To what extent is contemporary ensemble theatre practice influenced by the traditions and practices of its antecedents? How might these influence your own practice within context of an ensemble company?
A shared aesthetic, shared motives, collaboration and artistic freedom. Each of these things is seen as important to the work of an ensemble. For an ensemble to function properly, it is important to find common ground in each of these areas. Having a group of individuals working closely together, at a high level of intensity, for an extended period of time is what separates the ensemble way of working from the more ‘traditional’ producing theatre company structure. It has long been established that consistency of members is vital to what makes ensemble movements successful – this allows the group to explore each other, and themselves, over long periods of time, and to a greater degree of depth. It is a challenge, to work so closely with others for such extended, intense periods of time. Within the folds of a regular cast of performers, this challenge to work closely is only for a relatively short period. But as Peter Brook says about the work of Grotowski, working within a dedicated ensemble presents a challenge “not for a fortnight, not for once in a lifetime. Daily”. This collaboration and exploration of each ensemble member can lead to discovery of new skills and unknown talents, as well as fostering of a deeper understanding of what is important to create truly new and exciting work.
The concept of collaborative ensemble work is not new, but it has changed and developed over time, from the early companies in the time of Shakespeare, through to modern groups such as Complicité and Cheek by Jowl. As with every other area of human development, there have been changes and developments as new ideas and potential have been realised, and this evolution will continue to develop through the development of current and new ensemble practices.
When looking at how ensembles are shaped by their antecedents the clearest place to begin is in their approach and methods. How often are terms such as “Brechtian” used to describe a particular style, whether its use is accurate or not? This is due to the impact had by the likes of the Berliner Ensemble on the theatrical vocabulary of our times. Littlewood talks about collaboration and not the “supremacy” of one individual over the direction of the group, but is that truly what happened during her career, and are we more familiar with the work of Joan Littlewood, or of Theatre Workshop?
Ensembles, perhaps more so than other forms of theatre or live entertainment, are built on an ideal of collaboration between equal members of a group. An ensemble can be described as is “one body with many heads – but many heads who work in the same direction”, and this deep understanding and unity within the group will be discussed later. The issue here, though, is the practicalities of creating quality work for an audience, to a deadline, while avoiding becoming “the most tiresome, awkward…forever-compromise, never-right” situation that many such as Olivier feared ensemble work could become.
That is the main challenge to Littlewood’s statement of collaboration. While she has admitted that she believes there ought not to be one ‘supreme’ individual above others in the creative process, did she herself, however unintentionally, take on that higher authority during her work? During her time with Theatre Workshop in Stratford, she collaborated with Ewan MacColl and Gerry Raffles, but much of the work that the company produced is regarded as being her work – for example, look at the involvement she had in taking the work of Brendan Behan and making it possible to be staged. That is not to say that she deliberately placed herself in this position. Her desire to foster a process of collective decision making to achieve the best production, and a developmental style based around combining the works of Stanislavski and Laban’s movement theories (Holdsworth 2006) supports the idea that her method was not requiring of a “genius producer”, rather a collaborative effort. Her description of herself as ‘saboteur and concierge’ of Theatre Workshop also points towards a mutual, collaborative approach, and her prominence as the decision maker and authority being an accident of practicalities as opposed to a deliberate, defined position.
The presence of one individual at the head of a group is not an uncommon occurrence within ensemble theatre, with one of the most famous examples being the Berliner Ensemble and Brecht. As with the Berliner Ensemble, companies like Odin Teatret in Denmark and Theatre Laboratory in Poland have been overshadowed by their founders – Eugenio Barba and Jerzy Grotowski respectively – despite much of their methodology based on collaboration and sharing of creative responsibility, much in the same way as Theatre Workshop. The method of shared responsibility and creative freedom is very much a staple of ensemble work, though with both ensemble groups of the past, and more recent exponents such as Complicité and their Artistic Director Simon McBurney, it is likely that there will be an individual with either an overall accountability for the direction of the group or a responsibility to view a piece as a director – which is the role often undertaken by Littlewood at Theatre Workshop. Whether or not it is always the same person who fulfils this overseeing role is dependent on the makeup of the group and the individuals involved. Working with the same people consistently also makes it possible to explore different positions within the creative process, meaning a range of directorial vision and ideas can be explored in confidence – and if there does emerge one figurehead, as with the above examples, then it can be a natural development rather than imposing one vision overruling others.
