January 13, 2015

  • #Collective Acts

To explore the idea of Collective Acts and how people who work in ensembles work, I started by interviewing current practitioners across a range of generations. This is the first of many transcripts from informal phone interviews.  I started with 4 basic questions, the responses varied, tangents were taken and follow-up questions emerged.  Here is an edited transcript of my first interview with John Flax of Theater Grottesco.

Alison De La Cruz: What does ensemble mean to you?
John Flax: Ensemble means many things.  There are 4 major elements:
1) On stage: It means that there are a group of people working in the same style and same architecture and intensity. Often when we see non-ensemble work, we might see good performers, but its not gelling because they are not connected on stage. Not that they are not looking and talking to each other – but they are not in the same style and intensity that you can only get that when you spend time on stage together.

2) When we create: We open the process with questions instead of answers.  It means that we can come to a group of people who are used to working together towards the strongest solution possible and say, “I’ve been thinking about this – I’d really like to pursue this.”   We as an ensemble ask: What are the all the facets of this question? Many minds can research and discover because we know that we don’t know the answers, till we do the research.  That’s the deepest and most important reason to do ensemble work to me. It’s very personal.

3) In terms of our organization ensemble means that our organization and board of directors are aligned to this artistic journey. It’s not about making more money or changing our mission to fit funding standards and trends – it’s about having the full the organization in support of the full development and production of the work.

4) The audience:  Ultimately, whether the audience can articulate it or not, they can see an ensemble that works together over a period of time. An ensemble working together reminds me of the no-look pass in basketball. That moment when the team is running full-tilt down the court, and someone throws the pass without looking, and another knows that it’s coming. It’s magic when people have been working together in long a time.

AD: Who is part of your ensemble?
JF:   In general terms, people come and go – some people have been together for 31 years. Other people have had different phases, different cities. We were in Paris, then New York, Detroit and then Santa Fe. Some of the Detroit members still come back and do projects (or elements of projects) with us.  When we got to Santa Fe, we built a strong company, and previous members come back. Some people have babies and jobs, but they will come back and do something. We also have new people come in.

AD: What kind of artists, people are you looking for?
In the ensemble, we look for people who can work well with other people. That’s the most important thing. They need the basic physical tools to do physical theater. On top of that they can have training and skills for different styles. As creators they exhibit skills as a performer, director and writer. Not everyone has all these skills. This is where ensemble comes in: some people bring me in when we are working on our feet. Some people are there when we are in conception. Someone could have all those skills and is also an administrator or has skills with technology.  It’s great an organizational level to have people who have a broader perspective. It’s great to the have a background of more than just theater – anthropology and psychology and it helps into the research in human expression.

Photo: "Fortune: The Rise and Fall of a Small Fortune Cookie Factory", shot in 2007 by Marc Romanelli. Ensemble members are: Kate Kita, Todd Anderson, Rod Harrison, Vanessa Rios Y Valles, Aimee Laisseigne, Eric Kaiser and John Flax.

AD: How does your ensemble work?
JF: Shows start from an inquiry or observation that someone has made about society or they have witnessed something, a dramatic experience between people or organization. They might say, I’m taken by this. I think that this is larger than this single moment I’ve witnessed and read about.

Then other people join in on the conversation – here this is related or what about this? We brainstorm for quite a while. It’s a collective way. We’ll spend a fair amount of time collectively brainstorming and exploring.

JF: So, how do we put this on our feet in the rehearsal hall? We begin by choosing a style, then some scenarios to play with and then character is next. Then we’ll go and start to work with that.  One person might have the spark, and they’ll follow it through. In the early stage, one or two artists can help nurture it and prepare to put it before an audience. We’ll see what we come up with, by presenting a short version of a new vision in front of an audience. We will share this before we develop it into an evening of work. 

So when we share short works, it could be an evening of 3 different pieces – so that we can see how the audience responds, are they interested? After we’ve had it in front of an audience, we can feel if the vision has the teeth and the depth needed to proceed to a longer piece. 

AD: That makes me wonder, how does your ensemble handle decision-making and conflict about the creative work?
JF: There are a couple of layers.
First there is the Artistic Director Partnership of the organization – they decide what can and can’t go on stage in the name of the company. They are the guardians of vision of the company.  Within that, on any given project, there is an artistic director of the project or a few people who are artistic directing the project – so that if an actor says I want to do this in the show then the project artistic director will assess whether it fits in the project.

When there is a conflict, we try to go with the strongest solution for every artistic problem. IF we don’t agree, then the director of the piece will then make the decision. If it’s still an issue then the artistic director will come in and bounce it around, ask questions to help it be resolved as a collective decision. There are times when artists have had to put their vision aside. Within our ensemble structure, there are times when someone is hanging on to an idea, so every 3 or 4 years individuals can create piece that is their piece.  Others will help to serve their vision. Then the artistic director can decide whether to move forward with the piece’s development. Or, sometimes, the artistic directors might have to say, I understand the strength of your vision – but it conflicts with what the ensemble is focusing on.

It’s a messy process.  But, it’s also great.

AD: As we’ve talked about, I’m continuing to develop this blog. Is there anything you would like to see or hear in this new blog?
JF: There is a message in this medium itself that we take for granted. It’s connected to the thing about the audience responding to the no-look pass metaphor. Even if they don’t understand the steps that got into that, it’s very important. It is a connection between ensembles and sports, in circus work as well.  The work it takes for trapeze artists to let go, trust that their partner is going to catch them, the work that their partner will take on to catch another.  You can even look at jazz or dance – it’s all ensemble work. A dancer can leap and be caught at the height of their leap. We could be looking at ensembles more broadly then just theater. Interesting to make the connection to the non-arts and performance world. Where does ensemble exist in those places?

JF: Personally, I’d love to hear what a professional point guard basketball player would have to say about ensembles. 

To learn more about Theater Grottesco visit: