Did you know that people who study medicine can specialize in the anatomy and structure of the ear? There are lawyers who only practice “elder” law—not ancient legal theory but law about old people. The 20th century was the era of specialization. As tasks, tools, and communication became more complex, people became expert in smaller and smaller parts of each task. Professors can earn tenure by writing books on obscure Etruscan poets. In factories, autoworkers don‘t build cars, they put the lug nuts on one side of one part of a car over and over again.
In the theater, what may once have been a sparsely populated rehearsal room—whoever could fit in the back of the covered wagon as it rumbled from town to town looking for a town square to perform in—is now crowded with freelance fight choreographers and assistant stage managers, costume designers and dressers and sometimes their assistant dressers.
Without question, theater, like the rest of our culture, has grown more complicated in a variety of technological, organizational, and artistic ways, yet I doubt that specialization has made theater rehearsals better.
Everyone should learn as much as they can about a variety of styles of rehearsal. They should consider what the best approach is for the play they want to do as well as the purpose they have for doing it. Like First Thursdays at the Northrup King Building, when people just wander in to studios and chat up visual artists and drink their wine, I wish that everyone in Minnesota would open their rehearsals to their fellow performing artists once a month. In particular, we could all learn new approaches, new styles, new games, new concerns.
However, I think we‘d still have a general problem with the way that we conceive of the rehearsal process both in the conventional rehearsal room and in the unconventional rehearsal. In the conventional rehearsal process, the time we take to rehearse a show seems arbitrary. You wouldn‘t cook a good meal in less time than the recipe requires simply because that‘s all the time you can afford. If you did, you wouldn‘t be surprised when your dinner guests never came back. You also wouldn‘t leave food in the oven for three days and expect people will still be able to chew it. Every rehearsal calendar should be approached differently.
Also, most artists are temps. They have no more than a contractual relationship with the institution that defines a limited specialized role. They don‘t know the rules, the history, the aesthetic, the community. In an office, would you expect even the most intelligent, responsible temp to put their life on the line for the company? If they did, wouldn‘t you be a little freaked out? And if it didn‘t work, wouldn‘t you fire them immediately? Most temps keep their heads down because they need to keep their jobs. Of course, actors, writers, designers are more passionate than temps about every job they get but their insecure employment status must have an effect on their work. Alternative theaters regularly display more virtuosic performances because actors are empowered to take more risks and bring more of themselves in to the room.
On the other hand, alternative theaters generally don‘t work with text. The truth is that if theater is going to reach far and wide, then we must be able to rehearse written texts. Not every company can or should or even wants to develop their own script from scratch every time they put up a play.
Rehearsal time is arbitrarily set or not set at all. Rehearsal processes have needlessly separated in to two restrictive camps “text-based” and blocking-focused mainstream shows or “physical” theater that‘s not replicable by anyone else. The insecure status of temp artists limits their ability to take and suggest risks in the rehearsal room.
Commit to the company
Let‘s reject the specialization of the 20th century and recommit theater to the concept of company. The theater as an art form hasn‘t really fit well in to other innovations of the 20th century economy like mass distribution and on-demand production. We can‘t know whether anyone will want to buy the product until after we‘ve made it. We are not able to distribute live theater widely. And, generally, we can‘t cut material costs since those costs are predominately for living people and labor costs always rise. Plus, hey!, it looks like the whole late 20th century financial model is crumbling anyway.
Let‘s take this chance to consider other definitions of company, beyond the Fortune 500 variety. Company also means “a person or people seen as a source of friendship and enjoyment” and “a body of soldiers in battle together” and “a number of individuals gathered together for a particular purpose.” All these definitions of company are essential parts of theater whether you want to tell linear stories with characters who speak from a script or you want to develop acrobatic, wordless reenactments of Miss Manners‘ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, Freshly Updated with ten performers and a baboon.
A company of artists who work together regularly develop an understanding of each other. They can often make decisions more quickly. They can contribute and criticize more easily. They know who they are speaking with and how those collaborators will take what they say. They have less fear of getting fired. And, while administrative roles and talents need to be respected, the alternative perspectives of writers or actors or directors who are reciprocally committed to the company, business- and arts-wise, make valuable contributions to the entire endeavor over time.
They will also know how long they need to rehearse different kinds of plays. I do not mean that administrative considerations aren‘t important, I mean that the voices of the artists who make the work need to be heard as equals in the organization.
