Once upon a time, it was quite common for theatre companies to maintain ongoing acting ensembles—whether loosely or tightly organized, salaried or not, small and exclusive or large and amorphous. Locally there was the legendary Actors Workshop, followed by Bill Ball’s American Conservatory Theater resident company in 1967. In the mid-1970s, when funding for theatre was relatively plentiful, the Eureka Theatre made a huge impression with a small, dedicated core of artists, the Pickle Family Circus broke new theatrical ground and the One Act Theatre cast from within a large, participatory acting pool. By the late 1980s the climate had changed, and for a decade or so, few local theatres had artistic ensembles. The long-running San Francisco Mime Troupe was a notable exception.
Carey Perloff, artistic director of ACT, revived the idea of an acting company at her theatre 10 years ago and recently expanded her resident core of on-salary actors to eight. Cal Shakes has 28 "associate artists," including actors, writers, directors and designers, who participate in planning. All around the Bay Area, more and more young troupes are structured to encompass a year-round ensemble. If you’re a theatre worker lucky enough to have an artistic home or homes, the benefits can be great.
San Francisco’s Word for Word often chooses material specifically for the close-knit charter group of eight (all women), plus founder/artistic directors JoAnne Winter and Susan Harloe. Staging Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge last season was a no-brainer; the title role was perfect for longtime member Patty Silver. AlterTheater in San Rafael encourages its 20 members to think about their artistic goals. When longtime actor Frances Lee McCain said, "I really want to direct, but nobody will let me," the ensemble, which functions as a collective artistic director, arranged for her and Ann Brebner to codirect a show. It was "a beautiful process," says cofounder/actor Jeanette Harrison, "that helped set the groundwork for what we mean by ensemble work."
Cutting Ball founder/artistic director Rob Melrose posits that a driving force behind the trend toward ensembles is young artists’ increased interest in "devised" work—collaboratively created pieces. One of the earliest actor-driven ensembles to work that way is Central Works in Berkeley, in business since 1991.
But there are other reasons to operate as an ensemble. Take Shotgun Players: When artistic director Patrick Dooley founded the Berkeley company 20 years ago, he had no interest in an ensemble. But now the company’s website lists 22 actors, directors and playwrights, including Jon Tracy, Mark Jackson and Beth Wilmurt. Dooley explains his change of heart this way: "In 1999 we did seven or eight shows, a crazy, intense year. We’d bitten off way more than we could chew. About a dozen people had been working with Shotgun in the years leading up to that. [They were saying], ‘I gave my life to this organization and it’s killing me!’ I said, ‘Let’s organize ourselves so you guys feel like you have a voice and I’m not making choices in a vacuum.’" He and the regulars retreated to a cabin in Mendocino for a few days, where there were a lot of tears and yelling and sharing.
Out of that emerged a company that was willing to put in sweat equity—staff the box office, strike the set, et cetera—in exchange for a guaranteed role. But that created its own problems, with people complaining, "Hey, I did more volunteer work than he did!" In an attempt to be equitable, Dooley put those who worked a lot into shows, which often suffered artistically as a result. Now the theatre has a staff that handles all those jobs and still has an annual retreat and monthly meetings, and the members agree that artistic excellence requires sometimes bringing in outside performers. Company members are guaranteed an audition (or an interview if they’re designers or directors), and the company meets monthly to discuss the artistic output. Dooley says he likes surrounding himself with people who have better ideas than he has. "I used to want to be the smartest guy in the room," he says. "Not anymore."
Another subscription-based company that has artistic membership as part of its credo but doesn’t create company-devised work is Actors Theatre of San Francisco, an outgrowth of the Shelton Studio. The company is dedicated to 20th-century American classics, and company members currently number 15 and share similar training—an emphasis on Method basics and Stella Adler’s approach to script analysis, as taught by Jean Shelton and her staff. Another Shelton spinoff, Off Broadway West, currently lists three company members on its website, including artistic director Richard Harder.
Sharing an aesthetic or sense of purpose, whether in terms of approach to the craft or avowed mission, is an important element in unifying a company. When Cutting Ball formed in 1999, its ensemble—pulled together by Melrose from actors he’d seen at the TBA Generals—met weekly for the first two years to train together, with a special focus on movement (Mary Overlie’s Viewpoints, contact improv and physical exercise) and text work on plays under consideration. Word for Word’s troupe shares an intense devotion to literature, constantly seeking material suitable for the company’s trademark verbatim staging. Members meet monthly to discuss books, and have retreats once or twice a year. FoolsFury pursues techniques as a group. "That’s the way an ensemble develops a common artistic vocabulary," says founding artistic director Ben Yalom, "which is an argument for developing a company: You know one another’s tools."
The Mime Troupe has both a specific mission—to promote a radical, left-wing political vision through musical satires—and a unified, commedia-based performance style. And Campo Santo’s 31-member, multiethnic "compañeros familia," which includes such busy local actors as Delia MacDougall and Catherine Castellanos, is bound together by a shared commitment to edgy, inner-city, multicultural material, as initiated by its founders, Margo Hall, Sean San José and Michael Torres, all of whom are still active in the company, plus the late Luis Saguar.
Campo Santo may be one of the few ensemble companies in which, 20 years later, the original members are still part of the company. Other theatres have had much attrition over the years. Mollena Williams is the sole remaining member of the original Crowded Fire, and of Cutting Ball’s original company, which came together at about the same time, only Paige Rogers, Melrose’s wife, remains. Cutting Ball now has 22 "associate artists," including playwright Eugenie Chan, designer Cliff Caruthers and actors Danielle O’Hare and David Sinaiko, but Melrose says the members are associate artists in name only these days; no promises are made to cast them. But he wants to build the concept of membership back into something more meaningful.
