Thursday, 31 July 2014

The Ensemble Mystique

By Rachel Peake

Ensemble is a word we often use in the theatre with varying degrees of depth attached to it.  Truly committed Ensemble is a defining feature of the Shaw Festival, and learning its application has been one of my greatest lessons as a part of the Neil Munro Intern Directors Project this season.  There is, of course, the ensemble of actors, which goes beyond the actors performing in the current season. However the Ensemble of the Shaw Festival extends far beyond its actors. It includes electricians, assistant designers, changeover crew, voice instructors, accountants, wardrobe builders… the list goes on. The festival has a reputation as “Camp Shaw”—a place where people not only work together but also do yoga, play board games, devise Saturday-night cabarets, meet at the local pub on Thursday nights. There are people celebrating thirty years of working and living at Shaw, and the mystique of that ensemble existence is inextricably linked to the festival’s success.

Alana Hibbert and Kevin Hanchard in The Mountaintop
Photo by David Cooper
Coming to the Directors Project as a freelance director, I saw the internship as an opportunity to expand my knowledge of directing classical text, working with artists who had been focusing on this period of theatre for many years. However, what I hadn’t realized was that a large part of my lesson would be the art of creating within the Ensemble, along with the art of creating ensemble. Within the larger context of the Ensemble of the festival is the need for individual ensemble-building on each production. Over the last four months I have assistant directed on three projects: The Mountaintop with Toronto’s Philip Akin, The Philanderer with American director Lisa Peterson, and The Philadelphia Story with Calgary-based Dennis Garnhum.  These were three wildly different pieces and each director had a different approach to working with the ensemble. More importantly, the ensemble reacted differently inside each of these unique containers, and that experience has been fascinating to watch and to learn from.

I am writing this entry during the bridge time between assistant-directing the main stage shows and beginning to direct Rosalind by J.M. Barrie for my Director’s Project. I am pondering these lessons both in terms of how they pertain to shifting over to my own directing work within the context of the Festival, and to how I can take what I have learned here on to my work in other arenas. Acting in the Directors’ Project is on a volunteer basis, and the actors who agree to it do so on top of their already full show schedule, classes, auditions, and personal commitments.  Yet somehow every year some of the best actors in Canada undertake this additional work.  Part of the reason for choosing to do so is because actors are creators: hungry to invent and explore.  Yet additionally this willingness seems to come from belonging to something they believe in; from knowing that the Ensemble works best when they buy in, give what they can, say yes, play, commit.

Moya O’Connell in The Philadelphia Story
Photo by David Cooper
I have felt extremely welcome this season at the Shaw Festival.  I have felt a part of this Ensemble and I have worked hard for it. I have witnessed what comes of everyone diving in to play the same game at the same time. I am not referring to feel-good productions where everyone involved loves it but onstage it falls flat. I am referring to the value of creating a shared goal and crafting a team that is pursuing that goal with their diverse and complimentary strengths. The lesson of the larger Ensemble of the Shaw Festival may only be applicable in certain specific settings, but the lesson of belonging to a community is relevant everywhere.  Ultimately, the ability of a director to create an ensemble feels to me to be the lynchpin of a successful execution of directorial concept.
“Life isn’t about finding yourself.  Life is about creating yourself.”
- George Bernard Shaw

Find out more about the Neil Munro Intern Directors Project at the Shaw Festival

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