say, a character quality, some form of distinctive personality associated with doing a function. Whereas if we talk about roles, then we’re starting to talk about more than just the task. We’re talking about a sense of the definition of the person involved, and it oftentimes falls into an area of power.
So, there are people who understand the distinction and can carry a function of directing a play without assuming the role of being a direct arm. And I really like that thinking. I think that it permeates the constant experiment that ensemble theatremaking actually is: How do we actually allow for our individual voices to have presence and some form of equitable weight and also, at the same time work, as efficiently and effectively as we can.
Jeffrey: Because there are so many places that we could start. And you also already alluded to the Network of Ensemble Theaters, which I have a question about for you as well. But I’d really like to know what was the impulse to start the Road Company in 1975, and what were you making and who were you making it for?
Bob: Right. So, the roots of my company, or I should say not so much the roots but the soil of my company, included an organization in Washington, DC called the People’s Bicentennial Commission. And I started work on what became the company with the People’s Bicentennial Commission in I think 1972, might have been 1971, but long and short of it, 1976 was identified as the Bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence and the sense of the beginnings of this country.
The Nixon administration had established a Bicentennial Commission to kind of lead the way for federal recognition of that time. And a small group of people that I have— didn’t know had formed a People’s Bicentennial Commission, either just before or just as the Federal Bicentennial Commission was coming into play. So in 1971 or something. And Jeremy Rifkin was the lead, the executive director of the People’s Bicentennial Commission. He’s working with several other people.
And he and they were imagining to be able to take advantage of 1976 as a time for the public in this country to really develop an understanding and celebrate a popular revolution. What does that mean? What does revolution in our history mean to us, and how are we carrying out? How do we understand the principles of that revolution and how are we carrying them out? And do they still govern? Are they there? Was the revolution good or not good? I mean, all those questions.
Well, at the time, I had gotten kind of fed up with the system of theatremaking. I was still very young. I was still very green. I wanted to direct. I didn’t know how to start directing. I didn’t know how to get a job as a director. I had been stage managing, and in my innocence thought that stage management led by virtue of some form of seniority to becoming a director.
And when I began to realize that that was entirely a fantasy of my own creation, I basically left the theatre. I was working in film as a crew and producing team and so forth and so on in Washington, DC. And I found myself with time for the first time since I was working in theatre. Because working in theatre just so often means you are working on the show and there’s nothing else in the world but the show that you’re working on and you’re working like nineteen hours out of twenty-four, or maybe even twenty-six hours out of twenty-four. And when you do have some time off, all you want to do is drop over and sleep or go drinking or just that.
So, in the film world, I got much better pay for much less time, and I had time on my hands to do what I wanted to do. And I became interested in the history of actually the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which goes through Georgetown in DC. And I learned that the canal was being built back in the day by people who were trying to figure out how to get produce and other forms of product from the interior of the United States to the market, and particularly to sailing vessels to where the trade happened, and the Appalachian Mountains represented a real problem for that.
And they were imagining running a canal with system of locks over the Appalachian Mountains into the Ohio Valley. That was a huge engineering task, but that’s what they were up to. And they well could have completed that except that the steam engine came along and consequently railroads. And so, the wisdom prevailed: instead of trying to run a waterway over the mountain, they put in rails.
But that’s later. I was interested in the exploration, the development of the white migration into the continent of this United States and what it was like. Who were the people doing this? Not the big people in Philadelphia where, but the people actually out— because I come from Western Massachusetts in the rural part of Massachusetts and have an affection for the East Coast mountains, the whole range, and have always lived in that sphere.
So, that’s what I was interested in. And I heard about the People’s Bicentennial Commission and they sounded interesting to me. So, I went down, I thought I was going to lick stamps and do stuff as a volunteer. And Jeremy asked me what I did, and I made what you might call the mistake of saying, “Well, I was in the theatre.” Before I could finish my words he said, “Would you make a play?” I said, “Well, I’m not a playwright, but sure, why not?”
Because I had this thing going on in my head. I was doing a little research on stories coming out of the canal. And we talked and I eventually found some actors. I didn’t know any particular playwrights doing the kind of work that we were talking about doing. But I reached out to a friend of mine from a school, Michael Cristofer, who was a playwright and a scriptwriter as well as an actor. I invited Michael to come to an improv work rehearsal.
I had found some actors and we were using Viola Spolin’s Improvisation for the Theater. And I was using those games as a set of exercises to open up an actor-based script process, scripting process. We didn’t have the word “devising.” It was nowhere in sight. But I imagined not to use improvisation to do comedy, but that we would improvise our way into a script.
