Meetings for Theater – background

In preparation for our work together it may be useful to have some understanding of group theatrical experiences within the larger context of the history of theatre production structures.

When we refer to production structures we encounter two basic ideas. One involves systems of education, methods for passing information from those who conceive the idea to those who enact it—as a collaborative art, theatre requires a degree of such systems. The other involves systems of creation. This is, perhaps, the more fundamental of the two ideas as there is an element of creation in the necessary mutation of an idea as it is conveyed from creator to performer whether the conveyance is a script, a rehearsal note or even a marionette string. Systems of creation may also involve responses to subtle or overt stimuli from the production environment including fellow performers, attenders and even the weather or society at large. Revival may have applications in both categories.

The hierarchical structure of theatre production as we know it today (designers, cast and crew all ultimately organized by a single director working with a codified script and sometimes its playwright) is a very new concept. Most credit a man name Kronegk, the producer of the theatre company under the German Duke of Meiningen which traveled and performed in Europe in the late 19th century. Stanislavsky described Kronegk as a “producer-autocrat” whose influence led to a generation of “managers who treated their actors as if they were props” (Magarshack, Stanislavsky: A Life. London: Faber & Faber, 1950. p 71). Leaving Kronegk’s personality aside, he clearly created as system of creating theater that was based on authority and efficiency. Preceding this development were a number of other production forms most involving a weak organizing force in the person of the playwright, lead actor or, as in the European passion plays, a maitre de jeu, effectively a stage manager.

In her article on The Emergence of the Director (Directors on Directing. The Bobbs-Merrill Co. Inc., Indianapolis 1953 revised ed. 1963) Helen Krich Chinoy suggests that these loose organizing structures and the diffused and dis-integrated works they produced were possible only because they were organized within a clear and absolute social structure. With the spread of democratic political systems and the dismantling of rigid social structures, greater intention was necessary in theatre-making in order to retain some semblance of artistic unity on the stage in a world in which social unity appeared to be failing rapidly. Thus the rise of the director and the system of production with which we are familiar today.

The other force at work supporting the dominance of the hierarchical format is commerce. Decisions get made much more quickly when one person is doing the deciding, and therefore less money is spent, because it is spent more efficiently. The triangular shape of the hierarchical decision making model at work beneath modern directors leads (ideally) to clear lines of authority. Decisions about how money is spent, and who decides, are easier to make when one person is at the top. If time is money, then the hierarchical format will always be more appealing to producers. Collective decision making always takes time. There is also accountability in hierarchical format. The modern director bears the ultimate responsibility for the success or failure of the theatrical endeavors they command. In group theatre, these decision making processes and lines of authority are much murkier, and the responsibility for the thing made is more shared.

Focusing only on the western tradition, a history of collective theatre may have many starting points. Excluding forms that cross into ritual and those with which our current understanding is confined entirely to dramatic text and contemporary writings, commedia dell’arte may best serve as an origin. Commedia dell’arte came to prominence in the 16th century and remained popular into the 18th century. It was performed in Italy by traveling theatre troupes, possibly descended from Greek and Roman mime troupes. The performances were highly physical, full of stock plots and characters, aided by masks and actors’ tendency to specialize in the same few characters—as in the eastern theatre traditions. Scripts consisted of a series of scenarios that were improvised both physically and verbally by the company. The improvisational nature of the performances kept it fresh, current and able to speak to the condition of the community. While little is known of the management processes of commedia troupes, they are generally accepted as theatre collectives, often organized around the blood relatives of a founding family.

Commedia’s influence can be seen in the works of Moliere, the Marx Brothers, Bill Irwin and across the spectrum of today’s avant garde. The more recent iterations of the tradition stem from a revival commedia dell’arte as manifested in the work of Jacques Lecoq. As with commedia, Locoq’s focus on the physical aspects of acting led to production methods that de-emphasized set text in favor of physical expression and collective improvisation. Lecoq set up a school in Paris influencing several generations of theatre practitioners. Companies such as Philadelphia’s Pig Iron Theatre come out of this tradition with a strong focus on the collective production structure.

It should be mentioned in passing that Shakespeare’s company, while under the patronage of a member of the royal court, was a collective theatre structure. In this case, the company was a frank business venture, with actors buying shares, and both profiting from its success and assisting in any way during times of struggle. There were no directors, such as we understand them today, when Shakespeare was writing and performing. Stefan points out that this may have been more of an administrative collective than an artistic one; Ben feels that within a collective, the two areas are inextricably bound.

