Observations on the Directing & Ensemble Creation Institute
December 1-8, 2012 – Minneapolis, MN
By Ed Bourgeois
As an Alaska-based theatre director working primarily in the context of a Native cultural center, I was honored to receive an invitation to attend the pilot intensive of the newly created Directing and Ensemble Creation Institute, held December 1-8, 2012 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Coming from a background of Western theater – with training in the classics at Catholic University, and stage directing experience in the operatic and standard theatrical repertoire – I came to the Pilot Institute with no real experience in ensemble or devised theater process.
It was immediately apparent to me that the majority of invited participants in the room were well versed in the process and practices of this form. Indeed, many were respected leaders in the field: former leaders and faculty at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst’s New WORLD Theater, veteran performers in the National Performance Network, and founders of ensemble companies with decades of continuous practice. In the midst of these luminaries, I felt like a college freshman among alumni and professors.
These are my observations regarding the convening, from the perspective of a novice in this environment.
I was welcomed with open arms. In this substratum of the theatre world, specific to ensembles and devised work, and despite that I was a newcomer in a world of peers, I was warmly welcomed as a colleague. This group of professional practitioners gladly gave themselves over to a democratic environment of equality, where everyone – regardless of artistic pedigree or source of theatrical training – generously shared their own skills and experience, and humbly opened themselves to new learning.
There was a staggering amount of activity packed into this eight-day intensive, but kudos to the organizers for creating a most efficient schedule and adhering to it. Panel discussions and hands-on skill development workshops were mixed with exercises, experimentation and play in such a way that participants were challenged but never over-taxed, with just enough time set aside for meals, rest and socialization. Convening organizers and staff had every detail well thought-out, and moderated activities so that the group stayed on track and completed objectives each day, and throughout the week.
Noteworthy elements included: beginning the week with the development of collective Agreements, or consensual standards for operating respectfully as a group; daily morning warm-ups, including Viewpoints training; moments of silence to begin sessions; an altar of sacred objects; guest speakers and discussion panels; development sessions for a proposed Institute curriculum; emphasis on incorporating a focus on social justice into process and creating a respectful, safe working space; and a generous sharing of process and practice by all participants.
Beyond its design, structure and content, what truly set this intensive apart from other convenings, for me, was its soul. It is clear that a guiding principal for the Institute is its firm grounding in values. Beginning with the development of the shared Agreements, every decision by workshop leaders and every step of the Pilot process incorporated a focus on diversity, respect, and a commitment to ensuring that all voices were heard. This bodes well for future participants, who will not only gain theatrical skills, but also the tools needed for incorporating social justice concepts in their directing practices.
Another example of the intentionality that characterizes the Institute is the insistence by hosts Dipankar Mukherjee and Meena Natarajan, Artistic and Executive/Literary Directors of Pangea World Theater, that the indigenous North American voice be honored and incorporated in the Institute, and their invitation of Native American theatre artists, and those who work with them, to participate. From the initial welcome by Ojibwa community leader and theater artist, Sharon Day and smudging of the space with sage smoke, to the inclusion of an Indigenous Artists panel and elements important to Native participants, such as prayer, music, and conducting work in a circle, Pilot Institute leaders made a bold statement regarding diversity with their intentional inclusion and deference to indigenous voice, practice and values. As a theater director of French/Haudenosaunee (Mohawk) lineage, who works with Alaska Native artists, I appreciate and was encouraged that this reaching out occurred.
During the Intensive, workshop leaders did not simply demonstrate their process, or “set it on” a company of performers. Rather, the entire group of directors engaged as an ensemble, participating in the exercises and actively creating work through the process. By the end of a week, more than two hours of material had been developed through writing and improvisation. In the spirit not of performing, but of demonstrating the process to Minneapolis practitioners, an invited audience of local peers took part in a sharing of work on the final evening of the convening. In a glorious destruction of “the fourth wall,” members of the audience participated in nearly every presentation, and the house was empty for the culminating piece, which incorporated the entire audience.
But this was not the Intensive’s only magical moment. Other memorable highlights included: having Institute organizers push the boundaries of what it means to include everyone; story circles, in which participants’ sharing of their cultures and personal family stories brought a deeper understanding to peers who thought they knew each other before, but perhaps really didn’t; and a focus on “song, story and food – the three critical keys to working with community,” according to Linda Parris-Bailey, director of Tennessee-based The Carpetbag Theater Inc.
And there are some quotes from that magical week that will stick with me, too:
Dipankar Mukherjee on aesthetics: “The text is a boat on the surface of the water; process is everything underneath, down to the ocean floor.”
Marty Pottenger (Art at Work/Terra Moto) on community engagement: “Community members that we do this kind of work with never want to be in the show. Invite them instead to come to the workshop. Chances are they’ll want to perform their own story in the end.”
But I believe the most valuable information I’ll bring back to my community and try to put into practice is how to begin incorporating the process of true ensemble work. Until now, whenever I’ve gone into rehearsal process, I’ve sat the cast down at a table for a read-through of the script. But what I’ve learned here completely throws that Western text-based interpretive structure out the window. The process that began to be codified during this intensive looks at the creative process in a completely different way – which is beginning with the group itself and mining what each artist contributes to that sacred space that will be home to the rehearsal process, and ultimately develops into the performance itself. Beginning not with words on the page, but with intense physical warm-ups, group process, and interactive activities that form bonds of trust and create a safe place for exploration.
With Institute founders Dipankar Mukherjee and Meena Natarajan of Pangea World Theater and Andrea Assaf of Art2Action Inc. at the helm, a powerful training ground is being prepared, which promises future participants a wealth of practical tools for directing ensembles, but also for making positive change in our world. It has been an honor to add my voice to the process, and I look forward to news of its further development.