So, I invited Michael to come and see a rehearsal and he got interested in it. And he wrote a play based on the improvs that we were doing called Americommedia, which was a fully uneducated experiment with commedia dell’arte using American stock characters, Yankee Doodle and Miss Liberty for example.
So, we were just wanting to tell the story about ordinary folks in the middle of a revolution dealing with powers of government and how they were handling it. And we toured that play around the East Coast with the various apparatus of the People’s Bicentennial Commission. And the Commission, the People’s Bicentennial Commission, was attempting to set up little, not little, but local and specific community chapters, if you will, or offices for people who were interested in utilizing the Bicentennial as a way of organizing.
So, we were touring to those sites in various communities up and down East Coast, to use the play to share our thinking and to celebrate what we were imagining as a time for the Bicentennial and helping to organize at the local level.
And we had a pretty good time. We played in Maine and Vermont and New Jersey and New York City and out in the country and went on down into North Carolina and Atlanta. In the course of that, I met people in the south mountains who were utilizing art as a way to give expression to people’s yearning, people’s needs, to people’s pain and grief, hammered dulcimer artists, ballad singers, poets, storytellers. And I got really inspired.
And I had been looking at various places, starting with the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, but also just where do I find out— Where do I look? And I began to realize local history societies have a lot of information. So, I spent a while hitchhiking in South Central Appalachia. And I was going to historical societies and colleges that had theatre departments. And I was doing improv workshops in colleges that had had theatre departments, openly saying, “I’m looking for actors who’d be interested in working on a project.”
But the tradeoff was, it wasn’t exactly an audition, it was an improv workshop for the whole department. And I ran into many, many, many stories as well as many people who were curious about the project I was imagining. And I found myself drawn to the history of Tennessee, was preceded by a state that existed for a dozen years or so called Franklin.
And it was created before the revolution because the agreements between the French Crown and the English Crown changed the colonial boundaries. North Carolina was at one time all the way out to the Mississippi and the so-called French and Indian War, the treaty that ended that war moved the North Carolina border from the Mississippi back to the eastern divide, which left the people that were living in that area thinking that they were under the English Crown without a nation. And so, they created their own nation called Franklin.
Bob: I was like, Okay. So, that was what we were doing to start with: developing stories, plays around that history. And I moved in the process of this. I moved first from DC to Knoxville in East Tennessee and then subsequently to Johnson City, Tennessee. Johnson City is in Washington County. The county seat is Jonesborough, and Jonesborough was the capital state of Franklin. And I needed to go there.
But I had met people from Johnson City entirely coincidentally in various places. And I was drawn to Johnson City because of the people I met. When I was working with the People’s Bicentennial Commission, we did a big project in Boston around the celebration of the Tea Party, the act back in 1773 to put dump tea into the Boston Harbor. So, we reenacted that act dumping oil barrels or empty oil, fifty-five-gallon drums of oil barrels into Boston Harbor to kind of parallel or equate or connect the taxation issues and so forth. And the international web of tea and oil and the relationship of all that international power with the ordinary citizen.
So, we had this big event in Boston and in organizing that event, I met a man by the name of Ed Snodderly, who was a wonderful guitar player and songwriter, and we had a great time together and he was part of this whole thing that we did. And he said, “If you’re ever in the South, I live in Johnson City, there are people there that you would really like to know. So, if you come through, look me up.”
This is in 1973. I got to Johnson City in 1975, and I really didn’t see Ed in between, but he stayed with me. Also, I had found my way to an organizational center in Tennessee called Highlander, the Highlander Educational Center. And I had met several people from Johnson City. A group of them were making a video company back in the day with really primitive video equipment, Super 8 film. And they had access to the public television channel, which has a requirement to have local generation of material. And in many places, that local is a camera that is trained on a clock and a barometer.
But these folks were running a thing called Broadside TV. We’re reflecting the old print thing of a broadside. You put your thing on it, it’s like blogging or you put your thing on a broadside and post it around in the community. So, they were doing video coverage of PTA meetings and local wrestling matches and a variety of other things utilizing access to the public television channel. And they were getting some dollars.
And so, they had a space and they offered us to have rehearsal space in their space. They had a big warehouse that they weren’t really using, so we could make our work in their warehouse, which is where we went. So, they drew me to Johnson City for both what they were doing and the resources they had that they were willing to share in exchange for what we were bringing as resources.
And I also met, as part of that group, a woman named Jo Carson, who was a poet and a writer. And it wasn’t long before Jo was part of the company that I was building as a writer and as a performer and as an ensemble member. And following Americommedia, the next play that we made was called the Momentary Art of State Making. And we opened it on the Fourth of July, 1976, in Jonesborough, Tennessee at the capital of the State of Franklin.
