WHEN MY STUDENTS talk about their love of theatre, they almost always talk about friends they have made during a production or in a class. Getting to know each other while being creative and making a show you are proud of is a unique and fulfilling combination. Chances are you have been an actor, designer, or technician and have felt this way too. Now, however, you are interested in directing a production. Maybe you’ve landed a student directing gig. Does that mean you have to tell people what to do and generate every idea? Does it mean you have to forgo fun and friendship in order to be in charge? Not at all!

In this article, you will find tools and techniques my students and I have used to shift our way of working from a top-down approach to an ensemble-centered one. We developed basic logistical tips, but most of these ideas come from important contemporary theatremakers who devise entire productions collaboratively. If you are charged with devising a piece, dive into these resources. If you’re directing a published script, you will still benefit from adding more collaboration to your rehearsals. Most of all, the following ideas will help you make space for creative people to feel part of something and to build friendships and trust.

What is special about ensemble-based work?

Here are three things you can say if someone asks, “Why can’t we just do it the way we always do it? Why can’t you just tell me where to stand and how to say my lines?”

Collaboration and ensemble-driven work help everyone stay responsible for their parts. My directing students and I have noticed that groups of actors invited to share their ideas are more likely to make clear characterization choices, treat others with respect, and memorize their lines responsibly.

In a room that values collaboration, everyone is less nervous and more confident because there is a feeling of being “in this together.” People feel supported, and their voices and movements become stronger as a result. They are also more likely to explore big choices in rehearsals and less likely to surprise castmates or you by doing something new and strange on opening night.

Ensemble work invites everyone, no matter how much or little experience they have or how well they know each other, to participate. Sometimes, new actors come up with ideas that make your production better. Generating ideas in a diverse group, in which everyone’s perspective is encouraged, makes better theatre. Inviting new people to join your group also helps prevent cliques, creating a welcoming environment in your school.

Getting to know the story of this approach

There are several important names you should know, people who developed these ensemble-based methods of dramatic creation. Friendship and collaboration remain at the heart of their stories too. Teaching your classmates their names will help you feel part of this history.

According to Anne Bogart and Tina Landau in The Viewpoints Book, this new way of creating theatre began with a group called the Judson Dance Theater in New York. They believed there should be more collaboration and less hierarchy in both their rehearsals (who is in charge) and their performances (who or what is the most important character or element of a show). They soon discovered that improvisation was key. As they put it, “In improvisations, each participant had the same power in the creation of an event.”

Two members of the Judson Dance Theater were Aileen Passloff and Mary Overlie. Overlie distilled these improvisations into what eventually became known as Viewpoints, a system of actor training meant to free imaginations and help actors practice making confident movement choices.

A student of both teachers was Anne Bogart, a prominent director who further refined Viewpoints. Bogart met Tina Landau while working at American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and they expanded Overlie’s ideas and published them.

Viewpoints takes movement for the stage and breaks it down into parts, such as tempo (the speed of movement and action) and spatial relationship (how close or far away actors are to one another onstage). Many college programs teach this entire system in depth. (Read a Dramatics primer on Viewpoints for more on this technique.)

Moment Work
Playwright Moisés Kaufman and several of his friends also studied with Overlie before founding Tectonic Theater Project. As Kaufman and Barbara Pitts McAdams put it in their book, Moment Work, they believed in making “a community of artists with a common history and common vocabulary.”

In his essay in Moment Work, Greg Pierotti defines the process as a playwriting technique, based on Viewpoints and other experimental ideas, for developing innovative new plays, such as their well-known scripts 33 Variations and The Laramie Project. Moment Work also includes improvisation with all elements of theatre — lighting, props, and sound — to create a more vivid world onstage.

This moment in the Dana Hall School’s production of The Laramie Project grew from “Group Gesture Moments” exercises during ensemble-based auditions. Photo by Adam Richins.

How to begin

As you prepare by reading or thinking about the play you will direct, come up with a few key concepts or questions to explore. These themes will be the “True North” on your map as your group generates a lot of new ideas.

