Three professional thespians discussed the strengths and shortcomings of the modern-day theater company in “Stories from the Field: How to Start and Sustain an Ensemble Theater Company,” held Wednesday at the CFA Cinema. The panelists engaged an audience of 25 students, faculty, and community members in a conversation on both their unique collaborative processes and the complications of making group theater in contemporary America.

Quinn Bauriedel, co-artistic director of Pig Iron Theatre Company in Philadelphia; Terry O’Reilly, co-artistic director of Mabou Mines in New York City; and Justin Townsend, a founding member of TENT, based in Boston and New York City, gave brief opening remarks before answering questions from the audience.

Both Bauriedel and Townsend recalled the infectious enthusiasm and ambition they felt during the formation of their respective companies.

“We were interested in theatre that was yet to be made,” Bauriedel said.

With a smile, Townsend remembered his devil-may-care attitude when he and his friends began to develop what would become TENT while graduate students at CalArts in Valencia, California in 2000.

“We decided we wouldn’t go to our grad classes anymore,” Townsend said.

Not that grand aspiration goes hand-in-hand with a flawless track record. Bauriedel remembered Pig Iron’s first entry into the Edinburgh Fringe Festival—an adaptation of “The Odyssey”—with little sentimentality.

“It was pretty terrible,” Bauriedel said.

The discussion, moderated by Assistant Professor of Theater Claudia Tatinge Nascimento, covered an array of topics, from the complexities of interpersonal group dynamics to the creative use of space when resources are scarce. The panelists’ responses to audience questions gave insight into the particulars of each group’s theatrical philosophies.

Mabou Mine’s theory of collaboration, explained O’Reilly, rests upon equality and specialization. Every member of the ensemble (writer, actor, composer, etc.) is given a specific task to do, but no one leader controls the overall proceedings.

“There is no hierarchy of worth, but there are very specific jobs,” O’Reilly said.

In contrast, Townsend stresses the effective use of traditional leadership roles within TENT. By resting the responsibility of the entire production on a single individual, Townsend argued, others can concentrate on their specific tasks with greater focus and zeal.

As the discussion progressed toward the interpersonal politics of group collaboration, the three artists found much to agree upon. O’Reilly, in particular, offered high, if ribald, praise of the camaraderie that forms within a theater troupe.

“It’s like a marriage, but you’re allowed to sleep around,” O’Reilly said.

He continued on a more serious note, stressing the importance of artistic freedom when apart of a functioning and artistically provocative team.

“You have to be free to be loyal and you have to be free to be wild,” O’Reilly said.

Bauriedel discussed the flip side of these connections. Hurt feelings and uncomfortable negotiations, he said, can occur when individuals have to choose between individual ambition and group commitment.

Spatial and monetary constraints bring their own sets of complications. Ironically, the panelists seemed to insist that these constraints enhance their creative drive

“The most damaging situation you can put us [TENT] in is a black box,” said Townsend.

The company prefers more unorthodox spaces, which often take less traditional forms of payment. Townsend recalls being allowed to stage a performance in a local church under one condition: the company paints the walls they were performing in. Townsend and the rest of TENT happily complied.

The question of space produced a moment of unexpected audience criticism. Administrative Adjunct in Theater Leslie Weinberg differed from what she felt were the panelists’ overly rosy view of theatrical opportunities for theater professionals, particularly younger ones. Weinberg explained that a lack of available performance spaces and little support from mainstream popular culture has produced a difficult environment to thrive in.

“I don’t think we should make it sound too easy,” Weinberg said.

Afterwards, younger audience members, many of whom were current or prospective theater majors, expressed similar concerns.

“We expect answers when they’re really are none,” said Jess Chayes ’07, a theater and English double major.

Carmel Melillo ’09, a prospective double major in theater and English, also wished for a more expansive conversation on the challenges facing the modern theatre.

“I would have liked to talk more about the cultural aspect that was mentioned,” Melillo said. “Why is culture moving away from theater?”

Despite these lingering questions, Chayes left with a sense of hope.

“It’s inspiring to see others doing what you dream of doing,” Chayes said.

Nascimento agreed, adding that she hopes to bring a similar panel together next year.

“This is the beginning of a larger conversation,” Nascimento said.

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