I imagined that I was sort of done at that point. I had gotten a small amount of money to support this effort, and we were just about out of it. And I had no idea what was going to happen next, but I wasn’t thinking about any long-term thing. I was simply trying to figure out a way to do something in the moment that was worthwhile.
We were in the middle of the performance and it came up a big rainstorm, and I was one of the actors in the performance as sort of a narrator type. And I said, “Okay, fine, we’ll hold for the rain. We’ll all take shelter.” We are outside on the main street. I said, “We’ll be back. This’ll pass. We’ll be back.” And the audience said, “No, no, no. This is our story. You keep telling it. We’re here to see this event.” And I was totally taken aback. And of course, we kept on going, but I was told in that moment that I was where I was supposed to be and that this was way more than just me making some theatre.
I had been working in this LORT system. I had my Equity card. I was a stage manager, and we were begging for audiences to come to a premiere performance, premiere runs, of Lanford Wilson’s extraordinary plays. But people wouldn’t come. Or if they did come, they were really ornery. And if you were two minutes late, they were all about, Where’s your professionalism and bladidy, blah, all that stuff. And I was tired of that. I didn’t care for that. It just didn’t feel like a healthy world.
Loved the people making the theatre. Andrew Wilson, brilliant, Davey Marlin-Jones, brilliant. But the sphere though, the environment, was not brilliant. It was painful. And to stand in the rain and have an audience say, “Please keep going, you’re telling our story,” just was like, Okay. We were there twenty-five years.
Jeffrey: Wow, that’s amazing. That’s wonderful. So, you mentioned just bringing in Spolin’s book and just starting with some exercises, and you said you were also very green perhaps around directing and what it meant to maybe write and create at that degree from just that starting point. But were you taking inspiration from any other sort of organizations like Bread and Puppet I think were founded in 1970, and San Francisco Mime Troupe had been around since around the fifties. And so I’m wondering: Were you feeling like you were taking action in the same vein as they might be?
Bob: I was aware of El Teatro Campesino and Bread and Puppet. I had never seen them. I was aware of the Living Theatre. I had never seen them when I started. When we were touring Americommedia, Living Theatre was performing in Judson Church when we were in New York. And I went to see a show of one of their shows.
And it was startling and inspiring in the sense of how remarkably powerful and non-formal it was. It was not a conventional play as I had been trained to think about “What is theatre” and “What is a play,” and the kind of immediacy of event they were looking for in their performance. And I did have a really inspiring relationship with Bob Alexander, who was in DC running Living Stage, which was an improv community-based group that he was creating under the umbrella of Arena Stage.
And Living Stage at the time was the ensemble— were orienting themselves around the anti-war movement, and particularly with vets who were against the war. It was a multiracial company. But their focus of work, at least what I saw, was about the anti-war movement, and particularly through the eyes of veterans who had been in Vietnam.
And I saw performance and the storyline, and this is sort of looking back on it, sort of a Boal situation, kind of a Forum Theatre kind of thing. But I don’t think it was directly that. What they told was a story of a veteran who had lost his arm and was at a medical discharge, honorable, and was coming home and he and his wife had not seen one another in whatever it was: a year, whatever. And she was upstairs in her apartment and he was coming up to see her for the first time and they were coming up the stairs and it was the first time that she actually physically understood: no arm and my husband.
And they stopped the play and asked what the audience thought and how would you complete this play. Here we are in this couple’s coming together and it’s a nice setup, there’s a good storyline and we care about these people. And now here they are just confronting and there’s this shock in, well between the both of them because the wife is seeing, but the husband is experiencing his wife’s shock and this is his moment of, Oh god.
And one of my company members put their hand up and said, “I want his arm to come back.” And they accepted that and they went back and started the story over again, and they were coming up the stairs and this man who we know has lost his arm and he is grieving and he’s in pain and all this stuff, and the wife is afraid to see him and all this stuff that had been set up and in the stairs. And he sees her and his outpouring of joy to see her. He went with both arms and everybody in the room— it was like a whole thing of theatrical event. It superseded logic and went to real human event.
Of course, he’s not going to get his arm back, but his love gave him a full capacity to embrace and overcome that moment. And it was so clear and it didn’t have to get spelled out. It didn’t have to have a whole bunch of language, it was just a moment when everybody realized, in that day and time we had, access to love is all that matters. Love is all we need. And that was a moment of joy.
Jeffrey: That’s amazing. But not necessarily rooted in Boal. They just said, “Hey, we’re going to joker the scene, we’re going to change the scene and you get a choice and we’re going to do it.” That’s amazing.
The council I would give with hindsight is trust yourself. A lot of the agony of the work is doubt in the face of trouble.