Always come to auditions or rehearsals prepared with exercises, pages of text, theme words, or props you would like to work with that day. Preparation for ensemble-based work will look different from the traditional method of writing blocking notes in your script. (In fact, resist the urge to write those blocking notes.) Here are practical ways to create collaborative space at a typical audition or rehearsal.

Before auditions or rehearsal
Arrive before everyone else to prepare the space and yourself. Make sure the space is clean, the floor is swept, and anything you don’t want broken or moved is put away. Ask a teacher or stage manager to help you set up the space so that everyone feels free to play and explore.

Invite everyone to come early to socialize. Ask the faculty to open the room or building, and let people enjoy some screen-free time together. Even a little break from the busy day will get people talking. In a recent production, a student director started the first rehearsal with a puzzle question, which fueled conversation almost every day before or after rehearsal. Make sure you take part in these relaxed moments too instead of using that time to prepare separately.

Start with explorations
When you give directions for exercises, invite actors to take them in and explore. Often, actors will stop when they hear your voice and look at you. While in some contexts, this is considered the polite thing to do, explain that you will be giving directions in more of a “side coaching” way that lets them continue to play as you talk.

Debrief, break, and apply
In Moment Work, Kaufman argues that a training session (and I would argue a rehearsal) is a conversation. We try something out, we debrief, and, as director, you suggest a way forward. Build in time for a short debrief after each exercise. Good open-ended questions to ask include “What did you notice?” or “What surprised you?”

It can be difficult both to pay attention to all the great ideas you are seeing and to write them down. Ask someone to take notes of rehearsal discoveries. (You will have to take notes yourself in auditions to protect everyone’s privacy.) Build in a short break in which to review the ideas generated and decide which to apply to the final staging that day.

Because so much of this work is not about talking or saying lines, you may need to do a separate vocal warmup when you start incorporating the script. The Viewpoints Book has an entire chapter on vocal exercises.

After rehearsals
You will have “homework” that will look more like traditional blocking preparation. Go over the notes made in rehearsal to make sure they will be clear when you return to that section of the play later.

Auditions: Setting the tone

If you’ve ever waited in a hallway for a callback after a one-at-a-time audition, you know how nerve-wracking it can feel. An alternative is to use audition time to explore, as a group, creative ideas related to the show and its characters. As actors learn about the show, you can watch and make notes about how people interact. Instead of asking for individual line readings, which might be either under-rehearsed or over-rehearsed, you can more fully see each actor’s range and ability to connect with castmates.

With this method, not only do you make better casting decisions but you also give more people a chance to show what they can do. This audition style makes a statement about the importance of connection among actors. It also sends a message that there will be no divas in your production. The following explorations have worked for our auditions.

Viewpoints Run to Center
This is one of the first Viewpoints exercises most people learn, and you can use it as an audition warmup or a quick energy boost and focusing moment. It helps establish the idea of working together, and you can participate in the circle yourself without getting too distracted.

In a big circle, everyone starts jogging to get their muscles and breath working. At any point, someone can start moving toward or away from the center and the group follows, with the goal that an outside observer would have no idea who the “leader” was. Repeat the action until you notice that people look calm and the group is moving as one.

Introducing spatial relationships
First, ask the entire group to begin a natural walk around the space. Encourage them to move their limbs freely, look around the room instead of at each other, and pretend they are alone for a walk on a pleasant day.

After the group looks relaxed and confident, ask them to notice how close or far away they are from other actors. Slowly encourage them to make choices about this distance and to check in with themselves about how this closeness or distance makes them feel. Next, have the group respond to suggestions about an event or character in the show. Finally, gather and debrief, paying attention to opportunities to connect actors’ ideas to the show.

Tectonic’s “Group Gesture Moments”
This exercise can directly follow the Viewpoints warmups. Identify an element of the show you have questions about and want to see actors’ chemistry around, for instance, whether the group understands a particular theme or who can play a problematic character.

Ask smaller groups to explore the space, getting into a relaxed-but-aware mindset similar to the Viewpoints exercises. The rest of the group can watch but be sure to tell them this is learning with, not entertaining, each other. Give actors a heads-up that you are getting them used to what rehearsals will feel like; this will typically result in better work and less nervous laughter.

