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TBA Online: News & Features: August 2013

The Business of Show Biz: Ensembles

Friday, August 16, 2013   (0 Comments)
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By Velina Brown

Q: Many veteran actors who have been in the business since the grand old days speak about how they developed in the ensembles at all the major theatres, and how there were many companies that worked from an ensemble base. They talk about the trust, freedom and growth they experienced from within a developing ensemble. I was given the impression that there is considerably less ensemble opportunity, with many Bay Area theatres now casting show to show from outside the area. So, where do those of us newbies who have forged our own path (i.e., no MFA) find a place to develop? In today's theatre world, is seeking to be in an ensemble a realistic goal?

Actor and career consultant Velina Brown. 

A: Yes, it is a realistic goal. In fact, there is a national organization called the Network of Ensemble Theatres (NET), of which there are 183 member companies, 60 of which are in California. Mugwumpin, Ragged Wing, foolsFury and Theatre of Yugen are just a few of the several Bay Area ensembles that immediately pop to mind, in addition to my own artistic home of many years, the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Though most of the LORT theatres have dismantled their ensembles, there are still many smaller ensembles doing some very nice work.

But what is an ensemble theatre anyway? Well, according to the NET, "An 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."

So whether or not being part of an ensemble is a realistic goal depends on why you want to be in an ensemble and what your commitment is to that goal.

How does one get into an ensemble? The most popular way of getting into one is starting one. A group of people typically meet in school and find that they enjoy working together, have a similar aesthetic and appreciate each other's abilities. Once the class ends they decide they want to stay together and continue to create work. If the initial project on their own goes well, they may decide to do another piece together. If they can agree on how to run the company (will it be a collective, will it be hierarchical, will the artistic directorship be rotated within the group, etc.?), then they may actually survive those crucial first three years. If you have a fire in your belly to be a part of a group of artists who create work together, it is absolutely a realistic goal to do that. However, if you see getting into an ensemble for a little while as just a stepping stone and then plan to move on to what you perceive to be greener pastures, you won't likely be motivated enough to do the work to start an ensemble, and joining one may be difficult if established members sense a lack of commitment on your part.

I obviously did not start the 54-year-old San Francisco Mime Troupe. I auditioned for and then toured with the troupe for seven years before joining the collective.

Debórah Eliezer, associate artistic director of foolsFury, shares this: "Yes, there are some awesome ensembles that offer all manner of training to the young artist. FoolsFury alone offers internships, apprenticeships and professional training, not to mention opportunities to perform."

Regarding not having an MFA, Eliezer continues, "I personally chose not to go to grad school and [instead] use my theatre company to draw the professional training artists with whom I wanted to work. So we bring the teachers to us...and then train and make work together. My question to the student would be: is it possible for you to see the ensemble model of theatre creation as a long-term artistic choice, rather than a means to gain more professional training before moving on to regional theatre, Broadway or becoming a jobbing actor? We have had many, many great artists become members of foolsFury, go to grad school and then never return to the company. Though I am glad they were a part of the company, this is an unsustainable model and we have since become much warier of the long-term commitment of the young actor in training."

With Eliezer's advice in mind, Anna Shneiderman, executive director of Ragged Wing Ensemble, announces some good news, "The SF Bay Area Consortium of Ensemble Theatres is now holding annual auditions, which is a great way for any 'ensemble-curious' performer to introduce themselves to many of the ensembles in the area." Auditions will be September 7 and 10. Check out their Facebook page for more information.

Ensemble opportunities still exist. Here's to either finding or creating an artistic home that is just right for you.


Velina Brown is an actor and career consultant. Send your questions to