Bob: Yeah, yeah. They just said, “Boom, this is it.” And there was a joker in the sense someone said, “Hey, stop.” They’re talking. What do you want? But I don’t know whether they were working directly with Boal at that point in 1970, that would probably have been—
Jeffrey: Boal wouldn’t have published Theatre of the Oppressed for another eight or nine years.
Bob: Bob Alexander is a hero for the ensemble and devised movement. He is a major piece of the history of that world. I don’t think I ever met Bob. My experience was with his company and in a performance. And it was incredibly inspiring to me in the short term. I had never heard of Boal. I didn’t hear Boal for another twenty years.
Bob: But it’s very possible. I mean, the fact is that Freire, Boal’s mentor, was aware of and modeled his work on the work at Highlander and Myles Horton, who was the founder of Highlander. It wasn’t until they were both in their eighties that they met and put together that extraordinary book called We Make the Path by Walking. Freire—Paulo Freire—and Myles Horton. And of course, Boal was in a sense the next generation, but he was an advocate in the proponent of Freire’s work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
So, who knows, who knew who back in the seventies. But I can see this looking backwards, I can see that whether it was simply by osmosis or actual compensation, they were operating in very, very similar fashion with some brilliant actors.
Jeffrey: Yeah. And all motivated by political or socially motivated work and content, this is all—
Bob: Political, and also understanding that it needed to be not in the theatre space in the palaces of culture, but in the streets and in the community or communities where these things make a difference. I just want to say that in terms of references or inspirations, it was not until a bit later, it’d be five years into our journey with the Road Company, which by the way started out as the American Revolutionary Road Company, and that worked until July 5, 1976.
And at that point, it seemed expedient to drop the “American Revolutionary” part in East Tennessee. The moment had passed, the Fourth of July, and I was realizing I wanted to be here the long-term, and the Road Company made more sense.
Jeffrey: Got you.
Bob: We were about five years working with Spolin in the rehearsal room, developing play after play using Spolin techniques. And I kind of ran out of steam with Spolin. I was feeling that there was more to be done than what was happening with my understanding of the exercises as I got them from the book. I never did a workshop with Boal.
But in the meantime, we had been successful with working with other theatre companies in the Southeast to form Alternate ROOTS. And Alternate ROOTS was built out of necessity, but it also became, for me and for I know many, many other people, it became lifeblood, each other, and recognizing that we were all part of the same team, if you will. We were doing different kinds of work, but we all had a shared vision for something that was important to us. And we were learning from one another.
And one of the things that happened at ROOTS was that we would bring in people from either within ROOTS or outside of ROOTS who we wanted to hear from very specifically. And a fellow named Steve, who I’ve mentioned already, was invited to come in and offer a workshop during our annual meeting. And Steve had worked with Joe Chaikin, and I’m not exactly sure if Steve was at some point part of Joe Chaikin’s Open Theater or theatre project.
So, he brought the work, the experimentation that Joe Chaikin was working on, and it was absolutely informative to me. It was answering to the questions that I had about Spolin. It opened up improvisation, how to survive the laugh line because the laugh line is always the way out of the heat. And some actors are quick to go to the laugh line to get the laugh, but also it takes them right out of the moment and releases the heat.
So, how do you dig deeper? How do you go beyond that? How do you point out what’s underneath that in terms of exploration? And what I learned was from Joe Chaiken and Steve Kent, who studied with Joe, and the work that we were able to do after that was exponentially better, richer, far more satisfying. Both for the actors, companies, ensemble, and the audience, we were making much better—
And the next place that I personally grew, that sort of quantum leap, was my exploration with Impro by Keith Johnstone, who upended a lot of [inaudible 00:36:38] very, very different approach to improv. And so, it exploded the sense enormously.
Jeffrey: I’m glad you jumped into ROOTS because I did want to ask you about that. So, you’re in this moment and you see the need to bring everyone together. Who are some of those initial members? What overall did Alternate ROOTS do for you in that moment, and maybe if you can fast forward it to now and what is it doing now?
Bob: Yeah. Well it’s pretty amazing. It’s an astonishing history. In some ways, it’s rooted in Highlander. Highlander was and is a gathering of people. They’re very devoted to the idea of people learning from one another. And in order to do that, they maintain relationships. They maintain lists of people, contact information. And when a situation arises, they know people to talk to and to bring in from anywhere that might be inappropriate.
They’re a school without a faculty, but their faculty is people all over, really at this point, all over the world who can respond to a particular need and offer wisdom and practical advice to people who are looking for help. And the whole premise there is that people learn when they need it, when they need to.