Using one of your prepared suggestions, ask actors at your cue to begin a “chain reaction” movement gesture in which one person starts when the last finishes. For example, in preparation for our production of The Laramie Project, I wanted to see how the actors would interact around the idea of grief and community. I gave them all small battery candles and explained my idea for a scene of “a community in shock.” Then I asked small groups to explore creating a small memorial with those candles, taking turns, “one person at a time, but you see each other in this space,” I said. I made notes when I saw actors spontaneously hug or watch another person lay down her candle or choose a spot for the imagined memorial. This exercise gave me so much more information than having each actor take turns reading monologues.

Rehearsals: Generating ideas together

You will find that much of what you discover in Viewpoints and Moment Work explorations can inform or even become the blocking of a scene. Trust that there will be “aha” moments. There are many useful exercises and ideas in these two books; the key is choosing ones that will connect to the questions you wish to explore in your show.

Overall, these exercises give you the advantage of catching people making good choices. Sometimes the volume of good ideas can get overwhelming. Think about creating a daily five or 10-minute break to sift and sort what you liked best. When everyone comes back to work, you can say something like, “I noticed this idea came up, and I would like to see how that plays in this scene.” Then, you can ask people to try something they discovered while reading their lines. It’s fine if it looks messy at first. With a few repetitions, the entrances, exits, and movements will become clearer.

These tools also give you an alternative to what Bogart and Landau refer to as the actors’ constant approval-seeking and the director’s constant need to say, “I want you to […].” It frees you from those awkward moments when everyone gets stuck and looks at you for the answer. You can still choose the best ideas from rehearsals, but now everyone in the room is a problem solver. Everyone gets to play. And the rehearsal break will give you space and time to make decisions.

Ensemble-based design

Costume Moment Work
Tectonic Theater Project creators encouraged everyone working on a production to play freely with and contribute ideas to design elements during rehearsals. For this reason, my directing students and I often apply Moment Work to design elements. In Costume Moment Work, for example, actors learn about their characters, while you get ideas for interesting transitions and staging.

Bring in an article of clothing you are (or your costumer is) considering for a character, especially if it reveals something important about that character. Put this piece in the middle of the space for the group to consider, or divide into small groups to explore a different piece of clothing their characters might wear.

Give the group two to three minutes to play with all this costume piece can do. What is the fabric like? Can it be worn in an unusual way? Can two people wear it at the same time? Then, ask actors (solo, pairs, or small groups) to prepare a short interaction with a beginning, middle, and end to share with the entire group. Moment Work purists call this a Group Gesture. Often the results of a Group Gesture exercise (whether at auditions or through costume explorations) inform or become the blocking for a scene or transition.

Sound design and Viewpoints
Choose two to three pieces of music, one of which you are considering for the show and one that is more intense in some way. Ask the group to respond to the first piece with open improvisation that relates to a scene where they might hear this music. Next, play the more intense music and ask the group to adjust for the new stimulus.

When you debrief, think about the mood you are trying to achieve. What quality of movement worked best for your vision? What felt most interesting to the actors? These moments also can serve as shorthand when you give direction. Instead of lengthy notes and explanations, you can say, “Remember, it’s more like that song!” This is what Landau and Bogart mean when they say, “If you can’t say it, point to it.”

Tech week

By tech week, your group has spent a lot of time with each other and this play. People naturally become more mechanical as they get used to the material and nervous thinking about the coming performance. This is an excellent time to circle back to the exercises you chose for auditions or callbacks. This helps the group remember why they wanted to put on this show in the first place and how much you have grown and learned together.

With collaborative methods, actors and designers put more trust in your notes because they helped to create the “rules” of the show. Remind the ensemble they are surrogate audience members at this point. Make a list of the things you explored in rehearsals and make these the headings for your notes. Comment on the group’s commitment to a moment, how they give each other attention and energy onstage, and whether they are listening to and being aware of each other’s spacing.

When the show is over

Theatre exists in time, and all shows come to an end. After the show is over, why should it matter how the show was created? It will matter to you and your cast. And your audience will see the difference too. By using collaborative methods, you will help develop what the Tectonic Theater Project refers to as common history and vocabulary. You will also create lasting working relationships and friendships in your school or theatre. 

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