We Don't Need No Playwright: How Ensemble-Created Work Is Changing L.A. Theater

PHOTOGRAPHY BY STAR FOREMAN

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.

 

Kronis and Alger have been working together here since 1999. Their insistence that the play comes first is a very traditional view of how theater is created.

Yet, while most of the script is set before rehearsals begin, the ensemble still has a chance to make contributions once its members have started working together. Alger finishes his play, which the actors may not have seen yet, while watching actor exercises. Observing the actors' movements and vocal rhythms helps him determine the rhythms of the script.

"We withhold the script until one week into the rehearsal process," Alger explains. "One reason is to prepare them as an ensemble; the other reason is to give me a chance to make adjustments as we see rehearsals." Once the actors have the text in hand, "There's maybe 15 percent of the text that gets adjusted. Songs may appear, particularly if an actor has the ability to play an instrument."

But at some point in the rehearsal process, Kronis and Alger cut off all further revisions. "When you're making a new piece, at one point you have to stop fiddling with the text and work with what you've got, and in some ways that's a restraint," Kronis says. "At some point, I usually feel I don't know what I'm going to do with this text, but because we've decided we're not going to change it, those constraints can be wonderful. They can be annoying, but if you stick with it, something will come of it."

Something certainly has come of The Treatment. Theatre Movement Bazaar has been invited to perform its production at South Coast Repertory later this year.

If Ghost Road Company has the playwright work around the company, while Theatre Movement Bazaar molds its choreography to the text, writer-director Nancy Keystone's Critical Mass Performance Group is a combination of the two. Several weeks ago, Keystone staged a workshop of An Alcestis Project, her own reworking of Euripides' Alcestis — the drama of a wife who bargains with the god Apollo to take her husband's preordained place in the afterlife, and the husband's guilt-ridden attempt to follow her there after her departure. The group's other works include The Akhmatova Project (about Russian poet Anna Akhmatova under the tyranny of Stalin) and Apollo (making a discomfiting link between the U.S. space program and Nazi scientists).

Keystone has written the texts to all of her archly stylized productions, which come marbled with striking visual imagery. For Alcestis, like Noon, Keystone flung herself into the researched investigation of ideas about marriage, loyalty and mortality. The piece was developed in two weeks, at the start of which there was no script. In two intense weeks of rehearsal, eight hours a day, through improvisations and exercises, the director worked intensely on a script that aligned with the work of the ensemble. The result was disciplined and stirring.

The paradigm of a director-playwright such as Keystone hardly diminishes the role of the playwright as the final arbiter in the creative process.

It's sweet to discuss new, inventive models for creating theater, but to understand this trend fully, you have to follow the money.

Theater created with the heavy input of the director and the ensemble, in tiny companies such as the ones above, has lately become more recognized by larger institutional theaters and foundations. For instance, four years ago, Center Theatre Group received a $1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support and develop ensemble-generated work, "because there was a general swell of interest in ensemble-created work across the country," says CTG's Diane Rodriguez.

This funding included a major grant to the New England Foundation for the Arts to support the touring of American ensemble work within the United States and Europe. Rodriguez served on the grant's advisory panel: "We're attempting to create a touring network for ensembles within the country."

The La Jolla Playhouse, one of the nation's pre-eminent regional theaters, has two programs, The Edge and Without Walls, underwritten by the James Irvine Foundation. These programs develop, respectively, experimental/collaborative work by companies such as the Builders Association and site-specific theater from the likes of L.A.'s Moving Arts.

This spring, Moving Arts presented its Car Plays in the La Jolla theater's parking lot. The event was a series of short, rotating playlets, conceived by Paul Stein and written by various playwrights, staged for audiences of two in a series of very small theaters on four wheels. Several cars were lined up, with a pair of actors waiting inside each. Carhops escorted pairs of audience members into the backseat of each vehicle and closed the doors, and the actors would play a 10-minute drama inside the car.

 

One scenario, for instance, involved a pair of Iraq War veterans, agonizing through the last minutes before the car was set to explode in front of a government building; the drama centered around children described crossing in front of the building, and the conflict over whether to proceed with the bombing. The doors then were flung open and the audience duo escorted to the next car forward to see a different play, while a new pair witnessed the car-bomb drama, which the actors replayed multiple times.