So, Highlander had a sense of artists in the Southeast, and particularly in Appalachia, who were using their art as activists, not necessarily as organizers, although some were, but as activists, as making a poem, speaking of poem, coming out of the community of the coal fields can be a mobilizing thing. It can capture people’s hearts and bring them together. And artists were doing that and aware of that. And Highlander knew about that.
And they actually called for a gathering of writers in Appalachian. And the resulting organization still exists, the Southern Appalachian Writers Coop. And with the success of that particular event, folks at Highlander wrote a grant to call together theatre art in the south. I learned this story or I learned this aspect of this story from Ron Short, who was at the time the interim executive director of Highlander. He became an ensemble member of Roadside Theater. But at the time, he was working as a staff person at Highlander.
And he called me and Jo Carson when they got this small grant to see if Jo might be able to do the organizing to call together a conference of theatre people in the Southeast. And we agreed. Jo was in the company, I said, “Yes, this makes sense.” And they had some money to pay Jo. So, it was a good deal. And Jo and I worked together and she was the operative who went out in the field and talked to people and sent letters and made phone calls and gathered people.
And it was an open call, any theatre could come. And she reached out to the outdoor drama people, the summer stock people, the academic people, and as many theatre efforts that were happening as she could find. And the reality was that the community-based artists that were intending to make a living, as say a profession, in the Southeast really didn’t have any organization amongst themselves.
The theatre organization in the Southeast was primarily— the Southeastern Theatre Conference was an academic organization. And it related to the profession in as much as it was trying, generally speaking, the academic units were trying to get summer work for their students so they related to the outdoor drama summer-stock people and offered audition time. But other than that, there wasn’t really an orientation in support of the institutions that were making. It was really in support of the academic.
So, when we gathered at Highlander, and some folks who knew who other folks were and decided to go with them left Friday afternoon before we even started, all a bunch of hippies or whatever it is, and this is what I do so goodbye.
And the people that were left were people who were primarily starting their own companies in various communities throughout the South. Roadside Theater was there. Playgroup from Knoxville was there. The Academy Theatre from Atlanta was there. The Birmingham Children Theatre was there. And I don’t have a full list in front of me, but there was this New World Theater… Various company who were curious and wanted to know more. And we spent that long weekend together.
And one of the key moments in that weekend would be we stopped talking and went swimming. Yeah. So, what I was driving at basically is that ROOTS began to grow when we started playing together. And the shape of ROOTS, the organizational shape of ROOTS, emerged out of play. We decided, for example, that we didn’t want to have the bureaucracy of titles.
So, the person who stepped up to say that they would take responsibility for getting certain tasks done was called a “supreme carrot.” And we’re making a salad. And Leanne Davis was a supreme carrot, and we all had little vegetable names in order to say, “Okay, I need to be the cucumber and you’re the salad dressing” and so forth.
And we also, in that spirit of curiosity and play, we decided that we wanted an organization in which all the members voted. There wasn’t going to be a board of six or eight people who make the determinations, but that the whole membership is the governing body. And at the time, we represented with the collective of all the companies members, we were probably, I don’t know, eight people, maybe that, maybe less, fifty people. But that premise was built into the actual charter and bylaws, and ROOTS now is a forty-five-year-old not-for-profit organization with a board of two hundred.
And we are, in my opinion, an experiment in participatory democracy. It’s hard work. It calls on more than just getting my services from my vote. I’m engaged in the organization, I’m part of it, and I make a commitment to the welfare of an organization. And that has sustained us through some very hard times, the least of which is not enough money. The real hard times is when there are serious aesthetic social, political misconnections. And we’ve had many, it’s oftentimes thought of as typical of ROOTS that somewhere along the line, somebody’s going to do something and the whole thing gets thrown up in the air.
There are moments during the history where things get thrown up in the air, and sometimes it’s been around one thing or another, but one particular one, and not uncommon, was around race, and how do we understand what it means to be working across differences of race and gender and so forth and so on.
Well, one particular moment, and I won’t get into the depth of it, but rather than shouting in, ROOTS had actually developed a culture of listening and helping rather than accusing. And I mean, yes, we were accusing. Yes, people were hurt. Yes, they hollered and spoke up. But somewhere inside of that, there was an understanding that this is part of being together and we need to find our way to it together.
Jeffrey: So, I actually reached out to Michael Rohd to see if he could ask you a question. And this is actually a question from him that I’m going to pose to you right now that relates to maybe right where the direction that you’re going in. “Knowing that Alternate ROOTS was always a social change–based collection of artists, but one whose relationship to social justice internally and externally has evolved over the decades, if you could time machine back to the circle of folks at Alternate ROOTS’ beginnings and offer council, what might you offer in this specific area?”
