Archives For ensemble theatre

The Wealth of Ensemble

July 18, 2015 — 1 Comment

Adam Smith.
This is where my brain always starts.

Money PieAdam Smith, The Wealth of Nations. One of the seminal philosophical underpinnings of this country. There’s a singular “pie” of resources. It’s finite. We can all only have a single slice of the pie. Only if we work to grow the size of the pie can we get a bigger slice, or if I give some of my slice to you, or if I take yours, etc. In Wealth of Nations Smith is discussing economics, labor, and government…capitalism. So money, yes, but essentially power.

So when considering the struggles around power sharing in an ensemble-based arts organization, my brain always starts with Adam Smith: power tends to be viewed as a pie, we either all have equal slices or … wait a second!!!–your slice is bigger than mine and THAT SUCKS END OF STORY. ARRRGGGHHH!!!!

Which, of course, underscores 1) why the Wealth of Nations comparison is not the best analogy; and 2) why the equality mindset is such an unproductive approach to power sharing.

Power sharing is not about equality¹. We are not all equal. If we were, we would not see how differently White  and Black suspects are treated when in police custody. If we were, we would not need the Supreme Court to grant Same-Sex marriage rights.

We are not all equal in an arts organization. If we were, my resume and your resume would look exaPiectly the same.

But someone having more power does not mean someone else has her power taken away. Power is not shared like pie. It’s not a zero-sum game.

Power sharing is not about placing everyone on the exact same level. It is about acknowledging the experience and expertise each individual has, including oneself, and bringing the fullness of that “power” to the group. Sharing that power.

“Equal” means “same size slice.” But “equal” is not “fair.” It falsely promises ownership, isn’t  just or appropriate, and neither propels us forward nor makes us “better.”

Power sharing is as much about taking agency as much as it is making space for agency to be taken. Invitations made, invitations accepted—both ways. Responsibility is viewed for the collective more than for oneself. This doesn’t erase personal identity, it expands it and allows it to be expanded and affected. In this sense, one is never “solely responsible.”

But it must be shared. When space isn’t made for others, it’s the responsibility of the group to course correct. When agency isn’t taken, it is the responsibility of the group to course correct. Both situations are just as problematic, as they will result in reverting to a size-of-pie mindset and ensuing conflicts.

Does this rid us of job descriptions, to-do lists, systems of accountability, and the like? No, of course not, and please come out of the weeds.  🙂

Instead, let’s look at some of a memo Tony Hsieh, CEO for Zappos, wrote to the company in March 2015 regarding their transition to a holacracy management structure:

The right question is not: how can everyone have equal power? It is rather: how can everyone be powerful? ….

Here we stumble upon a beautiful paradox: people can hold different levels of power, and yet everyone can be powerful. If I’m a machine operator―if my background, education, interests, and talents predispose me for such work―my scope of concern will be more limited than yours, if your roles involve coordinating the design of a whole new factory. And yet, if within what matters to me, I can take all necessary actions using the advice process, I have all the power I need.

This paradox cannot be understood with the unspoken metaphor we hold today of organizations as machines. In a machine, a small turn of the big cog at the top can send lots of little cogs spinning. The reverse isn’t true―the little cog at the bottom can try as hard as it pleases, but it has little power to move the bigger cog. The metaphor of nature as a complex, self-organizing system can much better accommodate this paradox. In an ecosystem, interconnected organisms thrive without one holding power over another. A fern or a mushroom can express its full selfhood without ever reaching out as far into the sky as the tree next to which it grows. Through a complex collaboration involving exchanges of nutrients, moisture, and shade, the mushroom, fern, and tree don’t compete but cooperate to grow into the biggest and healthiest version of themselves.

the point is not to make everyone equal; it is to allow all employees to grow into the strongest, healthiest version of themselves. Gone is the dominator hierarchy (the structure where bosses hold power over their subordinates). And precisely for that reason, lots of natural, evolving, overlapping hierarchies can emerge―hierarchies of development, skill, talent, expertise, and recognition…

(emphasis above is mine)

Power sharing in this manner is not what we’re accustomed to in organizations or in American culture at large. Patriarchal hierarchy is deeply ingrained. Working against it leaves us feeling, at first, unbalanced, then uncomfortable, and possibly distressed. It is work that you have to commit to; that you have to believe in.

The “pay-off” I might refer to as the “wealth of ensemble,” and I believe it is worth it in the end.


¹Treading carefully. I don’t want anyone to mistake me: I know there is tremendous inequity and injustice that must be addressed directly and transparently within professional and personal spheres.

