Do I belong to this ensemble?

September 15, 2010 at 1:24 pm | Posted in Ensemble, improvisation, Physical Theatre, Psychophysical Training, Theatre | Leave a comment
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Am I a member of the ensemble? Was I ever? If I was, am I still part of it, now the nine performers are delivering a show each night?

It’s a question that comes up repeatedly when I train groups for extended periods. I have a particular role, for I initiate, guide, pace and respond to the training. As such I have a leadership role. When/if the ensemble moves from a training group to a group delivering a performance, I become the director, the person who sits outside the group and observes, comments on, structures their work. My role is different to theirs. Though we collaborate, that essential difference cannot be ignored. It is not to do with power or hierarchy, but with function within the group.

In some ways, obviously, I am not a member of the ensemble as it now exists. I could not easily improvise within the group – certainly not with the same effortlessness and sensitive responsiveness with which they work with one another. If I tried to join in with an improvisation, it and I would feel clumsy, awkward, stilted. Yet I ‘know’ the work as well as anyone in the group – in fact better than anyone in the group, for I both understand in huge depths the principles that we work from and I have explored them in practice over twenty years of physical performance work. All of my work has grown from my practical experiences.

So, if I know the work intimately, and have been working alongside the ensemble every day for the last two months, in what way am I NOT a member of the ensemble?

The question was made more complicated by a conversation we had last night after the first performance (which went very well, I have to say). A friend who had been in the audience came for a drink with us. She’s someone who has trained with me in the past, and has trained with me in an ensemble several members of whom are in the current DUENDE ensemble. She knows the work well, both in theory and in practice. She has established performance relationships with a couple of the current ensemble. Yet, she is clearly not a member of this ensemble, any more than I feel that I am.

As part of preparation for a symposium at the University tomorrow, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we can describe what ensembles actually are. One description of them is that they are like a family. I like that, but wonder whether we have to differentiate between the nuclear family and the extended family. The nine current DUENDE performers are the current nuclear family. They make things work.

People like my friend in the pub, other people who have trained with me, people who have perhaps had other similar, related trainings, are part of an extended family. They know, understand and are (not necessarily uncritically) supportive of the work of the nuclear family, but are not actually part of it. Then there are those who are not part of the family, extended or nuclear. They do not know how (or perhaps why) we work as we do. They are often interested and supportive, though sometimes hostile, as is often true in the relationships between distinct social groupings with diverse agendas.

How does one move from being part of the extended family of ensemble-type performers to specific membership of a given ensemble? Certainly background training helps, A grasp and acceptance of the basic shared principles helps. But there is also the necessity for regular, physical work. Someone could become part of this performance ensemble only if they worked as a performer with them regularly. It might take me only a few days to integrate because I know the work well. Someone who has never encountered these ways of working would probably require months.

However, working with the group in itself is not enough. For if someone worked with the current ensemble without sharing the underlying principles and protocols that underpin the work, they would never become part of the ensemble, however long they stayed.

It seems to me that to be a functioning member of a specific ensemble, to be a member of the nuclear family, requires both an understanding of the shared rules and principles of that ensemble, and the daily experience of working in detail with the other members of that ensemble. Ensemble membership is about embodied understanding of self and others.


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