Modern collective theatre production structures didn’t come into their own until the mid – 20th century. The Group Theatre of the 1930s in America began as a theatre collective, guided by Harold Clurman, Lee Strasberg and Cheryl Crawford. Swept up in a fascination with socialism and the emergence of the Labor Movement in America, these artists envisioned a collective theatre where decisions were made through democratic process. The history of the Group Theatre, the triumph of personalities over principals within it and the difficulty of applying group process to the demands of commercial theater serve as a cautionary tale to anyone venturing into group theatre exploration. This story is wonderfully told in Wendy Smith’s book Real Life Drama.

In the 1960’s, The Living Theatre, and the blossoming of experimental theatre in the 60s and 70s in America led to the current resurgence of theatre collectives. Founded in 1947 as a theatre dedicated to theories of Antonin Artaud, the Living Theatre took up a collective production structure and became well known for diminishing the line between performers and attenders. Today they remain an anarchist organization, making all their decisions through consensus—though co-founder Judith Malina and her husband, Hanon Reznikov are given the respect and weight of Friends’ elders or weighty Quakers. The theatre remains Artaudian.

Most collective theatre making today follows a method developed primarily in England in the 50s and 60s where its best known proponent was the Joint Stock Theatre Group. Joint Stock was founded in 1975 by David Aukin, Max Stafford-Clark and David Hare. It collaborated with playwrights such as Caryl Churchill, Wallace Shawn and David Hare himself. The production structure of this collective or “group theatre”, as Brian Clark calls it in his book of that name, is succinctly described by one of the structure’s more recent adherents, the Central Works Theater Ensemble. From the Central Works Theater Ensemble website:

After the company collectively commits to a topic of common interest, the collaborators enter a “Workshop Phase,” exploring the subject matter through research assignments, interviews with experts or character models, field research, group discussions, exercises and improvisations. These are all incorporated to generate material for the rough draft of the play. During the second stage of the process, the writer rewrites, refines and polishes the script. In the final stage, the new script goes into a more traditional rehearsal process, although further revisions and expected to come out of the rehearsal experience. All collaborators, regardless of their specific roles in the productions, are creatively and collectively involved and invested in the development of the project.

In addition to the method described above group theatre may work out of a specific text, adapting it to their circumstances and inclinations or even work within a specific text, using the author’s language as fits their circumstances and inclinations. These structures are increasingly popular, and Moises Kaufman recently employed variations of them with Tectonic Theatre, giving birth to the plays The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde and The Laramie Project.

Few major metropolitan areas in America are without their own theatre collective, or ensemble theater. The September 2005 issue of American Theatre magazine contains an article about America’s first Ensemble Theatre Festival, organized by the Network of Ensemble Theaters and held at Blue Lake, CA. Of the challenges of collective theatre making, Joan Schirl of the Dell’Arte Theatre says “It calls for both generosity and strength of ego, a desire to serve something higher than your own self-expression. We’re training the artist as citizen” (italics added – Ben). This aspect of viewing the theatre artist as larger than the role s/he’s playing, of lifting theatre-making into a context beyond the boundaries of the production being created, is a point of view generally shared by group theatre collectives.

Because group theatres tend to interface more immediately with the communities they live in, they tend to create original works that speak more directly to the condition of those communities. The Cornerstone Theatre is an example of a traveling theatre collective who’s main purpose is to make theatre based on the lives of the people in the communities they visit.

The innovations of Revival in the context of group theatre structures revolve around two points. The first is that we have no artistic or political agenda. Most group theatres are organized around such agendas, the San Francisco Mime Troupe being a perfect example of a group theatre organized around a political agenda. Peter Brook famously adopted the group theatre model for a number of his political productions including US, which dealt with the then current conflict in Vietnam including a section reenacting a Friends’ memorial meeting for a Quaker protestor who immolated himself in front of the Pentagon. The group theatres in the lineage of Lecoq may be seen as organized around artistic agendas. While Revival may discover an agenda (or a corporate concern in Quaker parlance), arising out of the collective worship of its members, it does not begin with one. This leads to the second innovation. We have found no evidence of a group theatre that was organized around Quaker worship and practices.

© 2005 Benjamin Lloyd and Stefan Dreisbach-Williams