In one car, the audience members unwittingly became the actors: They were told to sit in the front and the actors got into the back of the car, and then sat in silence, before finally engaging in a comedic meta-theatrical discourse about the "play" they were seeing in the front seat and what they expected from it. "Why don't they say anything?" one asked the other.

Meanwhile, in another car, a forlorn fellow in the front seat was trying to explain to a child sitting next to him why exactly the boy's mother and he had split up, attempting to be charitable to his ex, the boy's mother. The preteen boy absorbed his father's heartbreak in stone-faced anguish.

While The Car Plays weren't ensemble-created in the same way that, say, Critical Mass or Ghost Road's productions are, with actors and the director contributing significantly to the text, they are a collaboration among a number of playwrights, which emphasizes a company's aesthetic and overall conception of a project over the voice of any one writer.

La Jolla Playhouse literary director Gabriel Greene says he spotted The Car Plays during last summer's Radar L.A. Festival, which was presenting ensemble-created work from companies across the Pacific Rim, many from Los Angeles. Moving Arts had been staging Car Plays at various local parking lots for years.

Last month, La Jolla also presented Richard Montoya's play American Night: The Ballad of Juan José — the picaresque journey of a Mexican immigrant to U.S. citizenship — before the company moved north to perform the play at CTG's Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. Though written by Montoya, American Night was developed at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2010 in collaboration with Montoya's sketch-comedy troupe, Culture Clash, and the show's director, Jo Bonney.

Both Greene and Rodriguez point to cooperation among the artistic directors of California's flagship institutional theaters — La Jolla Playhouse's Christopher Ashley, South Coast Repertory's Marc Masterson, Center Theatre Group's Michael Ritchie and Berkeley Repertory Theatre's Tony Taccone — to present works that are created under the pervasive influence of a strong director and ensemble.

This foursome is in line with a similar national trend that started about five years ago, which marks a sea change in the way new work is encouraged at the institutional-theater level. The model until recently was that of commissioning and working with playwrights. This has been long-standing tradition at Costa Mesa's South Coast Repertory, which annually presents public readings and workshops of commissioned plays in its Pacific Playwrights Festival, and gives at least a couple of them full productions the following season.

When Ritchie took over the helm of Center Theatre Group from Gordon Davidson, he took the controversial step of dropping four minority playwriting labs that Davidson had established. Rodriguez insists CTG still has an active playwright commissioning program. She says the company has been working with seven different local authors for each of the past five years, and plans to stage at least two of their works next season.

Yet Rodriguez also points to the kind of play development that shifts the larger institution's role from producer to curator — aligning CTG with companies rather than just individual playwrights, and presenting their work in its smallest space, the Kirk Douglas Theatre. At CTG, these groups include not only Culture Clash and Critical Mass (Apollo) in L.A. but also Rainpan 43 Performance Group (All Wear Bowlers) from Philadelphia, the Civilians (This Beautiful City) from New York and the Rude Mechs (The Method Gun) from Austin.

Mark Valdez is executive director of the Network of Ensemble Theatres, a national organization that supports the work of theater ensembles. He says ensemble-driven work is not so much a trend as an ongoing movement.

"I think there have been waves of it," he says, adding that the previous wave was in the early 1980s. "We're now riding the most recent wave."

Valdez believes the reason for the recent wave of collaborative work — and the institutional support for it — mostly has to do with how larger regional theaters are increasingly playing it safe in these cash-strapped times, making the specificity and the idiosyncratic aesthetic of these small ensembles a breath of fresh air.

 

"I think regional theaters have become generalists," Valdez adds, "programming for a really wide audience — here's our classic play, here's our comedy, here's our Black History Month play. There's nothing wrong with that, and hopefully they become homes for a wide segment of the population."

But ensembles, nationally and locally, are able to focus more, Valdez says, "and develop a style of working and an aesthetic, and that's what makes the work exciting. Because of that, it's reinvigorated the field. I don't think it's going back. I wouldn't be surprised [if] in the next handful of years, regional theaters bring back [the now out-of-fashion concept of having their own] acting companies. I think this is only the beginning."


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