Bob: I think the council I would give with hindsight is trust yourself. A lot of the agony of the work is doubt in the face of trouble. Well, the reality that we can look at over the course of the last decades is that we have grown, we have learned from one another, and we’ve been able to not only accept the challenge, but begin really meeting the challenge of a pluralistic democratic group.
I don’t think that there’s counsel to be offered to avoid the struggle. We might like to think that, but we had to learn our way through it. We had to learn our way to where we imagined going. Because in some ways, we never imagined going anywhere. But in some ways, this is what’s really important. We just started doing. We didn’t plan on how to be a perfect organization. We just started doing.
So, the first thing we did was to play at the swimming hole. And we realized at that point, “Oh, wait a second. Is this fun working with you guys?” Oh, no one knew anybody else’s company. We were all entire strangers to one another in terms of our aesthetics and our actual practices.
So, the next thing we needed to do was to get together with our shows and share our shows with one another. So, we planned a little festival, which was primarily— we were our own audience. We were trying to learn each other, but it was done in the context of a public event. So, there was public call for audience, which is real appropriate. But the deal was we just started performing for one another and we learned that way as opposed to, “Okay, so you guys are a bunch of performers, how can we help? Oh, you need some more money. We’ll figure out how to get more money.”
No, no, no. Let’s play together. And that was a fundamental principle that was never articulated. It was simply— it was the obvious thing for people in the room and we did it.
Now, that doesn’t mean to say that there weren’t under assumptions inside that play that were racist, misogynistic, anti-democratic, all the things that come with human beings.
Jeffrey: Yeah. What I’m hearing you say is that you wouldn’t have been as strong of an organization if you hadn’t had the struggle that you had. If you wouldn’t have had the struggle to work through those things and have the conversations you needed to have and face, like you said about the Chaikin work, of not letting a laugh line let you out of it. How do you keep going deeper and deeper.
Bob: Yes, yeah.
The art that reinforces the status quo is just as political as the art that is subversive.
Jeffrey: I also reached out to Jerry Stropnicky. And I asked him the same sort of questions like, “If you had Bob Leonard, what would you ask him?” And what he brought up was that: “Ensemble theatre is so important as a movement, if nothing else, because of the diverse ways of theatremaking.” Jerry continues: “Today ensemble theatre feels like a very vital sector of the American theatre and the makeup with its dedication to devising diversity and community art and social change. You also founded the Network of Ensemble Theaters. And so, can you speak to how Network of Ensemble Theaters and Alternate ROOTS cross-pollinated in these two important movements?”
Bob: I can’t run the list of people, but Lisa Mount came to a meeting, an early meeting of the Network of Ensemble Theaters and just turned to me and said, “It’s amazing how many ROOTS people are in this meeting.” Carlton Turner, Linda Parris-Bailey, Lisa, and so forth and so on. In ROOTS history, there were people particularly from California who found out about ROOTS, came to ROOTS, and then wanted for ROOTS to become national. And there were people in ROOTS who wanted for ROOTS to provide a national platform for ROOTS members.
And so, we became kind of aware of a tension between the regional aspect of ROOTS, being the Southeastern or Southern organization, and the desire for the kind of work that we were allowing ourselves to do to expand to a national level. And we kept our eye on the regional because it was really quite a definition, and we knew how difficult it was to organize at that level. And the idea of going now several quantums larger seemed absolutely impossible.
But what we did want to do is suggest the possibility of having sibling organizations in other regions in the country. That never has happened exactly. Although I think there’s a relationship of common spirit with some of the regional organizations that exist, like the New England Federation [Foundation for] of the Art. The ROOTS never aspired to becoming a national organization.
But the eight or ten ensembles that Jerry basically gathered together to talk about a network of ensemble theatres became a more manageable national effort. Because we weren’t trying to supplant TCG, sort of the whole of theatre at the national level, but rather the sector of the ensemble, which has its own kind of definition, self-defined. That felt good.
And I know that I brought my experience with ROOTS into the conversations that we had over the course of many years going from, “Let’s do a network so we can get a computer.” That was in the sense the first effort, we were trying to get some dollars from Apple so that we could get a computer for every member of the nascent organization so that we could actually communicate with each other via the computer world.
We didn’t know what we were talking about, but we had this sense that we could just plug in and everything would be great. But it was basically— the dollar potential there was around networking via the computer. And as we continued to talk and we found a little bit of money here and there to come together to have conferences, before we were an organization, it was really a planning process. We would consistently play. We were people that were open to joshing and playing and talking about the work and maybe bringing in something or puppet or doing this and that, and that exchange, aesthetic exchange, lay at the heart of the effort, the way it had with ROOTS. And it felt very, in that sense, similar.