Something which is always referenced during discussions of Ensemble Theatre is the idea of a shared aesthetic. When used in this manner, aesthetic can be taken to mean the vision of what form of theatre the company wishes to produce. I would argue, however, that aesthetics can change over time – look at the career of Littlewood and the difference between the earlier ‘living newspaper’ work she was involved in and pieces such as Oh What a Lovely War to see this contrast – but what is much harder to change is the motive behind creating the work in the first place. Here is where the ‘why’ question is most important. The hallmark of true ensemble work is in the united motives of a group of practitioners. This motive or ideology can be the ensembles’ greatest source of strength. Why are people driven to make the type of theatre that they do? Mikhaïl Stronin said it best when he said: “Ideology – not in the vulgar understanding of the Soviet times, but ideology; what the actor thinks about art; what they think about the style of acting; what they want to say”. While the ideology of each company is as diverse as its members, it is important for this common ideology to stay strong, since if everyone believes in the same goal, then it makes the bond between them stronger. When this strength is present, the effect it can have on the audience is quite profound, even on performers like Simon Callow:
“The connectivity of the actors was almost tangible, an organic tissue which made them breathe as one and move with a profound awareness of everything that was going on within the group. I was overwhelmed. I had never seen a group like it and had never had such a comparable experience in a theatre.”
If there is not this presence of a shared motive and ideology within the group, then it is possible to think of it as not being a true ensemble – and being more of a producing company under the guidance of the directors, in the more ‘traditional’ view. Joint Stock, whose method in terms of their development of a piece was certainly collaborative, was described in this way:
“Joint Stock stood for the taste of its directors. The Joint Stock style was the Bill Gaskill style, the Max Stafford-Clark style. This style didn’t stem from a political position or even an aesthetic theory: it was just their taste, what they liked to see… So once again, just as in any other non-collective, unfanshened company, those who stood on stage were fulfilling the will of someone else, for reasons of which they were never altogether sure”
Here, I feel that while the work they did involve collaboration, there was not a sufficient amount of responsibility and ownership given to the members of the company, outside of the directors. This is where the company steps away from being an ensemble, to simply being a more collaborative company. If working as an ensemble, it is important that every member of the company feels that their ideas and their vision is valued and considered during the creative process.
When current ensembles look to the work of their antecedents, one area that is an important source to be learned from is the mistakes made by previous groups. I do not mean mistakes in the commercial sense, or shows that received poor reviews. What is more important in terms of learning from past ensembles and practitioners is to look at the ways in which their work has been passed down to us, and whether or not this has been a help or a hindrance. One example of this is the work of Grotowski and the Theatre Laboratory. While the Poor Theatre and the work that went into developing it may not be to everyone’s taste, it does have a place in the ensemble canon. Given the physical nature of the work that they undertook, it is very difficult to recreate their methods and intensity without guidance from an expert. It is possible to read the theories and understand the concepts, but translating that into physical action is a very different challenge. Without proper guidance, as with the work of many practitioners it can lead to poor imitations and incomplete understandings of the work. Part of the challenge is not to recreate past works, but to build on them, but without a solid base of understanding, then this can be difficult, and occasionally unproductive – some of the language used, such as the description of the ‘holy’ actor and ‘holy’ producer can also make the ideas difficult to engage with fully due to a level of negative exclusivity. This can be especially frustrating for a younger generation of developing practitioners, as it means that not only can an element of disaffection with the work set in, but it also means that some of the most significant research and discovery in the field of live performance is not used to its full potential.
Another issue, though this problem is one of methodology, can be found in some of the limitations behind Joint Stock. While they did have a significant role to play in reshaping theatre in Britain, as well as helping to further collaborative working styles, they were known for the amount of time taken to fix upon ideas and make progress. This can lead to problems both within the company and with those affected outside of it. The primary concern with this length of discussion and debate is that it can foster a lack of enthusiasm or creativity towards the project, because of the amount of time taken to move forward. In terms of current ensembles, when taking inspiration from some of the elements of Joint Stock’s work, it can be a challenge to engage with this level of discussion before decisions are made – though this can be mitigated by the personality mix found in the ensemble, and the ways in which the group develops its own decision making processes.
All ensembles are influenced by those who came before them. Whether it is in their working method – the devising and writing methodology of Joint Stock or Littlewood’s own Theatre Workshop, their views on design by utilising concepts developed by Brecht and Neher, or the deeply investigative approach of Grotowski’s Poor Theatre. It is important to develop an understanding of these works to be able to develop and adapt a new style, suited to modern audiences, and current theatrical concerns. When looking at how this has affected my own personal practice, the dynamics within the group is an area of particular importance – especially the development of a safe and secure space in which to experiment.
