By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Just how do members of a theater ensemble overcome personal and artistic differences in order to create a work of beauty? The question arose a few weeks ago at a local meeting of the Network of Ensemble Theaters.
In most instances, an ensemble is led by an authority figure who is responsible for shaping the contributions of individuals into some kind of cogent unity. That person is usually a director but sometimes is a playwright or a director-playwright team.
But the process is perilous. Some ensembles give credit to the entire company for devising a piece whose sum consists of parts introduced by various actors, designers or choreographers. Other ensembles credit only the director or playwright. This gets particularly prickly if the work becomes financially lucrative, or even if the idea draws a grant that keeps the company fiscally solvent for a season or two.
Also at work in ensembles are interpersonal dynamics that can rival if not trump issues of authorship and credit — romantic attractions, envy and the comfort level with one's status in a group.
Finally comes the question of how creative decisions are made. Elizabeth LeCompte, director of the Wooster Group, described how the ensemble worked together in her adaptation of the Francesco Cavalli 1641 opera La Didone, which included trained opera singers. LeCompte said the process was "organic."
Having never wanted to be a performer herself, she said she simply observed and selected offerings served up by the ensemble and the musical adapter; there was no need for argument or even much discussion, because what was right for the production was understood by the company, which had been together for decades. That's what ensemble means. The opera singers, comparative outsiders, supported LeCompte's view by admitting they simply couldn't understand the unspoken language employed by the regular Wooster Group ensemble, that it was a mystery to them.
Assuming they were telling the truth, this is an idyllic representation of ensemble, and of the capacity of a group to unite through an accrued, private language in the interests of something larger than each of them.
Less artsy examples are a chorus line, a marching or military parade, playing and moving in unison. But the darkest sides of ensemble are neither creative nor benign. Fascism, too, is the surrender of the individual to the larger purpose.
An ensemble is a kind of government, and the negotiations within an ensemble between individual rights and collective needs can be found in the various models of government, including the gaping contradictions between a mission statement and actual behavior, or between a constitution and actual policy.
Michael Hollinger's 2006 Opus studies the interpersonal dynamics of a contemporary string quartet. The mimed image and sounds of the group rehearsing the "Adagio" movement from Bach's Concerto for Two Violins may be drivel for hard-boiled musicologists seeking dissonant sounds that match our century, but for those with more baroque inclinations, which teeter into the romantic, the give-and-take between the two lead violins is a love duet. One establishes a motif, the other chases and then embellishes upon it, until the first is echoing. This is the sight and sound of unfettered passion twisting itself into harmony, of the best that civilization can inspire. One can't even imagine the horrors unfolding in Bach's Europe while he was composing this bliss.
The play, directed by Simon Levy, is now in an extended run at Hollywood's Fountain Theatre.
Were the drama really a study of such harmony, it wouldn't be a drama at all. It is, in fact, the study of five individuals (one who leaves near play's start, and returns near play's end) struggling through romantic attraction, professional jealousy and ambition and, in one instance, the threat of a terminal disease, in a communal form of government, in order to accomplish as much as their group is capable of.
One premise is that the quartet has been invited to perform at the White House. This drains the quagmire of an idiosyncratic and merely eccentric story to place the eyes of the world upon this government of four, who vote their way through which selections to perform, and across the divides of interpretation that crop up.
There's a quotation attributed to Benjamin Franklin: "Participatory democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch." Whether Franklin actually said this, the adage plays itself out in Hollinger's story through an intricate balance of tempers and temperaments.
Near the start, the play reveals an "issue" with violist Dorian (Daniel Blinkoff), which caused him to leave, reducing the quartet to three. The play opens with an audition for his seat, soon filled somewhat reluctantly by Grace (Jia Doughman). She's waiting to hear back from the more prestigious Pittsburgh Symphony, but finally chooses the quartet, largely as a career move — for the attention and opportunity being in the smaller group will give her. Doughman plays her with an irresistible sweetness that's almost callow. In fact, she's anything but naive, though she does a convincing job portraying herself as such. She's merely polite, very polite, self-deprecatingly polite, swimming in a riptide alongside sharks. But don't mistake her civility for stupidity.