- Ensemble Theatre Making: A Practical Guide by Rose Burnett Bonczek and David Storck
Rose Burnett Bonczek and David Storck’s Ensemble Theatre Making: A Practical Guide accents the tension between theory and praxis in theatre and performance scholarship. As experienced educators and artists with, as they write, “combined 60+ years of experience” (5), Bonczek and Storck draw their lessons and insights for the reader from hundreds—perhaps thousands—of moments that comprise their substantial observations of interpersonal dynamics and collaborative processes. From these moments, they distill core values and behavioral patterns that shape their discussion of ensemble as a positive phenomenon that emerges from ways of working, the role of leadership in a group, and methods for creating and maintaining individual ensembles in hypothetical situations. Their personal experiences, which they acknowledge span a wide range of successes and challenges, function as a kind of supporting evidence for abstractions of their practice rewritten as general truths.
Over the course of seven chapters arching from “What Is Ensemble” to “Ensemble Making: Specific Recipes,” Bonczek and Storck develop a methodology that intersperses shared advice and assessments with their individual voices. The latter consists of anecdotes identified as belonging to either “Rose” or “David.” This methodology focuses on a clear goal: to guide less experienced, or less successful, ensemble leaders toward deliberate facilitation of collaborative creativity characterized by a “[...] strong bond among members” (7). On one hand, the authors’ engagement with their own practice enables them to include inspiring and specific creative exercises such as those developed by artists Augusto Boal and Keith Johnstone. On the other [End Page 186] hand, the authors’ writing process results in continuous slippage between the specific and the general, creating a gap that undermines their very topical and compelling project.
Ensemble development deserves significant academic and artistic attention, as evidenced by growing numbers of collaboratively centered performance groups. The US-based Network of Ensemble Theaters, for example, has grown from its eight founding groups in 1996 to more than 200 members in 2013. Like Bonczek and Storck, the NET construes ensemble broadly. An ensemble might engage with dance, acrobatics, theatre for social change, new play development, devising, combinations therein, etc. It is the process, rather than the theatrical form, that is important. For the NET, ensemble is “a group of individuals dedicated to collaborative creation, committed to working together consistently over years to develop a distinctive body of work and practices [...]” (NET n.d.). This definition underscores the balance between individual and group identity (“a group of individuals”) as one crux of ensemble practice.
Unfortunately, this balance is upset by Ensemble Theatre Making’s persistent address to the fledgling ensemble leader. While the authors usefully remind the reader that rigorous intentionality is part of making ensemble (ensemble spirit does not emerge magically, they remind us), their overemphasis on the leadership role devalues the contributions and individuality of other group members. In the fifth chapter, “Archetypes within Ensemble,” Bonczek and Storck argue the validity of describing ensemble members through type: “Over decades of work, we’ve seen similar recurring behaviors emerge in every production we’ve directed, and every class we’ve taught. With each new group, individuals displayed behavior that we recognized immediately, and it created a kind of shorthand that allowed us to predict dynamics, and identify potential conflicts far in advance” (98). This shorthand involves categories demarcated by catchy names, descriptions of archetypal behavior, lists of pros and cons resulting from these behaviors, and a fire-danger scale that rates the likelihood of damage to the ensemble project. For example, “Black Holes” rate highly on the Forest Fire Danger Index. These types are “the ones who draw energy toward them with little or no energy returned to the group” (100). Positively, write the authors, “Though the most dangerous to the ensemble, they’re endlessly fascinating.” Negatively, “Go back to your undergraduate Astronomy class and read what happens to a universe when a Black Hole gains power” (101). A label of this magnitude...