Performing Arts

Ensemble Theater At The Humana Festival

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Actors work as stagehands; directors work as administrators; the lighting crew helps build sets. In other words, everybody does a bit of everything. The process can take years, but it does give all of the company members a say in creating a new play. One venue that's earned a reputation for making this process a little easier is the Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville.


What's called ensemble theater isn't easy for anyone involved. Actors work as stagehands, directors work as administrators, the lighting crew helps build sets. In other words, everybody does a bit of everything. The process can take years, but it does give all of the company members a say in creating a new play.

One venue has earned a reputation for making this process a little easier: the Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville.

From member station WFPL in Louisville, Kentucky, Elizabeth Kramer reports.

ELIZABETH KRAMER: Dominique Serrand was at this year's Humana Festival, but most of the company he co-founded 30 years ago was not. The Tony Award-winning Theatre de la Jeune Lune folded two years ago, more than $1 million in debt, in part because of the challenges of creating ensemble work.

Mr. DOMINIQUE SERRAND: The context, financially it's very complicated, so very few people want to take the risk of doing it. Plus, there's also the risk to fail. When you do an old recipe, you always kind of win.

KRAMER: Ensemble theater is about creating new work.

Mr. MARK VALDEZ (National Coordinator, Network of Ensemble Theaters): And it doesn't have the name recognition, it doesn't have the familiarity of doing an Arthur Miller play or a Tennessee Williams or an August Wilson.

KRAMER: That's Mark Valdez, the national coordinator of the Network of Ensemble Theaters, which has nearly 150 members nationwide.

Mr. VALDEZ: It's hard to create in this way. Much of the work is new, it's original work, and it doesn't have the name recognition.

KRAMER: For this year's Humana Festival, Dominique Serrand didn't make things any easier on himself. He brought together five other playwrights and four actors from his old company to create a play about memory and forgetting called "Fissures." Casey Grieg is one of the actors.

Mr. CASEY GRIEG (Actor): I lost my keys. They weren't on the desk. I have a desk. That's where I usually put them. See, I walk through the door and I throw my coat on the chair and my keys on the desk. Well, it's more of a table, really, oak.

KRAMER: Dominic Orlando is one of the playwrights who collaborated on "Fissures."

Mr. DOMINIC ORLANDO (Playwright): In this process, we were more like actors in that we had to be able to just say, well, let's try this and then have everybody, like, look at you like you're crazy or, you know, say, well, that's not going to work or that's not helpful.

KRAMER: Orlando says if the group finds another theater or a festival that wants to stage "Fissures," it could alter it even more than it did at Humana.

Unidentified Woman #1: I think it should be (unintelligible) mostly. When you're on close-up you have to, but...

Unidentified Man: I need to - I need to find a way to get to the birdcage.

KRAMER: The other ensemble theater company at this year's Humana Festival was the Rude Mechanicals from Austin. The Rude Mechs, as they call themselves, performed "The Method Gun." Co-artistic Director Thomas Graves explains this play's genesis back in 2007.

Mr. THOMAS GRAVES (Artistic Director, Rude Mechanicals): Our idea was to create something akin to like an "Indiana Jones" scene where he's dodging a rolling ball.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GRAVES: Or a boulder and swinging blades and things. That's where that came from.

KRAMER: "The Method Gun" tells the story of a theater company attempting to perform "A Streetcar Named Desire" after its founder, Stella, has disappeared. With rehearsals going badly, one company member sends out a prayer.

Unidentified Woman #2 (Actor): Help us do this idea even if it turns out to be something stupid or embarrassing or impossible. Help us to be emotionally honest - at least in little bursts - for as long as we can handle it. And please guide our company as we try to find our way without Stella.

KRAMER: "The Method Gun" found a receptive audience at Actors Theatre, including several presenters from across the country and even as far away as Hungary. The company also discovered a few places to trim the script to improve the play.

Helping ensemble theater companies develop their work has become a priority for Actors Theatre and the Humana Festival. Artistic Director Marc Masterson says the benefits are mutual. These companies also teach him and the rest of the staff about innovation.

Mr. MARC MASTERSON (Artistic Director, Actors Theatre of Louisville): We learn about different models of working to build something by really partnering with them deeply in the rehearsal process. And by offering them our resources of our shops and our dramaturgical staff, they're able to let go of some of the more stressful aspects of survival day to day for a period of time while they're here and just concentrate on the work.

KRAMER: The first ensemble company to have a play in the Humana Festival 15 years ago was the SITI Company of New York. Since then, it's premiered six other plays here. Its artistic director, Anne Bogart, thinks audiences benefit from this kind of work too.

Ms. ANNE BOGART (Artistic Director, SITI Company of New York): When an audience is experiencing the creation of an ensemble, they're actually experiencing simultaneously the play and the story in the play, but they're also experiencing a kind of society that's on the stage that is proposing in a sense a model of society, about how social systems might function otherwise. And I think it's very inspiring.

KRAMER: And several ensemble company members at this year's Humana Festival suggested that this collaborative way of working could be a model for politicians in Washington.

For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Kramer in Louisville, Kentucky.

(Soundbite of music)

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