This is the seventh of an 11-part, weekly series in which the students in my theatr history class at the University of North Carolina at Asheville respond to articles in Todd London’s anthology An Ideal Theater: Founding Visions for a New American Art. You can read the series announcement here.
Today’s essay by Justin Day is inspired by Charles Ludlam‘s Ridiculous Theatrical Company, which stands as an example of the value of ensemble. I am reminded of the Network of Ensemble Theatre‘s (NET) manifesto, which asserts that they “prize most highly the benefits that arise from artists working together over extended periods of time.” Ludlam made revolutionary aesthetic contributions to theater, but one wonders whether it would have been possible without his ensemble. As always, I hope you will join a conversation with Justin about his ideas. — Scott Walters
Tonight, while cooking pancakes with my best friend at 12:16 am, somewhere between not adding enough water and naming one crippled pancake “turnip;” I found the true reason that I do theater. I can claim many reasons for my descent into thespian life, but the reason I am still involved is simple. I love theater people.
Granted, I think we as thespians can be petty, dishonest, pretentious asshats with a self-deprecation streak a mile wide; but I wouldn’t have it any other way. There’s something about the production process that forms a familial bond between this huge group of artists, and that bond is what will make or break theater for every single one of us. Theater is not like other art forms. Theater is not a collection of oil paintings hanging on four stark white walls. No actor can paint their own separate picture to hang in a room with other actors’ works. Theater is a mural taller than the Empire State Building, painted with every person only having one brush and one color of paint, so that we have to work in complete tandem if we want anything to ever happen. Theater is group work like no other, and that is why I suggest we start moving toward and supporting more troupe theater.
The current process for us as artists is flawed in that it separates us. We start theater in high school and form a close bond with our cast and crew mates. We have to leave school and say goodbye to our family, vowing to never feel that same connection again. We go to college and fall in love with our department, clinging to our new and improved family, where everyone really enjoys theater and isn’t just in it for an easy A. We have to leave college and say goodbye to our family. We work in the community. Hopping from production company to production company, taking whatever role we can get, not getting too attached because we know we have to leave. This is the phase where people lose interest in theater. My opinion is that we lose interest in theater because we have lost our heart and home in the art itself. We have lost the people.
Charles Ludlam‘s Ridiculous Theatrical Company has one of my current favorite theatre models to date. Not for its campy, absurdist style of shows, or for its dumpster-diving approach making art, or even for its creator, Charles Ludlam himself, the curator of weird; but rather its approach to members. Ludlam created the company with a group that was hand picked for prime performing while not being inaccessible or exclusive to newcomers. He picked actors for their personalities and described them as “found objects.” He would personally invite people, including random drag queens he found on the street, to perform with him and the Ridiculous Theatrical Company. This is something that we should consider more in modern theater. While Ludlam’s theater did not guarantee a year-round ensemble gig, I appreciate that he hand picked friends and artists who fit the collective vision of his theater.
Theater has the possibility to mean so much more to those who are in a troupe. We can grow and explore so much more as artists if we are already a part of a set group that performs year round and appeals to our needs and vision as a company. We would not spend the majority of our time looking for the next production, hoping we get cast or trying to figure out how this new company functions and getting to know everyone in it. We could focus on the show itself. This applies to the audience as well. With a theater troupe, the audience would be used to seeing a certain number of actors as the cast, and therefore are not only at the show to see “Little Jimmy” perform. Instead of only showing up to watch their relatives in a play, they are there to see the company itself. The audience eventually recognizes everyone in the company and then spends the performance actually watching the show.
This style of theater also makes room for better art and more exploration. Let’s say I am directing a show and currently hosting auditions. Everything is going swell. I have a herd of individuals outside, most of whom I have never worked with before. The actors are nervous, as most actors are, and therefore are not their strongest. So then what am I casting them based off of? Their acting when it’s at its worst? Their looks? Their ability to make on the spot acting choices with people they’ve never met? What kind of casting system is that? I would end up casting them based entirely off of what I saw from 5 minutes of working with them.
Imagine what could happen with months or years of working with them. Often I think back to the times I was cast, and to this day I am astonished by how many of those roles were only given to me because of my looks. In an ensemble theater, actors could be given roles based on talent and skill level instead of being the nerdy gay kid. Again.
What I’m suggesting isn’t a new concept. It’s right in front of our noses. Instead of looking down on theater companies made entirely of a group of close people, we should admire them. Envy them. Most of us got our start in a close-knit theater group. We have all been there and seen the benefits. Why is it not utilized more? Why are we so afraid to work with others? Many successful and innovative theater companies throughout history were ensembles. The template is already laid out. Grab a brush. Grab a friend. Make some pancakes named turnip. Paint a mural. Enjoy yourself. Love something. Love yourself. It’s called a play. So go play.