N.E.T.’s Philadelphia Micro-Fest
The Network of Ensemble Theaters (N.E.T.) is a national association of American performing arts groups that fit the definition of being “ensembles”. These are the two foundational aspects of ensembles: the same group of people working together over time, and a creative process based on the collaboration of those people. Everything else, it seems to me, is secondary: genre, politics, location, gender, race, etc. It just so happens that these foundational aspects of ensembles I have named form the criteria for the residency program I have created at White Pines Productions.
How lucky for me, then, that N.E.T. held a “Micro-Fest” in Philadelphia this past weekend. More than once it has occurred to me, as I have been planning and promoting the residencies, that I have never been in an ensemble. The one experience I have had with a “company” didn’t go so well. So spending the weekend with N.E.T. and some of Philadelphia’s rising stars in the ensemble community was both a chance to promote the residencies, and to immerse myself in the ensemble ethos. Here are some observations:
The Academic Angle. The weekend began with a keynote speech by a noted local academic. I frankly couldn’t make heads or tails of it. It didn’t seem to have much to say about the weekend coming up, nor about the particular ensembles performing, nor about what makes ensembles special. It had, unfortunately, that solipsistic smugness that so many academics display when they have the floor. It seemed to be much more about the speaker and his experiences than anything else. But I also have a chip on my shoulder when it comes to academics, so let me own my baggage. But it made me aware that the great body of ensembles has a school of academics swimming alongside it, like those fish which swim next to the whales.
The reason, I think, is that what ensembles are doing is new and innovative. What academics like to do is write and talk about what is new and innovative in the fields which interest them. I just wish they could do it in nice, punchy prose that anyone with a high school diploma could read and understand. Most academic writing on performance I have read is written in a strange dialect one learns in the doctoral classrooms of PhD programs. It is laden with smart-ass jargon and I find it dead and impenetrable.
This connection between ensembles and academics was reinforced over the weekend by the participation of a group of dramaturgs. The group had an acronym, which I have forgotten, but which my dancer friend Amy kept referring to as NAMBLA. The unfortunate aspect of this otherwise worthy connection was that at the end of a show, a young dramaturg would leap up in front of the audience, beg us not leave, then direct us to have a conversation with people nearby about having either a “window” or “mirror” experiences during the show. The idea was useful, but the exercise felt enforced, and the young dramaturgs looked panicky.
The weekend ended with a facilitated conversation on “genre”. The room was full of people I like a lot, and the conversation led by an artist I admire greatly, but again I was left a little cold. Not by the event, which was full of warmth and camaraderie, but by the subject. My feeling finally is, who cares what you call it? What is this fetish we have with naming things? Why must there be a category for everything? It seems to me that one of the missions which joins ensembles of all stripes is a robust disregard for genre, so the exploration seemed fundamentally flawed to me.
Putting the Story Second (or third, or fourth). I saw three performances over the weekend: The Berserker Residents Shift/Transfer, Elastic Theater’s The Word and Team Sunshine’s Punch-Kapow! I liked all three a lot. Shift/Transfer is a collective meditation in performance on being American. The Word is a wild solo performance based on the life of an evangelical preacher. Punch-Kapow! is a seriocomic performance of the male fascination with cinematic violence and our occasionally botched attempts at meaningful communication, witnessed through the relationship between two young men.
Watching these pieces I had several epiphanies:
- I am a conventional theatre artist who admires and is curious about ensembles. As one of my new friends said over the weekend, “I’m an ensemble artist who can pass in the conventional theatre.” Well, for me it’s the opposite. I am in love with story, narrative and linear progression. It’s what I have been trained in, it’s what I’m good at and to some extent, it’s who I am. Ensembles put this aspect of performance, which I call “story” beneath another set of priorities. What those priorities are varies from ensemble to ensemble. But I noticed some common denominators. Ensembles throw more focus on the art of the performer than conventional plays. Ensembles are more poetic, plays tend to be more prosaic. Ensembles create moments, environments, sensations, suggestions; plays articulate ideas, offer solutions, propose morals. Ensembles are more about the people performing; plays are more about the characters performing. Ensembles use bodies and movement more; plays use words and language more. It’s not that there aren’t stories being told in ensemble generated work; there are. It’s just that the conventional clarity of that story isn’t necessarily a priority.
- My life began among modern dancers. Watching these ensembles, I had a distant sense-memory of watching my mother in the Cunningham Company, and then later in the Grand Union and other ensembles. One of the reasons I am drawn to supporting this kind of work is that it’s a kind of home-coming.
- Conventional theatre process is shaped like a triangle. Ensemble creative process is shaped like a circle. In the conventional theatre, the director is at the top and calls the shots. In ensembles (for the most part) the group works out a way of making decisions which isn’t hierarchical. I am not picking sides. There are pros and cons both ways. But I have a hunch: the best conventional theatre structures embrace an ensemble ethos, and the most effective ensembles give way to hierarchy when necessary.
Ensembles are the Province of the Young. If this weekend was representative of ensembles everywhere, I’d guess the median age of ensemble members to be about 28. Would you like to see the future? Then watch what the young are doing. They are busting out of conventional modes and making their art together. They are having a blast doing it, even while they struggle to to find the time to do their art and put food on the table at the same time. And even if the conventional part of me wanted to take a paring knife to some of what I saw this weekend, there was another part of me which was amazed, curious and delighted. A part of me which is, strangely, old and young at the same time.
I left with my sense of mission confirmed. The White Pines Summer Residencies are needed. Ensembles are not supported well in this culture. The young and the up and coming need to be nurtured, even it’s just for a week in a cool location where they be together to do their work. The academic who opened the weekend spoke to my condition exactly once, when, in the memory of Ellen Stewart, he lifted up the role of the producer as being an often vital and unique but overlooked role in the creation of live performance. I thought of my father, who has spent his life in various incarnations of this role of producer. And it dawns on me as I write this:
In offering the White Pines Summer Residencies, I am synthesizing the extraordinary gifts and blessings I have received from my mother (artist) and my father (producer).
Thanks N.E.T., for a great weekend.