- Ensemble Theatre-Making: A Practical Guide by Rose Burnett Bonczek and David Storck
As Rose Burnett Bonczek and David Storck point out in Ensemble Theatre-Making, ensemble is not the result of “plain luck” (5); it is a way of interacting and collaborating that must be “created, nurtured, maintained, and even repaired” by attentive and vigilant leaders (8). Acknowledging that thriving ensembles inevitably have watchful and politic leaders is an important reminder. Too often the concept of ensemble is equated with nonhierarchical collectivity, when in fact within the history of performing ensembles a “leaderless” group is virtually impossible to name. The goal of this guide, then, is to help the inevitable leaders of collaborative performance groups with “identifying ensemble behaviors and developing techniques to respond to those behaviors” (5).
Throughout most of the book, the authors do not attempt to differentiate between the many types of ensembles, and therefore types of ensemble leadership within contemporary performance. “[A]n ensemble, may be a cast, a class, members of a program, students, amateurs, or professionals,” they declare (7). Consequently, early chapters such as “Leading ensemble” and “Creating ensemble” offer general advice applicable to a number of different audiences of “teachers, [End Page 136] directors, program leaders” (5). Because “ensemble” is dealt with in the widest sense—ensemble may be the camaraderie between students in a BFA program, the kinesthetic connection between improvisation partners onstage, or the feeling of belonging within a well-shepherded rehearsal process at a repertory theatre—the authors’ advice can sound like platitudes: “ego can lead to judgment, which can lead to competition” (52). Such truisms seem most useful to leaders with limited experience in collaboration. It makes sense, therefore, when the authors pause occasionally to address this audience specifically, in sections such as “A special note for new or emerging ensemble leaders” (131).
In the final two chapters of the book, the authors switch gears from discussing ensemble in the most general terms to offering detailed advice to leaders in a number of specific scenarios: for example, what to do if “[y]ou’ve been hired as artistic director of an existing company” or if you’ve been “[i]nvited to teach a single course (any subject)” (173 and 176). When the authors address these particular situations, their advice is often apt, though applicable to a fairly limited audience. For example, Burnett Bonczek, who heads the BFA program in Acting at Brooklyn College, contributes much to a section in which the authors outline the many ways ensemble can be developed within a cohort of undergraduates (162-169). Their suggestions here are indeed practical, though they might be better suited to a manifesto addressed specifically to BFA program heads in a pedagogical journal such as Theatre Topics, rather than to the concluding chapter of a book that attempts to capture the essentials of ensemble-building universally.
Between the very general discussion at the front of book and the very specific advice at the back, Burnett Bonczek and Storck offer a chapter on different “archetypes” to avoid or to entice into your ensemble–“the Black Hole, the Skeptic, Class Clown, the Cheerleader,” etc. (97-132). This section can read a bit like the categorizations of individuals one finds in popular business management guides. While it is fun to ponder how current or past members of ensembles you may have been involved in match these archetypes, labeling and dealing with individual ensemble members as representative of a single category of performer (or person) seems somehow too easy and too limiting when it is offered as the central method to developing a vital ensemble.
Though the authors include a chapter titled “Anthropology of Ensemble,” in which they aim to show that “the archaeological and anthropological evidence in our brief human history tells us that… ensemble predates modern society by a long chalk” (21), Burnett Bonczek and Storck are not concerned with tracing the history of ensemble or in describing the wide variety of contemporary ensemble work. For many scholars and/or practitioners, then...