I’ve just posted three reports on European repertory troupes who presented productions at this year’s Lincoln Center Festival: the Théâtre du Soleil and the Piccolo Teatro di Milano, both of which I’ve seen before, and the Katona József Theatre of Hungary, which was new to me. In all the reports, on the Katona’s Ivanov, the Théâtre du Soleil’s Les Éphémères, and the Piccolo’s Trilogia della Villeggiatura, I remarked on the ensemble acting that was a hallmark of the productions. I’ve seen the Théâtre du Soleil twice before, the Piccolo once, and a number of other national theaters and established troupes from Europe and other regions. (These include a week at the Shaw Fetival in Ontario, Canada, and a three-week residency of the Grand Kabuki in Honolulu which incorporated demonstrations, seminars, and workshops by the company artists.) I am consistently impressed with the acting--and, obviously, directing as well--of companies like these. Every time I see the various national and other state-supported troupes that exist from London and Stratford across Europe to Moscow and St. Petersburg and all over Asia, they never fail to generate this kind of ensemble performance in which the company collaborates on a coherent and seamless little universe for the play. From Chekhov to Ibsen, from Strindberg to Shaw, from Shakespeare to Molière, and Goldoni to Pirandello to contemporary writers, as well as the works of the Kabuki and Beijing opera repertoires, the plays are almost always thoroughly encompassed in the environments presented by the troupes. I can attest to the immense advantage that actors gain when performing with others they know well and have worked with, sometimes even trained with, for many years. Individually, however, the casts are just as accomplished as any in the star-oriented West End or Broadway theater. Sometimes the ensembles themselves include stars--the Kabuki world is founded on a star system much older than the Hollywood rosters of the West--but often they don’t. Even when there are stars, the ensembles shine. (It’s not uncommon, even when the companies include nationally or internationally known actors, such as Italian movie star Toni Servillo in the Piccolo’s recent production here, they perform featured roles and tune their performances to the timbre of the ensemble.)
Now, I’m not saying I always like the interpretations--these companies and their directors can come up with some bad ideas. I still recall a modern reinterpretation of Ibsen’s Doll House by a Berlin troupe that was . . . well, I’ll be kind and just say it didn’t make much sense to me. But the stagework that I’ve seen has always left me impressed and wondering why we missed out on that here. Maybe it’s the star system that the U.S. developed as far back as the 18th century; maybe it’s the Hollywood influence. It may even have to do with the state subsidies the European companies receive that our cultural institutions don’t get. Sometimes the directors are great visionaries like Ariane Mnouchkine or Peter Brook or Giorgio Strehler or Ingmar Bergman, often they’re not--just master directors in the same vein as the master actors that make up the casts. We get to see some of the world-class companies here at events like the Lincoln Center Festival or the Next Wave Festival at BAM, and we’re privileged to see them. But there are small, almost unknown troupes as well. When I lived in Koblenz, a small city in central Germany with no great claim to cultural prominence, I was mightily impressed with the Stadttheater, the city theater company, and even the small Stadtoper, though I’m not an opera fan. (The town also supported a municipal orchestra. In both the opera company and the orchestra, foreign artists, including Americans, apprenticed because these small companies in Germany--many towns and cities had them--afforded them the only opportunities to get started in their professions. Companies back home would only hire the musicians and singers after they became established.) Later, when I tried to make a career as an actor, that’s what I wanted to be part of. But, with rare exceptions, we don’t have it here.
I don’t mean that we don’t have good companies. Of course we do, and certainly we have excellent actors and directors. Companies like Steppenwolf, Mabou Mines, and Wooster Group even generate true ensembles. Even commercial productions, like the last cast of Broadway’s August: Osage County which I saw after some of the original Steppenwolf actors had been replaced by outside actors, can develop ensemble work. So it’s not that we can’t do it here--we have the talent and capability--it's just that we don’t very often or very easily. The consistency is missing, and the cohesiveness that produces, time after time, show after show, a transporting experience that just envelops you in an artificial universe. I don’t know what the answer is, the formula if there is one. I only know that we’re the poorer for the lack. Maybe it’s just Europhilic snobbery . . . but I don’t think so.
I say I don’t know what the answer is, the reason we don’t make theatrical ensembles in the United States, but I can speculate. Part of the explanation, perhaps even a big part, is the American character, the nature of the society we created as far back as the colonial era. There’s probably nothing we can do about this aspect of the problem--except fight against it. As analysts from de Tocqueville on have noted, Americans put immense store in the preeminence of the individual in society. We have bred a nation of individualists; our folk heroes are the cowboys, explorers, fighters, and entrepreneurs who have gone up against the prevailing forces, whether natural or societal, and beat them. To get ahead in this country, even just to thrive, a person must rely on his or her own ingenuity and stick-to-itiveness. We distrust the commune, the cooperative, even the labor union. It’s the individual we admire, the guy who rises to the top on her or his own. Davy Crockett. Charles Lindbergh. Oprah Winfrey. We reward the Most Valuable Player, not the utility player. In this atmosphere, is it really a wonder that the star system grew to dominate our artistic culture as well?
