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Family Ties

    The care and feeding of Chicago theater’s urban ensemble What is it that draws Chicago theater artists into ensembles? Is it the need to forge meeting-style bonds in order to survive the city’s long winters? Is it the strong wanting of drama-driven familial closeness amid the crowded streets and buildings? Or is it the necessary grouping that allows lights to be hung and a set to be finished?  These examples and many more drive actors, designers, directors and writers to glom together in a tight, warm, infighting group that creates an alluring friction.
    This friction has the possibility to forge the seeds of awesome
theatrical wonder if given the right care and treatment. An ensemble comfortable enough to reveal to each other the tough stuff will often help weed the bad and support the engaging. I know from my own personal experience that to challenge each other within an ensemble is to face individual conflict. Whether the problems are show-specific (which actor will play which roles), season-specific (does this play honestly fit the mission statement) or upkeep-specific (who will plunge the clogged toilet), fighting and facing conflict is what keeps an ensemble together and what keeps them strong, happy and relevant.
    Chicago theater’s urban ensemble tradition took hold years ago with the increasing success of varieties of artistic groups. Victory Gardens Theatre’s ensemble of playwrights focused on the development and production of new work within a city used to producing plays conceived outside of Chicago. By encouraging its members to work and write for the community at large, Victory Gardens helped to establish Chicago as a destination for innovative and eager playwrights. By closing ranks, the writers created an environment where they could take the time and effort needed to protect and nurture their work. By the ensemble surrounding themselves with playwriting peers, discussion became second nature and the outsider quality of writing turned inward, becoming inclusive.  This creativity has helped Victory Gardens not only to survive, but flourish.
    Another ensemble that has flourished by embracing group
creativity, Strawdog Theatre Company has a long tradition of working with theatrically restless and experimentally vital individuals.  Taking risks with large casts, new works and fresh voices, Strawdog endeavors to make each theatrical experience unique.
    “We must survive so that we may have future successes, and we must continue to succeed in order to survive,” says Strawdog
ensemble member Kyle Hammon, describing the ensemble experience.
    A wheel that is forever in motion, the ensemble experience often feels like a snake eating its own tail. Even with the consistent success that Strawdog has had over its many years as a Chicago storefront theater, its ensemble still moves from show to show, each member attempting to ensure that the current production plays and sells as well (or better) than the last.
    This consistent motion can take a heavy toll, especially when
not every actor in the ensemble can be in every production. Often
members have to find work outside of their home theater in order to keep involved in the greater community (and to make a decent living).  Balancing ensemble duties with outside productions can be a difficult task, but Kate Buddeke, ensemble member of the recently reformed American Blues Theatre, puts it this way:  “I have worked all over…in fact, all of American Blues Theater ensemble members have extensive credits outside of ABT. We balance by always being involved no matter where we are, being informed and asking ourselves what we can do to help. In order to have a healthy, productive ensemble, you must communicate with each other.”
    Keeping the lines of communication flowing is the most important factor when attempting to maintain an ensemble. Theater artists are transient and must go where the work takes them. A group that understands this fact will work hard to cut through the divergent tracks and maintain ensemble input, interaction and involvement. When an ensemble understands the ebb and flow of its member, it can accommodate its own production choices with that of the group as a whole. When an ensemble reminds itself why it formed in the first place it can rely on that same energy to endure.
    Change is inevitable within ensembles, with members coming and going as lives mix and separate. The joy of Chicago theater’s urban ensemble is that artists will continue to form families and audiences will continue to watch these families love, fight and grow.

Published: June 07, 2009
Issue: Summer 2009 Urban Living