Bringing Fire, Feeling Full

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(Photo by Deborah Alexander from the Mirror Man moment of Jane the Plain)

It was a moment made more remarkable for almost passing by unnoticed.

Midway through our run of Jane the Plain, in one of the most difficult scenes of the play, one of our ensemble actors skips a line. She’s one of four actors creating the Mirror Man, a supernatural, malevolent force that speaks either in four-part fugue or unison. On top of the choral speech, we’ve created a stylized physicality coordinated with a complex series of design cues, and a single misstep should doom us.

But that’s not what happens. She skips ahead, and a line that should be in unison now falls in a place that should be a fugue. Without a second of hesitation, the rest of the ensemble snaps into the fugue, as if we’d always rehearsed it that way, so seamlessly it’s not until I ask her afterwards that I’m sure a mistake was made.

And this almost unremarkable moment is one small example of why I believe so deeply in ensemble theatre.

Before I go any further, I must admit that I have a two-part agenda with this post. The first part: to convince you to donate to the Network of Ensemble Theaters (NET), where I serve as a board member, to support our midyear fundraising drive. If you’re in a hurry and don’t need more convincing, you can make that donation here.

I don’t want to tell you the second part yet, mostly because I don’t yet know how to say it. As with any ensemble process, I’m taking a leap in this series of posts, and trusting you, my collaborator, to catch me in the air and carry me to the other side.

*****

Four years ago. Los Angeles. A NET Micro-Fest on New Play Development. I’m walking with Laurie McCants, an ensemble member of the groundbreaking Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble. It’s honest-to-God dusk, the light of the world on a slow dimmer as we walk from dinner to the Atwater Village Theatre to watch some plays.

We’re discussing how to hold an ensemble together over the long term. To be more accurate, I’m asking and she’s telling. Here’s the question: Flux had a two-tiered membership structure with a complex list of rights and responsibilities, and a labyrinth, hierarchical process for determining artistic opportunities (or as we call them in the horrific acronym for Guaranteed Artistic Opportunities for Members, GAOMS).

As artistic director, I’m in charge of making sure these GAOMs run smoothly, and by and large, they don’t. Grievances are simmering over the fairness of balancing who does the most work with who gets the best opportunities. I share my frustrations with Laurie, hopeful she’ll have some clever tweaks for making this GAOM machine run smoothly.

Instead, she shares that for the first ten years of BTE’s existence, they experienced the same challenges and then some. Then, around year ten, the ensemble shifted into a longer-term perspective. They knew if the perfect role wasn’t this year, it would be the next, or the one after. The whole became something more than the sum of self-interested parts. They were in it for each other, for that emergent something more.

It was in part this conversation that made me advocate for Flux to abolish our two-tiered complex membership system and scrap the GAOMS, and replace them with an organic, equal partnership based on mutual trust and open communication. The Member/Associate Member structure crumbled, not entirely gracefully, and our current Creative Partnership was born.

It’s reasonable to say that if not for that conversation with Laurie, Flux might not be around today. And that kind of peer exchange is one reason why I hope you’ll give to the Network of Ensemble Theaters.

*****

I think if you’re lucky enough to have a moment before you die, like you know it’s about to happen, you don’t say, “oh, what does it all mean?,” you ask, “what fire did I bring to the world”, you know? How did I help people feel full? –Jane in Jane the Plain

Sometimes it’s not just about the fire you bring, but the fire you’re given to care for until it’s time to pass that fire on.

*****

Three years later. Hawaii. The NET MicroFest USA National Summit & Learning Exchange. We are at Camp Mokule‘ia, right on the beach, and we try to keep our minds on Summit business but the ocean keeps calling.

I remember Noé Montoya and Chas Croslin playing playing music on the sand by the shore and a frantic year holding still at last; our feet straddling now and forever, with music the bridge.

It’s as diverse and equitable a gathering as I’ve attended, and yet, those deep wounds of race and gender bleed fresh. A graphic moment in a play sets off some triggers, and we gather at night to discuss how to stage violence without also inflicting it. Truths that seem incompatible except for all being true are shared without resolution. We have so much work to do.

In a later meeting, I stand in a sharing session and say, “I don’t want to leave this earth with our theatre movement so unjust, so inequitable.” I burn with it, as if that fire is new.

Later, Jerry Stropnicky, another veteran ensemble theatre maker (and co-founder of BTE) talks with me for awhile. I understand that whatever words he uses, what he’s actually saying is, “don’t let go of that fire,” and I understand the thing I’m burning with is very, very old. Jerry, Laurie, Chas, Noé, they too have kept it, changed it, at times seen it fade to near embers, at times brought it to a roar.

There is a gentle seriousness to his words that lets me know that it’s a charge, not a gift.

And this shared charge is another reason why I hope you’ll give to the Network of Ensemble Theaters.

*****

It’s the closing night of Jane the Plain. We’ve had as strong a final performance as we could’ve hoped for, and now we’re toasting and roasting each other over cupcakes and Champagne. It’s been nearly a year since we asked five of our dearest long-term collaborators to become Creative Partners, sneaking them off into clearings in the woods of the Little Pond Arts Retreat to make the asks. What we thought might be a risk has turned out to be a renewal, and for me, a rebirth.

I have reached the end of a certain way of seeing things, of defining success on strangers’ terms. If my life as an artist is only for myself, then I cannot see a way out of this corrosive, selfish despair that has made it impossible for me to even enjoy watching a play of mine staged. I can only see all the things I’m not and may never be.

But if my life as an artist is for these people, my Creative Partners, if it is about the work we make together, then everything shifts. Then my work becomes a gift to these artists I love, a gift we make together to give to the world. You can burn out quickly, carrying that fire alone.

I try to say that, but words fail; I should’ve written something down, I stammer and come up short, hoping the emotion behind the words will make clear what I cannot yet say.

*****

There is a truth about ensembles that you should know. We will make mission statements and craft visions, we will have strategic plans and core values, we will pen lofty grant statements and pitch you pithy in the elevator, but none of that is where the heart of it lies. That’s not the real thing.

The real thing, the heart of it, is the people.

And we do not know how to value people in our culture; we prefer them to fill a role, to be convenient, interchangeable, disposable. For this reason, and others that I’ll share in the next posts in this series, I believe that ensemble theatre is essential to our culture. For this reason, and many others, I hope you’ll give to the Network of Ensemble Theaters.

*****

I finish my seemingly-unsuccessful toast to see another glass raised. It’s Sol Crespo, one of our new Creative Partners and, as it happens, the actress I mentioned at the beginning of all this who jumped the Mirror Man line without missing a beat.

She raises her glass and says, “We have to keep doing this together, because people need it. I believe that. I think this is the fire we’re bringing to the world.”

We raise our glasses to drink the last of the Champagne before leaving the theatre to head to the after-party. We are full, and life is the name inside us, burning. We’re an ensemble of artists, and what can’t we do together?

And we’re not alone: we’re held up by our fellow ensemble artists, and by organizations like the wonderful Network of Ensemble Theaters (to which I do hope you’ll donate). Over the next few days, I’ll share more posts about the impact NET has had on Flux. But I wanted to begin this series with the most important thing, which is the people, and the fire we’re bringing to the world.

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