In her “From the Executive Director” essay in American Theatre magazine in July/August 2008, Teresa Eyring (former managing director of the Children‘s Theater Company) notes that in the Twin Cities and other solid theater communities, “a strong local acting, artistic, and production community... has in effect become a repertory company—not of a single theatre, but of an entire community. Many actors—instead of performing in several shows with a single theatre company in the same season—construct year-round employment by performing in different theatres throughout the year. Audience members get to know the actors of their community by seeing them in a number of plays at various venues.” While this is an unexpected and undeniably true point, this type of de facto company does not have the creative input in a theater that a committed company of artists would and should.
A company of supported artists enlivens the artistic voice of an institution in a stronger way. In any institution, whether its corporate or theatrical, the people who come to the building everyday have an inherent power over the people who depend on that building for temporary work. You may love the temp in the cubicle next to you and think she is doing the best job in the world, but you can‘t afford to piss off the coworker who shares your desk every day, regardless of whether you know what he does or not. Incorporating a stable company of artists will effect the artistic choices of an institution by giving the artists a more powerful position from which to advocate. In addition, a sense of ownership will improve the level and scope of the contributions—the virtuosity of the performances, the scripts, or the director.
Companies make better work
While I recognize this is an idealized situation, I know I‘m not hallucinating. Some of the best performances I‘ve ever seen in my life happened in the corner of a bar at Thirst Theater because the actors felt—no, seized—a sense of ownership over the scripts they performed. Almost every director I know was a better, more interesting director in graduate school because they had the time or the support or the freedom to rehearse in new and different ways. I write better when I write for particular actors. One of the best plays I‘ve ever written, for example, begins with tap dancing because the lead actress tap danced. The more chances I get to work with the same artists over the time, the better we collaborate on scripts and the more we understand and even meld how we approach our separate tasks. We specialize less and create more. In fact, most of the great works of western and non-Western theater were created in some kind of ensemble company. You can look it up.
While of course many committed ensemble companies clash and disappear, many theaters with corporate structures disappear, too. Let‘s face it: We‘re not in a financially lucrative or stable profession here. Examples of failure far outweigh triumphs. We may as well stop using that as an excuse. We chase after grants. We beg for donations. It is not economically feasible to pay for some theater purely through ticket sales, whether it‘s worth doing or not. We have to persuade people to fund performers and rent and scripts out of balance with their actual worth. Since we get to choose what it is we‘re trying to persuade people to fund. We might as well choose wisely. (Plus it is conceivable that a theater with a permanent, multitalented company that includes writers and actors on an equal basis with designers and directors can run plays while rehearsing other plays so that box office revenue is almost always coming in.)
Ironically, most emerging theaters begin as ensemble companies. People meet each other in college. They find they have similar minds about the work they want to create. No one else is giving them a chance, so they start a theater. Often for the first and second productions, they rehearse for as long or as short as they feel they should because they don‘t even know if they‘ll ever do another show. Somewhere along the way, though, at some magical size or age, rehearsal becomes more regimented, the stakes grow larger, and the company becomes a Company—with only one or two original members left holding the nonprofit status.
People argue that the theater has now become a mature, successful community resource larger than the artists who created it. Which sounds nice but doesn‘t actually make much sense. In fact, few other large mainstream arts institutions separate the art from the artists who make it. James Sewell Ballet works with a permanent, (modestly) paid collection of dancers. Minnesota Orchestra and Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra have musicians and composers and conductors on staff. You don‘t just go to hear Mozart like it‘s the same everywhere; you hear Mozart performed by the artists who are the Minnesota Orchestra. In fact, many of the best and most important performing arts institutions in the country, like Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago or the Wooster Group in New York or Theatre de la Jeune Lune, became important because of the strength and passion and voice of their ensemble companies.
Unfortunately, small ensembles rarely grow into large ensembles because people drift off toward money, be it in different kinds of theater or outside the theater world altogether.
Every experience of live theater is the accumulation of the process and the people that prepared it, not the printed script they may have used or produced. We need large institutions and foundations to commit funding to real salaries for real ensemble companies of multitalented performing artists. Of course, yes, the devil‘s in the details: How do you keep the work fresh over time? How do you meld a variety of artistic egos? How do you hold different types of artists in a company accountable? But if we want to answer these questions, we can. They are not more complex and time-consuming than questions we currently wrestle with, like how we manage a board of directors or how we chase that next education grant.
Because when I look at the rehearsal process, I can‘t help but feel as though a real financial and philosophical commitment to a company that really collaborates, whatever kind of theater you‘re doing, is the way we should reimagine theater in the new century. ❦