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Ensemble Ouija Blender?

As an MFA student at Boston University, I have the privilege of being in a class called “Design Master Class”–which is a bit of a misnomer, because it looks to be quite more. It could ostensibly be called “The Collaboration Blender”. All of the first year Master’s degree students in all of the disciplines, from Directing to Costume Production to Lighting to Set Design, etc., come together in one class and are plunged headlong into creative, collaborative projects. We come from so many different backgrounds–different disciplines, different training/work experiences, different ages, different countries–that we soon find our commonality lies in a love of this craft plus the immediate assignment at hand. It is a refresher course in starting with nothing and building a “something”.

The blog post on Howlround by Michael Hunter, entitled “A Future Paved with Teapots,” made me think about this Master class and the trials of ensemble building and collaboration. Of particular interest to me was the section about John Britton’s questions and Claire Bishop’s work, i.e. the act of ensemble and heirarchy (or tyranny!) within the structure of ensemble. Finding new ways to work collaboratively without the guiding hand of a leader takes a lot of humility, compromise and navigatory problem-solving. How do we steer without steering?Image

My best analogy for how collaborative ensembles aspire to work is the Ouija Board. We’re all touching the planchette, and it’s moving, spelling remarkable things, conjuring spirits, while everyone at the board insists, “It’s not me!” who’s making the thing move. No! “It’s the spirit!” Of course, it’s us. It’s totally us. The spirit within us wants to make something happen, wants to experience something and share it with the group and the world. However, f we truly believe in the Ouija, we’re ever-striving to let go of the individual and “just let the spirit come”.

I think this is SO HARD. I think a leader always emerges, but I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing or that it compromises the experience. I worked with a collaborative ensemble in New York, taxdeductible theatre company, where we worked for 6-7 years trying to figure out how best to write a full-length play as a community of artists. We did extensive improvisations, we wrote scenes for each other, we broke up into groups with different themes and topics hoping something would emerge…and eventually, indeed, a leader had to emerge out of that community. Someone must take the reigns when the ‘product’ phase of the process is nigh. Indeed, our final product was surprisingly layered with remnants of the community’s voice, but was definitely written by our leader. It was painstaking work, but in the end, we looked back on our full-length play and did see the act of ensemble in it.

As we venture into uncharted territory with each new project in Design Master Class, I look forward to seeing if there is the possibility of a Ouija-like process…of finding kindred “spirit” collaborators…of organically emerging leaders…of navigating, compromising, and creating with humility…

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