Essay by

Ragged Wing Ensemble

The Art of Connection

Essay by

This week on HowlRound, we're hearing from several ensemble theaters, 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?

To me, ensemble theater is a style and process of theatermaking that values a powerful sense of group connection as primary. It is a sense that although there may be fantastic individual performances, the success of a piece is held by the group as a whole organism, including designers and production crew. And that each individual's work is in service to the larger vision or story. It is the constant practice of team and partnership.

At Ragged Wing Ensemble (RWE) in Oakland, California we approach the creation of theater holistically. We are interested in the whole of each person and what they can bring to the enterprise. In the structure of our programs, one can see the shared value of learning, growth, and mastery. There is a palpable sense of common vocabulary, a shared practice, and a mutual investment in creative relationship over time. We train together physically, vocally, and in a variety of disciplines. There is a community ethic and commitment to supporting and challenging one another toward our greatest artistic growth. The focus is on relationships, longevity, and a feeling of stick-to-it-ness.

I wear many hats for Ragged Wing. I'm the artistic director, creating programs and overseeing the season, but I'm also a director, playwright, and visual artist. The ensemble is my creative family. I go to the ensemble to bounce raw ideas around, to get messy with a bunch of raw writings or images or questions. I wonder what people are passionate about and how that can be reflected in our programs. There is an invitation and a challenge: if you want something, like a new program, help create it. If you don't like something, help change it. Systems and governance are constantly improving—the group has ideas and people step up. We want to grow as leaders, teachers, and mentors for one another. The season structure offers opportunities for all of us to try new things, broaden our horizons, but also to go deeper into our strengths and take steps toward mastery.

We create original work throughout the year all centered on a theme. This past season was JustRIPE, a season devoted to food, sex, and death. Our initial phase began at our company retreat. We went to the beach for several days and connected as a group. The Core artists, board, and staff were invited to explore the theme with writing prompts and site-specific compositions.

When we returned to the city, we began company trainings. These intensely physical sessions review, deepen or introduce the core skills and competencies of our ensemble. The folks who participate are Core artists, Tribe artists, apprentices, and associates—more on these classifications later.

Then we launch a time of creative development, a set of weeks devoted to exploring the theme through many different forms: visual art, story, performance, movement, music, installation, etc. From this, seed ideas, project proposals, and project leaders emerge. Some of the work is playwright-driven, some is devised, and some is site-specific, installation-based or tour-able, while others have a more traditional theatrical structure. The diversity of structures allows us to explore the value of different frameworks for making and experiencing art. This has an incredible cumulative effect in terms of the strength and connection of our team and our awareness of artistic option.  

Ragged Wing Ensemble has grown a ton in the past year. We've been in operation for ten years now, and many of those years we were a small, scrappy group of co-founders—Anna Shneiderman, Keith Davis, and me.

 

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Caption: From the first production of The Serpent, 2004

We were largely nomadic, doing shows in the cheapest spaces around. Other artists came and went. Four years ago, we created the Core, a group of artists committed to making RWE their artistic home. This Core added immense stability to the organization and created a culture with an articulated set of work ethics and values. The whole organization gained strength because of that influx of energy and commitment. Now we also have an artistic Tribe, who commit to at least one project a year and one training a month, and associate artists, the repeat offenders who work with us on a project-to-project basis. We also have an apprentice program, a youth ensemble, and a developing gallery program featuring visual artists and filmmakers.

There are a variety of ways people can stay connected. Each year we all step back and assess where we are with our lives, and who needs what. We want people to step in towards the heart of things when that seems right, and step back when they need to grow in a different way. Creating different artistic bodies helps clarify that process so we know who is doing what from year to year. There is a dynamic quality to it, but also a sense of stability—that's the trick. You have to have a way for people to flow in and out. Some stay deeply committed. Others might return later. The beauty of a dynamic structure is to allow for that dance to happen. Mentorship, leadership, and learning are a priority within the company, and this gives artists more stake and ownership when it comes to creating new work, satisfying their artistic hungers, and being aware of—and in charge of—their own artistic growth.

Just this past year, we created The Flight Deck, a multidisciplinary performance space with a 99-seat theater, rehearsal studio, gallery, and co-working office space in downtown Oakland. We now have resident companies and individual members who share the space with us, and sit on The Flight Deck Council. These leaders help define the identity of our venue and its culture. We brainstorm ways of leveraging each other's strengths and defining what we are calling Creative Alliance across disciplines, companies, and aesthetics. So in some ways we have created a space that features our ensemble but also allows us to practice being in community with other groups. Having a shared space for artists to converge makes all the difference. It creates connection and becomes a source of stability and continued inspiration. Everyone benefits.

 

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A series featuring ensemble theatres speaking on their artistic work and organizational structures.

Ensemble Series

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Indelible visual images like RED FUR or dripping ice blocks and ghostly masked figures don't just happen... that tribal sense of ritual translates into riveting theatre. Can't wait to see the HOMING plays!

Thanks for this, Amy. "...a small, scrappy group of co-founders largely nomadic, doing shows in the cheapest spaces around..." would also have been an apt description of Traveling Jewish Theatre in its early days in the '80 and 90s. I'm heartened that RWE so clearly values connection – within and beyond the ensemble. I wish RWE and Flight Deck a life at least as long as TJT's 34 years.