Of course, historical circumstances helped foster this situation. In the earliest days of the European colonization of North America, when the innate artistic culture was just coalescing, the only alternative to the local amateur group, whether musicians or players, was the touring star. Taking a whole ensemble on tour in the colonies was prohibitively expensive and logistically precarious. So individuals or small groups of established actors, usually from England (at least until the middle of the 19th century when America had its own home-grown, or at least resident, star actors), traveled the New World while the rest of the cast was assembled locally. The companies rehearsed without the star, who, like opera leads today, already knew his or her role. Staging was simple, mostly making arcs across the stage with the star in the center, and any special requirements were communicated beforehand and prepared for the star’s insertion into the play. The appearances went on for no more than a night or two, then the star moved on to the next theater and the process was repeated. This kind of touring-star production was common for more than half a century; in the later 19th century, American companies out of New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore (home of the acting Booths), Boston, and other cultural centers began to establish circuits for touring, but they were still formed around stars. (Touring companies were one of the few groups in society who could cross the military lines during the Civil War and not a few actors worked as spies for one side or the other, carrying messages, commodities, and intelligence back and forth. John Wilkes Booth was known to have smuggled quinine into the Confederacy to treat the soldiers.)
This system lasted well into the 20th century and firmly established the star system in the United States (as well as the syndicates which controlled the tour theaters and circuits). Combined with the cultural proclivity of Americans to revere the individual who rises to the top by whatever means--we’ve made folk heroes out of not a few crooks, robber barons, and villains right down to the present day--has helped make American theater something of a slave to the star system. Hollywood took it up, too, of course, so the dominance of star actors has been reproduced in both film and television. Though European and Asian theater have their stars, too, the dominance has never taken hold as forcefully elsewhere as it did here. The master actor, talented and skilled but who has nevertheless not become famous, has always been able to gain the respect of European audiences, producers, and directors and maintain employment on the European stage, screen, and television.
Along with the emphasis on individualism in the United States, our society has also put a premium on enterprises that support themselves and make a profit. The greater the profit, the greater the esteem the enterprise gets. (We talk a lot, especially during political campaigns, of the small businessman, but it’s the likes of Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and T. Boone Pickens who get all the attention. We may like George Bailey, but we admire Charles Foster Kane.) In art, we may understand that endeavors can’t always make a profit or pay their own way, but we nevertheless begrudge the support they need from the public coffers. Half the fight in the ‘90s over NEA funding was about whether the government ought to be in the business of supporting the arts at all. Americans, by our culture’s standards, must make it or fail on their own efforts. A Broadway play that succeeds is admirable because that’s the equivalent of making a product for the public marketplace where it sells to the audience and prospers or doesn’t and fails. (Most people outside the professional theater don’t realize that a play can be successful on Broadway and run for a year or more and still lose money. It is, however, the perception that prevails here, not the reality.) Hollywood is a business. Broadway is a business. Americans understand that. The non-profit theater company (or opera company or orchestra--the model’s the same) that needs public and corporate support to survive and produce, that’s a charity, and charities are suspect in our culture. No ensemble company, no theater with a standing company, which is the only way to create an ensemble, can exist without outside support; Shakespeare and Molière had their monarchs to subsidize them; their modern descendants, including the Kabuki theaters in Japan, have governments that back them. Even in the old Soviet Union, the great ballet and theater companies were prized. But it’s not our nature to put money into undertakings that don’t return a profit.
This, of course, plays into another aspect of our society that militates against subsidized ensembles. Theatrical success in this country is all but defined by the hit-or-flop dichotomy. We judge artistic viability by the easiest criterion, the one we can see readily: Is it popular? Is it a hit? A theater endeavor that is successful produces hits. That, of course, is a marketplace evaluation, not an artistic one, but that’s how we divide good and bad even in art. Now, while it’s possible to produce a hit from a true ensemble company--the surprise successes from repertory companies that end up moving to New York to a commercial theater on or off Broadway are examples of that--for the most part, the work of rep companies isn’t geared to creating hit plays. But if the theaters decide that’s the way to survive and prosper and go after the hit, it’s going to change the way they work, and it will inevitably lead away from the maintaining of an ensemble because hits almost require stars. If not a star actor, then a star director or a star writer. Stars don’t hang around and grow with a company: they go off after the production closes or their contract is up and find another gig. Even stars who grew out of an ensemble don’t stick around: look what happened to the big names that came out of Steppenwolf, Wooster Group, or Arena Stage back in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. (The fact that most of those actors became stars because of a production that became a commercial hit only reinforces my assertion.) It appears to be axiomatic, then: If you esteem and pursue the hit production, you can’t maintain an ensemble company.