So, when Carlton or Linda or I would talk about a ROOTS reference, it was informative to the thinking of folks who were in other regions of the country and hadn’t had that experience. So, there was a lot of interplay in the planning, in the conceiving and in planning. And I think that there continues to be a real resonance between the two organizations.
ROOTS has expanded way beyond theatre. At some point formally divorced the idea of ROOTS as an acronym. ROOTS was originally Regional Organization of Theater South, and the pun is wonderful. The acronym is outdated. We’ve got poets and dancers and musicians and hip hop artists and all kinds of folks, visual arts, all kinds of people. And we’ve kind of departed from organizational orientation, which is— I think there are people who wanting to have that come back. So, right now, there are no organizational members of ROOTS. Everybody is an individual member.
Jeffrey: I kind of want to look back at the community practice where we sort of started and think about: Do you have a sense of where we’re going with civic practice and community-minded work?
Bob: There’s a lot to be unpacked in the question. I just went to a concert last night of Rhiannon Giddens. Do you know?
Bob: Extraordinary. I didn’t know of her either. She’s a Genius award recipient, a musician of extraordinary— African American, North Carolinian by birth. She plays and sings. She trained as an opera… Italian. She plays the banjo, fiddle. She’s now partnered with a percussionist and a pianist who trained as a jazz musician, and she writes music that is so powerful, expression of the struggle around race, struggle what it means to be African American in the United States right now.
She writes music that just opens her heart and mind in the same room. She is an activist and it is pure art. I don’t think you can separate it. When I was coming up, there was an appeal to some folks, myself included, to instrumentalize art that was in support of a particular event, like a demonstration.
So, street theatre that would augment the ideologic position of the organizers of an anti-war movement demonstration or feminism, women’s movement, et cetera, civil rights movement. But that instrumentalized function of art is not defining of art as political versus the non-political art. I deeply believe that all art is political and the imaginary that any given piece of art may be operating in, either on the bus or off the bus, but they are almost imaginary. They’re moving the imagination of the audience, and that is, in itself a subversive act.
As soon as someone sees something differently from the way they woke up in the morning because of realizing someone else had a different imaginative experience, I’ve changed. Now, the art that reinforces the status quo is just as political as the art that is subversive. We need to understand that.
Jeffrey: Can you go into that a little bit?
Bob: Well, the support of the status quo is a political act. It may be less visible because we accept the set of imaginary that are within the form as being “normal.” So, it’s not subversive because it reinforces what I accept as being the way I think the world is. But that is a political act. It may be unintended as political act. It may simply be the consequence of uncritiqued awareness on the part of the art-maker, but it is nonetheless political.
And likewise, the artist who is interested in subverting or challenging the status quo or proposing a viable alternative must also be highly critical of my own assumptions, and how do I do that? Those are the things that we need to be looking at as opposed to trying to make a distinction between political and non-political art or the art that is based on, sort of, proposes social justice.
I mean, in some real degree, Henrik Ibsen was a social justice activist, but he didn’t fall under that category. He wasn’t looked at from that point of view as distinguished from some other form. It’s what, it wrote him, and I think that’s as true today as it was then. I think that artists are people who can’t help but give expression that is then shared and find resonance with audiences.
The real question has to do with how do we continue to develop a critique in an environment that’s pluralist? That’s the challenge. I mean, we have to be a little provocative. We have a brilliant artist right now who is doing performance art to what I think of as great peril to country.
What Donald Trump is doing is brilliant performance art. You might say that he’s not working for social justice, but there are those who believe he is. And we can address and critique the imaginary and the proposals and so on and so forth, but the form of art-making that he’s doing, he’s brilliant.
Jeffrey: That notion crossed my mind sometime in 2019 that I had the moment of, if this is an act, and he’s got a lot of folks subverted and he’s got a lot of folks believing, but at some point, I thought it was going all to come out in the wash, it would be a big surprise that this is all an act. Yeah. Provocative or not, I subscribe with you. I’m with you.
Bob: I don’t think this is a particularly ingenious thought. I think people all over the place, particularly of performance artists, are real— Oh, I know what he’s doing. I can see what he’s doing. But that then comes down to the challenge of how do we bring into the public sphere critique? How do we understand critique? How do we understand deliberation as opposed to debate? Can we come together to deliberate on our own future, or are we debating about which future we need to take? Those are two different things to do. And we’re being body checked into debate, divisive rhetoric. I don’t think we have to rise to that occasion. And it’s awfully difficult not to.
Jeffrey: Is that the artist’s job right now? Is to continue to reflect and demonstrate and bring this idea forward of subverting and challenging what’s already existing?
