BY BRENDAN SHEA
The Emerging America Festival has the palpable trend of ensemble running through this year’s offerings. Is the ensemble a hallmark of the Emerging American Theater? For every auteur production that prides itself on being the product of a singular talent, there’s a band of artists creating great work though a delicate balance of consensus and conflict. No, the best ensembles are not homogenous hive-minds, but companies of individuals as uniquely skilled as they are opinionated. We asked members of the ensembles behind The Hotel Nepenthe, Experiment America, The Friends of Eddie Coyle and Pirates of Penzance to sound off on their respective theatrical melting pots.
Can you describe your show?
Marianna Bassham: The Hotel Nepenthe is a barefoot Romper Room mess of whipped cream, terror, and hilarious pain.
Georgia Lyman: There are 17 different characters in the story, and the one thing they all have in common is the Hotel Nepenthe. It is not always named, nor does every story take place inside its walls, but [the hotel] is always present: the 18th character. We kept seeing it pop up, along with different themes or characters we could link between stories.
Rob McLean: Pirates, damsels, and guitars. There’s probably lots to read about what Pirates of Penzance is “about,” what Gilbert and Sullivan were satirizing, and that’s great. We just want it to be as much fun as possible. And it’s about 80 minutes.
Paulo Branco: The Friends of Eddie Coyle is about a low level hood, running guns for a crew of bank robbers while hopefully tipping someone in to the feds so he can stay out of jail. It’s set in Boston in 1970, so there’s a lot of...old school neighborhood hard guys, student radicals, fear of the Black Panthers, and changing times.
Will Pickens: We make immersive storytelling, so when Mikhael and we at The New Ensemble approach a piece of work we first look at the “scenery.” What is the given? The given here is this one night, a party filled with different folks, music, art, and the extraordinary space of the ICA. If we are to truly immerse in the “scenery” of a live event, we have to incorporate technology. Through technology, a very private moment could be happening in a public space. And this is our new live experiment – a live party of stories and sensory experiences happening through your phone and throughout the ICA.
What is your role in the show’s ensemble? By “ensemble,” we mean the whole family of artists/designers/technicians/etc. that have created the performance.
Marianna Bassham: I’m an actor, so I interpret the text. And I brought great wigs.
Rob McLean: I play the Pirate King and the Sergeant of Police, and I am a company member with The Hypocrites.
Georgia Lyman: I am simply one of four actors in the show. The other three are incredible talents and good friends. Our ensemble really extends to the rest of our crew as well. [Director] David R. Gammons already knew what the venue looked like from the start; we expected to use the various doorways and odd space within the scenery. This, coupled with the props and costumes he brought in on the second day of rehearsal, made for a playful exploratory process. And Bill Barclay’s unique sound and Jeff Adelberg’s lighting brought the whole thing to a new level.
Marianna Bassham: I tried really hard to get the sound designer to use a snippet of the soundtrack of John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness to underscore a speech I have. I failed. What he came up with is better, so I’m almost over it.
Paulo Branco: On the simplest level, my job playing Eddie Coyle is to say my lines, loud enough for the audience to hear, and give the other actors something to work with. We’re all local and, for a lot of us, it was the first time getting to work with character and language that feels like home. I can’t even describe how great it is to not hide my real accent on stage.
Will Pickens: I am the sound and technology designer. But the word ensemble is tricky for us. The reason Mikhael [Garver] created The New Ensemble is because, with immersive work, the audience needs to be the last member of the ensemble. So I am always equally in conversation with that enigmatic final ensemble member. Basically, I collaborate with Mikhael and the rest of the ensemble on what kind of technology we want to use to help tell our story. I also provide the group with musical support. We tend to use live music to extend our story to another level. Music is an amazing way to bring a group together.
How do your idiosyncrasies contribute to the creative process? Would it be the same show without you? Do you claim ownership or feel personal pride for any element or moment from the show?
Marianna Bassham: The characters Johnny [Kuntz] has written and that we’ve created are, to varying degrees, clowns—not bozo clowns, but clowns that are some deep part of you that you are ashamed to show to the world... As different as the Senator’s Wife may seem from me, she is just this awful part of me that I guess I want everyone to know about...
Georgia Lyman: I think we all feel personally invested in this show. It wouldn’t have been the same without anyone in our ensemble, and to revisit this production all together is a unique opportunity.
Rob McLean: I guess the best way my idiosyncrasies have contributed is that they have, so far, not caused these fine people to want to stop working with me. I definitely feel a sense of ownership for this role, much more so when we finished the run this past winter... Last year, we were all still so shocked that it worked, and we had worked so hard and fast to get it put up, that ownership never had a chance to sink in. This year, though, we all got to relax into it a little more and refine what worked last year and fix what didn’t. It’s a treat to get to do that.
Will Pickens: The process usually goes like this: Mikhael has an idea...and then after telling her that it is crazy, I sit down and figure out a way to create what she described. Sometimes that includes teaching myself code for a computer language; sometimes it is manipulating techniques I use in other theater settings. I don’t think it would be the same without me or any other member of the ensemble. We all contribute to the process and bring our own twist.
Paulo Branco: I’m proud of what I’ve done with it, and there are moments on stage when you hit it just right and yeah – you definitely feel like you own it in those moments. I’ve been told the adaptation was written with me in mind for Eddie, so it’s hard not to begin the process with a sense of responsibility to doing it justice. One thing that’s different about Eddie Coyle from a lot of roles is that we have people in the audience who come in waiting for some of the memorable lines – “hurts like a bastard,” “life’s hard,” “Bobby Orr” – and everyone in the cast comes in knowing they have to both do this story justice and make it their own.
Pick another ensemble member and tell me how you perceive their role. Is there an unsung hero in your crew? Are you baffled by your sound designer’s knob twiddlings?
Georgia Lyman: I was astonished at how relaxed [playwright Johnny Kuntz] was when we started playing with cuts and throwing new jokes or ideas into the script, either by accident or because some moment naturally developed. It’s rare to work with the playwright in the room, but to have him acting alongside you should have been intimidating. But with Johnny, it was more like having someone lay out all his best ideas and say, “What do you guys think we should do now?”
Paulo Branco: Our stage manager, Derrick Martin, keeps a fairly complicated show organized. The handguns are always loaded; the revolvers and shotguns are where they’re supposed to be... I don’t think any cast or crew can thank a good stage manager enough.
Rob McLean: You know, our stage manager Miranda Anderson is really the hero of the ensemble. I guarantee the only reason any of us got where we needed to be, onstage or off, was because of her. You’ll see her out there in a little lifeguard get-up. She can call this show without looking at her book. It’s freaky.
Georgia Lyman: The unsung hero is without a doubt our stage manager, Arkansas Light. She was invaluable to us, keeping us on track, cracking us up and adding her own flare while keeping a show with well over 200 cues running smoothly. I can’t think of anyone else who could have handled us.
Will Pickens: The great thing about our ensemble is that each person is multifaceted. The company members have their primary role as an actor or stage manager or a lighting designer, but they are also able to help run casting calls, keep the books, coordinate rehearsal venues and organize fundraisers. We change spaces and words and even people sometimes, but the common thread is the trust and commitment that we hold for each other and for the project. The unsung hero of our group, the one that we forget and take for granted, is the group itself.
Brendan Shea is the Outreach and Education Associate at the American Repertory Theater