The confluence of the hit impulse and the drive of theaters to support themselves are linked, of course. A hit play can feed the theater’s coffers for years, sometimes into perpetuity. The New York Shakespeare Festival has been dining out on the revenues from A Chorus Line for over 30 years. The problem has been, I think, that the theater has been driven to find another Chorus Line ever since the original one. The same is true of other companies around the country--they've either had a taste of the “big hit” and, like the crocodile in Peter Pan after it tasted Hook’s hand, keep following the scent of another like it, or they see the financial boon a hit generates at another company and actively go after one to subsidize their other work. But that throws the company’s judgment off. Instead of looking for scripts that suit its troupe, stretch their talents, speak to their audience, they start looking at scripts for the potential box office boost it’ll have, the commercial potential, the marketing benefits. If you’re bound and determined to make a hit, then you have to sell it to the potential spectators in your community. Sooner or later, that means . . . stars. Names. Bid farewell to the ensemble.
Money is at the root of the ensemble dilemma in multiple ways, of course. It takes time and a quantum of permanence to breed an ensemble. Occasionally luck can bring together an ad hoc cast that melds over a short rehearsal period into cohesive group. The director or some of the actors can generate the atmosphere that catalyzes this. But in most cases, only time can produce ensembles in the theater, years of actors and other artists working together, learning each other’s idiosyncrasies, talents, strengths, and needs and how to accommodate them. Learning to share, give and take, work intuitively. Symbiosis. The Théâtre du Soleil practically lives together like a commune. Keeping a company together like that requires money. Not just salaries, preferably for 12 months, but support funds for the theater and the materials needed to do the work. As I’ve already observed, no theater company can sustain itself on its ticket sales. The economics just aren’t there. Sure, it’d be nice if all the actors could get lucrative TV and film work to subsidize their stage work, but that doesn’t happen except here and there. (One of the benefits of the European system is that the actors work in all three media without distinction. There are few “film” actors or “stage” actors there.) So, the money has to come from sponsors, either public or corporate or individual. But that brings us back to the issue of giving money to the arts and not expecting a return on the investment. It’s just not in our DNA.
Time and money, and the hit-flop dichotomy, come into play in another respect, too. The companies have to stay together and work together for years to achieve the kind of relationships that become ensemble-ness. But each production needs time to gestate, too. American theater is geared toward the four-week rehearsal period. Actors’ Equity puts limits on the time actors can rehearse and then it requires higher pay for extended development time. Because of this incentive to get the show up, long development periods are rare in the U.S. Furthermore, a play that’s in rehearsal isn’t making any money. It’s taking up space--stage space for rehearsals, storage space for the sets, props, and costumes--and not paying anything back. Techies and staffers are occupied with tasks to benefit a show that’s not bringing in any audiences. Patience also isn’t in our genes. The show must not only go on, but it must go up. Long rehearsals, the way to an ensemble production, must be subsidized, too. That’s just not efficient--and it’s not American.
Part of the problem of our lack of ensemble theaters is the fault of the artists, however. American artists are individualists, too, just like those entrepreneurs and cowboys. They strive to get on, move up, advance their careers. Being part of an ensemble is like being tied down: you can’t move on up! That mansion in the Hollywood Hills is out of the question. That duplex on the Upper East Side is not gonna happen. Now, not every American actor has that vision dancing in her or his head, but that’s what we’re taught to want. The Oscars and the Tonys. The Red Carpet. The Limo with the Chauffeur. The Star on Hollywood Boulevard. The Profile by 60 Minutes or People magazine. Ensembles don’t get you those. Now, that’s un-American!
It’s not as if we’re doing poorly as we are. We have many marvelous performances in terrific plays and productions all across the country. Some years ago, while I was doing some research that took me all over the U.S. to many of our premier theater towns like Seattle, Milwaukee, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Houston, I made a point of seeing what was playing at some of the theaters while I was in town. I would be in each city for several days, so I made an effort to check out the big, mainstream house, the smaller, Off-Broadway-type troupes, and, if there was one, the experimental-theater scene. I saw a lot of really good shows and not a few truly striking ones. Now, since those days, the U.S. has gone through some devastating economic downturns and a couple of equally dispiriting cultural battles that have decimated the ranks of the small theaters (and a few of the big ones), so the scene today is a little leaner than it was 20 years ago, but the spirit seems to be intact and the talent and the will to use it is still there in spades. A few of the troupes I saw back then were even working in an ensemble manner, especially the experimental companies. But that was rare, and I suspect it’s even rarer now. It’s hard to accomplish in our society; economic considerations and the American character, as I’ve hinted, conspire against its success. So why worry about it? Why even try? Well, no reason, I guess, as long as everyone’s happy with the status quo. But like the old song, once you’ve seen Paree, it’s hard to stay down on the farm. Those astonishing performances that come out of the ensembles, the startling virtual reality they can create and draw you into, are addictive. Once you’ve had a taste, you want more of that. I’d like to think that both strains of performance can exist at the same time, and I believe they can--but I’m not sure and maybe they can’t. Maybe one would dominate and starve the other out. I suspect that’s not so, since at least in England, both kinds of performances coexist: the West End does much the same kind of work we see here in our commercial theaters, yet companies like the Donmar Warehouse or Théâtre de Complicité (yes, it’s British) continue to produce fine work right within its shadow. Artists seem to manage to move back and forth between the two demi-worlds. We can only hope.
At least, I can.