Bob: Well, I wouldn’t call it the job, but it’s what arts do. And I say that in the sense of inclusion of the whole panorama, not just those artists that were proposed to not be or not be anyway on an ideological form, but this is what artists do, and we need to become better and better and better, not only in our craft, but in our capacity to critique our own assumptions: What’s underneath my choice?
And looking back at ROOTS, for example, there was a considerable amount of white male assumption sets in the organizing of ROOTS at the beginning. And we had to work our way through. The difficult thing about assumptions is that they’re assumed and the way things are, and “Of course we’ll do it this way” and everybody says, “Yes, of course, we will.” Down the road, oops. But then you’ve got a fight going on that’s built on something that wasn’t critiqued at the beginning, and you start dealing with the superficial of it rather than the depth of it. How do you get to that deeper question all the time? That’s the one that’s challenging.
So, I don’t think it’s the job, but it’s what artists do. We see something, we give expression to it. If no one recognizes it as anything that they connect with, then the artist doesn’t have an audience. But if there is an audience for it, then there’s a resignation and that whole thing begins to advance inside the art experience and then perhaps outside the art experience as an organizing tool or mobilizing tool or whatever. But the challenge is in finding ways to really critique the assumptions underneath and within any given artistic expression.
Jeffrey: Bob, thank you so much for your time today. This has been enlightening in so many ways. And just thank you so much for the depth and the breadth and the conversation— of your conversation today. I truly appreciate it, and I truly appreciate reconnecting with you after so many years. This is exactly what I hoped it would be, so thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.
Bob: Yeah. Well, thank you very much for the questions and for thinking to call on me. This is work that is part of a whole huge number of people and people have given their lives for it. I think of John O’Neal, who was absolutely unflagging in his faith in the human experience of art-making and connecting with people through art, through storytelling, through telling truth that can be heard. And I just think that what you’re doing is really important to be gathering stories and to be sharing those stories out and to recognize that this is something that is hugely horizontal in its strength.
Jeffrey: Yeah. In not so many words, I’m just hoping to catalog all of these stories and demonstrate some of the paths that we’ve been on. And one of the reasons I really wanted to connect with you is because we are on this path of social justice in America right now, and ensemble theatre in particular, but where we’ve come from with ensemble theatre is social-justice related as well. And to me, it’s all one, but yeah, as you said, it’s very horizontal. It’s just a continuation of the line.
Jeffrey: Thank you so much again for your time and have a great rest of your week, and I hope we can connect again soon.
Bob: I hope that that does happen, Jeff. Thank you so much.
Jeffrey: First, a special thanks to Quasimondo Physical Theatre for letting me use their Zoom line for this uninterrupted interview. Second, a big thanks to Michael Rohd, an interviewee from season two, and Jerry Stropnicky, a thought partner on various projects with me, for offering up the questions to Bob. Both of whom are board members at the Network of Ensemble Theaters.
Right out of the gates with Bob, he’s answering the question of ensemble, and he ties it once again to Jawole’s thoughts in season three, episode one. The idea of ensemble in music. I love that. It really has me thinking about the cross-pollination, that we need to learn from other mediums while thinking about theatre and ensemble-based work.
Where is ensemble in other processes, in surgical theatres, in organized sports, in animals? Let’s keep thinking: Where can we draw more and more connections about the principles of ensemble work? I also like what he has to say about a company, not in the sense of a business. This had a really strong tie for me to our interview with Coya Paz of Free Street Theater in season one. Ever since talking to her, I haven’t been able to bring myself to say “company” about a theatre or an artist unless I know it’s already in their name, as it has such a strong connection to corporate meanings.
There’s got to be some really fascinating entomology of the word “devising,” right? This is not the first time that we’ve heard folks mention Viola Spolin or Augusto Boal as a means of making work that is improvisational at first.
Furthermore, Bob invokes the Living Theatre as well, Joseph Chaikin, and the quote about how to survive the laugh line in some of the social-justice related works was so meaningful. Don’t get out of the hot moment, stay in it, which is a really good rule for life as well.
Speaking of Living Theatre and Joseph Chaikin, a few episodes from now we’ll be speaking with Karen Malpede, a playwright who worked very closely with the Living Theatre folks. I do hope you hang out for that convo in the coming weeks.
Last thing I’ll say is that I really appreciate how Alternate ROOTS began with a sense of play. As Bob said, “The first thing we did was play at the swimming hole.” Yes. I hope that we all have that space to learn about each other as people before we learn how to support one another in our goals.
All right, folks, here we are the end of another episode. I appreciate you being here. Thanks for joining me on this path down the road of ensemble history, and I look forward to having you join us again From the Ground Up.
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