When people feel uncomfortable, especially in the presence of strangers, they articulate the problem or the feeling as being that their ‘personal space’ is being intruded on. When sharing physical proximity with a group of other people, this idea of personal space has the potential to be highly limiting in terms of feeling freedom to express oneself. This can be especially damaging in rehearsal space. When rehearsing in a shared space with others, it is important not to view it as one’s personal space, but rather as the group’s ‘personal space’ – that is to say, if each individuals bubble of personal space overlaps, then everyone can share the same bubble. A shared personal space, if you will. This is where the long-term work, contact and understanding of an ensemble is beneficial, as unlike with other rehearsal processes, this establishment of personal comfort does not have to begin again at the start of work on each new piece. Having a stronger understanding and knowledge of those around you are working with can also mean there is time for a wider and deeper range of concepts and ideas to be explored during rehearsal work.
The challenge of this approach to spaces arises upon the introduction of new outsiders – the audience. As an unknown quantity they possess the potential to be truly disruptive. This introduction of a new relationship and the potential to create a new dynamic is not unique to ensemble work – and neither is the effect it can have on both performer and audience member. ‘Stage fright’ is something that every performer feels, and is the rush of excitement before the beginning of a performance can be felt by everyone involved; however active or passive they may be. This must be admitted to, embraced and harnessed:
“The riot that is at the theatre’s heart – the gaudy assertion of carnival values, upturning everything, embracing everything – cannot be reduced to a note, or a gesture. It springs from the primitive act of theatre – an actor and an audience – fuelled by an all-consuming, raging need on both parts of the equation.”
Live performance is unique in its ability to create this closeness between performer and audience – even going so far as to create Boal’s idea of the ‘spect-actor’. The audience must be invited into the performers safe space, so that they can fully experience the work to which they bear witness. This is where idea of theatre being the interaction and shared moment between the performer and the actor (Grotowski 1968) begins to make sense, as it is the interaction on a more emotional, in some eyes almost spiritual, level.
The establishment of a group space takes time, and it is not easy to do. Once it is established, if it is not maintained by the members of the group, then the comfort and freedom of this shared private space can be worn away. The benefits of creating a safe space can be worth the effort, however. Whenever the ensemble style is approached, one of the main concerns is that it is of vital importance to create a ‘safe space’ where the members of the group can be without the concerns of the outside world, and also where they can feel free of pressure or judgement from their peers. This allows for greater levels of exploration, experimentation and risk-taking. This is helped by being able to work within the same group for extended periods of time, as each new step can be expanded or built upon.
The confidence that can be gained from inhabiting a totally safe space, free from outside concerns –something repeatedly mentioned by attendees at the Ensemble Theatre Conference – also has the potential to provoke a greater level of child-like exploration from the practitioner, as well as a lessening of socially-imbued inhibitions and stigma. As mentioned previously, the key to this space is total trust in the other members of the group, as they are the other inhabitants of this same vulnerable space. A subconscious acknowledgement of this vulnerability is needed to realise to what extent the group is there to support the individual. If this acknowledgement is not made by the ‘observer’, then the trust can break down. Once this trust is gone, it can be very difficult to rebuild, and can take longer than the original trust took to develop. Here is one of the great challenges of ensemble work, but also where it can offer some of its greatest rewards. To work so closely with others, in total trust, so that you each know all other members as well as you know yourself can help to create challenging work, exploring ideas on a deeper level than with other creative processes.
One element that is, in my opinion, highly important to development of both ensemble as a whole and the members of the group, is the comfort and ability to share. The ability to share our fears and to vocalise our concerns may not be as superficially helpful towards performance development, but it has the potential to be as beneficial, as it can help to further the bonds within the group. Emotions are something that almost every human being feels and possesses. They give us the ability to interact in a wide variety of ways. They are hugely powerful. Performance, and the creation of quality work, relies a great deal on the usage of our emotions. The long-term work of ensembles can make it possible to explore these emotions on a much deeper level than other methods. If the ensemble all works in accordance to the work of a particular practitioner, such as Meisner or Grotowski, then they might have one chosen method of exploring their inner selves, but if there is not one defined and chosen ‘method’, then that does not make exploring emotion any less possible – much as having one may not make it any easier. The goal is not to explore emotions in order to be able to more accurately portray them in performance, rather to search for shared emotions, and to establish the root of those emotions. The importance of being able to share things which live beneath the surface of all of us is what makes the ensemble different, and also what gives it the potential to create truly challenging work.
When it comes to ensemble theatres of the modern day, there are a wide range of style and methods adopted. This variety is important because it ensures that both the work that they create, and the process that is used to get there are as diverse as possible. As we have seen, in the past there has not been one fixed method of ensemble theatre, and it is important that each new group developing now is able to shape itself in whatever mode that is decided by its members.
