A row of actors sitting side by side in chairs, collectively unrolling a ball of string. The character of Death stands with a pair of scissors, leaning over a seated actor on one side, snipping strands of string as it unfurls. The rope of life, some long strands, some short, snipped capriciously, falling to the floor in piles, like tiny corpses tumbling into a graveyard. The scene is from a workshop production of Nancy Keystone's An Alcestis Project, commissioned by and presented at the Getty Villa. Playwright-director Keystone didn't conjure the scene while sitting at a computer in her office. It was created in collaboration with improvisations and exercises by her acting company, Critical Mass Performance Group.
"Theaters have to face the reality that new work is being created by ensembles as well as playwrights. So we have to look at the whole spectrum of the way new work is created," says Diane Rodriguez, Center Theatre Group's associate producer and director of new play production.
"There is definitely a movement afoot," she adds.
What does this ensemble-created work she refers to — sometimes called "company-devised work" — actually mean? That's not always easy to know. It's certainly a collaboration among actors, a director and a playwright, but that could be said of all theater.
The difference here is simply that, because of the way it's conceived, "company-devised" theater comes with the idiosyncratic aesthetic of a company or director who overrides that of the playwright. The work tends to be more visual, it employs music, and it makes the text and visuals more integrated than merely having actors recite lines.
This has been a rising trend locally and nationally in the last half-decade, in part because of institutional support from big theaters, and it has led to some of the freshest, most vivid stage work in our city today. To see the trend in action, you need only look to local companies such as Killsonic, TeAda, Son of Semele Ensemble, Troubadour Theater Company, Critical Mass Performance Group, Ghost Road Company, L.A. Poverty Department, Rogue Artists Ensemble, Burglars of Hamm, Poor Dog Group, Watts Village Theater Company, Theatre Movement Bazaar and many more.
One definition put forward by annoyed playwrights is that ensemble-generated work shifts theater toward a movie-industry paradigm that places the director in the driver's seat. Instead of, say, a theater paying royalties to present a script by Arthur Miller, and then choosing actors to play the parts, think of the granddaddy of ensemble-generated work, New York's Wooster Group. Since the early 1970s, director Elizabeth LeCompte has been guiding her company through works filled with fragmented text, heavily influenced by technology and the media.
That's also the model used by local group Ghost Road Company. Artistic director Katharine Noon starts with an idea, or set of ideas, and then runs her ensemble through a series of discussions and movement exercises based on research of those ideas, before cobbling together a text that she'll direct.
"The piece we're working on now, The Bargain and the Butterfly, started with the idea of creative genius and neurology," Noon explains. "Then we found a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, 'The Artist of the Beautiful.' I did a lot of research, searching for images, interviews, articles, the source story, I do that by myself, then I bring all this to the ensemble — the point being to ask them, are you interested in this, too?"
In 2001, Noon cobbled together her own play, Clyt at Home, co-adapted by Christopher DeWan and heavily influenced by the feedback and acting strengths of her company. That play is a contemporary adaptation of the story of Agamemnon and the Greek warrior's embittered wife, Clytemnestra. The company's most recently staged effort, Ronnie Clark's Stranger Things (about a gay son's homecoming to his family), was heavily influenced by the writings of Albert Camus and resident composer David O's music.
In Ghost Road's productions, the writers are largely at the service of the company, and of the larger idea that the company is investigating — even when the writer is the director.
But the suggestion of playwright as employee, or even servant, crumbles when one examines the approach taken by Theatre Movement Bazaar, a company run by director-choreographer Tina Kronis and her playwright husband, Richard Alger. Despite TMB's heavily stylized presentations, the company relies on the Shakespearean adage: "The play's the thing."
After the first week or so of rehearsal, Kronis makes it a point to find a way to make the text work rather than meddle with it. Theatre Movement Bazaar literally dances to the words.
In the company's most recent work, co-produced by Theatre @ Boston Court, Kronis staged Alger's adaptation of Anton Chekhov's short story "Ward 6" in an edgy, tautly choreographed spectacle called The Treatment. This was the story of the head physician in a provincial Russian hospital becoming increasingly, dangerously empathetic toward one of the hospital's mental patients. Some of the staging of the six-man ensemble involved sassy, chorus line choreography (by Ken Roht) executed with military-drill precision — the last thing you'd expect from a Chekhov story.