The small Impact Theatre in Berkeley has had "tons and tons of turnover," says artistic director Melissa Hillman; nobody is still around from the first 10 years except for her. People go to New York or Los Angeles, start grad school or join Equity (making them financially unavailable to the smaller troupes) or go on to other, better paid work: founder Josh Costello is now artistic director of expanded programs at Marin Theatre Company. Impact currently has six or seven company members who participate in many different necessary tasks. And AlterTheater was incorporated in 2004 by five artists, only two of which—Harrison and Michael Ray Wisely—remain.
FoolsFury has managed to keep a company together despite its actors being scattered far and wide. The challenge, says Yalom, is to figure out how to maintain an ensemble without a real institution and significant finances. His company maintains contact via email and occasionally in person, as in this June’s Fury Factory Festival of Ensemble Theater. Yalom himself commutes between New York and San Francisco. "It’s a reality for a lot of companies" to deal with attrition, he says. "Usually people move on, and you find another bunch of 23-year-olds."
Theatres design their ensembles in a variety of ways. At Impact, actors get first right of refusal for at least one solid role per season without having to audition. Often they request certain roles, and Hillman says only seldom are their requests not honored. "They usually know what’s a good fit for them," she says. There’s an annual retreat where the actors gather to read a handful of plays chosen by Hillman and the literary manager from about 400 submissions.
The Mime Troupe, a leaderless collective, meets regularly to discuss and, famously, argue. "Your voice is heard, so you’re invested in the company," says playwright/actor Michael Sullivan. Everyone is an equal member. Currently there are nine ensemble members, many of whom, such as Keiko Shimosato Carreiro, Ed Holmes and Velina Brown, are longtime members. Newbies can theoretically be invited in if they’ve worked with the company for a couple of years and "if you bring something we definitely need"—but Sullivan would like to see the number go up to 15. "Basically our whole band of musicians moved to New York in the mid-’90s," he sighs, "and it would be great to have more actors." Sometimes even loyal company members need a break; this summer Brown is working with Shotgun instead of the Troupe.
AlterTheater, which stages plays in tiny storefronts in San Rafael, experimented with different methods of ensemble-building; early on, Harrison called Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago for advice. "Do we all share the same vision? If not, it’s not a reconcilable difference. We’ve had points where someone says, ‘Well, I’m walking away, that’s not what I want to do.’"
As with Shotgun, at first Alter’s members did all the grunt work, but no longer. Now they’re responsible for proposing projects and fostering relationships with playwrights. "It’s really bottom-up," says Harrison, "no artistic director dictating the season. I think directors find it frustrating to work with us. They’re giving up a certain amount of control. Our artists are very participatory." A literary committee of about nine people, drawn from the ensemble for one-year terms, evaluates all proposals. "Our core mission is about supporting the creative growth of the core artists, and the empowerment of theatre artists," Harrison adds. "That requires us constantly to examine whether we’re fulfilling that mission." Each project has a lead artist, and casting sorts itself out: "If there’s a Will Marchetti role, there’s not a lot of people who say, ‘Wait a minute, I want to play that role.’" Sometimes the group holds open auditions and is always on the lookout for people interested in ensemble work; it’s added three newcomers this year.
Dooley considers Shotgun’s 20 members a good-sized group; it hasn’t taken in new members recently, nor has Word for Word. Sullivan observes that when he first auditioned for the Mime Troupe back in the 1980s, he was told by outsiders that the Troupe was a cult. "So through the ’90s and in the last 10 years we’ve tried to make sure the company is open and part of the community, not a separate, weird thing," he says. In the ’60s and ’70s, when there were fewer theatres in the Bay Area, those with ensembles were often perceived as elitist by the acting pool at large, but now, with so many theatres of all sizes and organizational structures, that seems to be no longer the case. Most ensemble theatres cast at least some of the roles outside the company, and some actors belong to more than one ensemble and/or continue to audition regularly as part of the local acting pool at large.
The benefits and responsibilities of artistic membership vary from theatre to theatre. ACT’s core company teaches and attends community functions. At Word for Word, certain chores are divvied up; actor Amy Kussow, for example, handles legal permissions. In some cases simply the right to participate in closed or invitation-only auditions is the main perk.
For companies and actors alike, there’s the benefit of a shared shorthand. "If I’m working with Ed Holmes," says Sullivan, "I know how to write for him, work with him onstage, and as a director, give him notes he can work with. The same is true if Ed’s directing or Velina comes up with song ideas; you understand what everyone’s going for." In these days of shortened rehearsal periods, shorthand is a big advantage. Impact’s Hillman says, "I don’t have any interest in working without resident actors, because that model has been so artistically and emotionally satisfying." If she lost the actors tomorrow, she’d get more. "When you start working this way, it’s impossible to stop," she adds. "It’s so deeply, deeply fulfilling."
And subscription audiences love to see good actors over and over in a variety of parts. Their pleasure in this is palpable every summer at the local Shakespeare festivals, where associate artists Joan Mankin and Dan Hiatt might appear in Shakespeare roles as well as contemporary parts at Cal Shakes, or where Darren Bridgett usually pops up in several roles each summer at Marin Shakes.
Ultimately, the benefits for theatre workers of having an artistic home speak to the very nature of the art form itself. Winter of Word for Word says, "What I love most about theatre is collaboration. That’s why I’m drawn to theatre anyway." She adds, "We’ve been through everything together—births, deaths, marriages—and have become a really close social support group for each other. Every show, even if you’re not in it, you know that show came from your participation in one way or another."