One of the clearest examples of this variety is in the size of the ensemble. While it is easy to see an ensemble as a group of eight to twelve people, this is certainly not the case everywhere. For instance, in the German state theatre, they have ‘ensembles’ which can contain 40 performers. This may seem unwieldy but in this instance the ensemble is the talent pool from which each production is cast. It allows for a wide variety of productions to be performed simultaneously, because while it takes a great deal of organisation to keep track of what roles each individual is playing, it means that there is a sufficient number of performers to be able take on plenty of pieces. Furthermore, with the extended contracts given to the members of the ensemble, they are not only aware that they have financial security for a period of time, but also they know that there will be regular work for them to keep working at their craft – as well as being able to develop a greater understanding within the company between directors and performers, as they have the time to work on a wider understanding of their skills.
On the other end of the scale are companies such as Clod Ensemble and Cheek by Jowl – ensemble companies in so much as they are groups formed with a shared set of ideas and a shared vision. However, they are, in terms of numbers, the polar opposite of the German state ensembles, being made up of only a few people. Indeed, “Cheek by Jowl in a sense is an ensemble of two – Declan [Donnellan] and Nick Ormerod. That’s okay. That’s an Ensemble too”. As mentioned above, Cheek by Jowl can be counted as an ensemble because the permanent members of the company share in a vision for the type of theatre they wish to create. This then allows them to bring in other artists with whom they wish to work, and with whom they know they can share objectives. This may sound similar to the work of Joint Stock, which has been said to not a real ensemble. However, I would say that if Joint Stock are looked at as an ensemble made up of the two directors, who then brought in those who they could work with, then they fit more into a similar mould as Cheek By Jowl – as long as there is a shared vision within the group, then they can be seen as an ensemble, no matter what the size. This is why there is no common method of ensemble, it is more that the commonality between ensembles is that they are groups whose members share a goal, motive and aesthetic for the work they wish to produce.
When approaching the question of current ensembles learning from their predecessors, one can consider the knowledge passed on to be similar to a language. Theatrical vocabulary, knowledge and methodology are passed on from one generation to the next, much in the same way as language and the ways we use words. In everything we do as humans, we learn it from the generation above us – whether that be our teachers, our parents or people who inspire us. The vocabulary and application of theatrical practice is no different, especially since “the languages we learn affect how we think”. That idea is significant as it means that when we are learning new theatrical language – in this specific case, the language of ensemble practice – we are also then learning to think in a way that allows us to apply that language.
As we learn, we are also able to branch out towards other cultures and methods which may not be indigenous to the theatrical culture that we are used to. This exploration of other cultures and ideologies can mean that when we create our own work, we can take inspiration from the work of those whose work has impressed us. Michael Boyd has admitted to such exposures as being a formative part of his own development, having been “profoundly sheep-dipped abroad in Moscow at the Malaya Bronnaya Theatre”. This using of other cultures to expand our own is not limited to theatre – it happens in food, language, television, everywhere. The ability to access different schools of thought can only benefit us as practitioners. And it is not a one-way street. As Boyd continues:
“Just as the great European ensembles have appropriated Shakespeare as their own, there’s no reason why we can’t appropriate their great auteur director tradition as our own or their great ensemble acting strength as our own?”
In an increasingly multi-cultural world, it is important that theatre, especially the ensemble, continues to lead the way in developing this acceptance of ideas from outside of our frame of reference. The reason why I state it is especially important for ensembles to push the development in this way is that there are such diverse languages within ensemble theatres – from Indian Kathakali to elements of Japanese No Theatre. This is something that has been mentioned by practitioners in the past, Grotowski being one example, and continuing to investigate and absorb elements from these other styles of cultural performance can only help to enrich the theatrical language within which we try to express ourselves.
In conclusion, it is clear that Ensemble Theatre, as with almost all forms of theatre, is hugely influenced by its antecedents. Those who took a hand in developing ensemble working methods have made it possible for current groups to have a starting point from where to develop their own aesthetic, and their own audience. There are influences from past ensemble works, as with any form of performance, but that does not cheapen either the past or the present. With a theatrical vocabulary that has been developed by years of companies and practitioners, it is now the responsibility of their current successors to develop the next layer, so that in years’ time it will possible to look back at the contemporary ensembles as the continuation of our antecedents.
The work of our antecedents has also taught us that there is no one clear description of what makes an ensemble. My personal view is that the most important part of forming an ensemble is a collaborative approach, stemming from a shared ideology behind what it is the group wishes to produce. That group can be two people, it can be twenty people. The dynamics within the group must be given time to grow and develop over time, as they will be unique to the people who make up the ensemble. These are things that have been learned from previous groups, from their failures, their ideas and the ideas that they pioneered. The responsibility of the current generation of ensemble practitioners is to learn from the past, and build upon the foundations, so that in the future it will be possible to look back at our work as the next stage in the evolution of Ensemble Theatre.