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Prologuetriangulations and tetrahedronizations

Blog schedules be darned! This big eyed fish explored a new bowl and so the editorial staff has done a switcheroo.

Who out there noticed?


Ok, maybe this is my way of telling you 1) we plan 2) there’s a “we” 3) this post has a lot going on and it’s possible the dots are not all connected.



This weekend, I was slapped across the face. Literally. In front of my dog & pony dc co-ensemble members and a collection of artistic collaborators. By a man who we invited into our ensemble as part of a training. There are many other details I could share, but let’s open with this simple telling of the story.


Being an ensemble member is hard.

“Team membership” brings with it immense power and responsibility. My guess is many few of us outside of the military and professional/life-practice team athletics truly knows this. In my world we tend to call it “ensemble member” or “ensembleship.” The variation between military or athletics, and ensemble, for us at least, is: the agency we endow individuals within the group; the equity with which we seek to operate and realize; the responsibility we share in manifesting shared vision and values; the trust we place and hold in the collective.

The thing about run-of-the-mill colleagues is that in most situations, they can easily avoid making choices, they can kick-back within hierarchy, they can maintain a narrow focus of impact, and everyone’s actions to superiors are either gestures of obedience, pledges of loyalty, or both.

The thing about run-of-the-mill leaders is that in most situations, they can give and take the semblance of power, they can tip over scales, they can give/ take/ reward/ punish/ spotlight/ ignore behaviors, and everyone else needs to have their trust earned by you.

But in our ensemble at least:

Every member of the company has an impact on the work and processes of every other member.

Membership in the company is a constant exercise in awareness, both of one’s own “orbit” within the company, and awareness of all the others. It requires personal flexibility to balance the work of the whole.


  • Agency can be taken or ignored.
  • Equity can balance despite variance, or it can remain disturbed and partisan.
  • Responsibility can be embraced or shrugged off.
  • Trust can be given and accepted, or withheld.

Reverse to #1 to launch into #3

So I was slapped across the face. Literally. In front of my co-ensemble members and a collection of collaborating artists. By a man who we invited into our ensemble as part of a company training.

Everyone physically remained in the room. I made a joke shortly afterward; transmitting a coded message to the ensemble (which turned out to be too coded). We processed through the moment, whether to engage in the exercise or not. I told everyone I was totally fine, and not to worry, transmitting another coded message to the ensemble members. (A number of them received it!) For the rest of the afternoon, many of the ensemble members were keenly aware of one another and the other collaborators in the room. Afterward there was informal processing in all sorts of small, private groups. There was some individual processing with me.

What stinks is that as a leader of an ensemble I’m keenly aware of how I must strive to epitomize our values and, sometimes, suck it up and ignore both ensembleship and me. However: I am still 1) an ensemble member and 2) an individual person. These three identities—Ring Leader, dog & pony dc ensemble member, Rachel—are a shifting triangle. When I add to that being female, white, young-ish, small statured, a loud talker, et cetera, the identity intersections I’m navigating at any given moment are mindboggling.

(What’s even more !KA-POW! is: everyone else is also navigating their own identity intersections. But, I’ve digressed. The point is…)

Back in company training this weekend, after the slap, I wasn’t fine. I’m not fine now. All the “processing” I engaged in didn’t take away the fact that I was slapped across the face in front of my co-ensemble members, because my leader-ensemble member-individual triangle held tight with “leader” at the apex for 36-hours. Should it have? Should I have re-triangulated within the group because ensemble? (aka “trust in the system”) Should the ensemble have recalibrated in such a way that encouraged or even forced that to occur? What does “leadership” actually mean within ensemble?

And so…

My initial simple telling of the story was inadequate. It was a moment bursting with complications that continue to spill out and spread across the floor. This writing is a necessary step in my clean up process. I’ve returned safe and sound to my bowl, and now am attempting to discern what I learned. And so, I leave these questions with you

What roles do agency, equity, responsibility, and trust play in your communities?

How can we all lead and follow by example?

How do you negotiate triangulating within a tetrahedron?

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Part of a series I am am collaborating on with the assistance of Melanie Harker and Kate Ahern Loveric under the stewardship of Howl Round / Center for the Theater Commons.

This is post “2.3”—What is our perception of ensemble-theaters and the role of audience?

ABEF Perceptions

Part of a series I am collaborating on with the assistance of Melanie Harker and Kate Ahern Loveric under the stewardship of Howl Round / Center for the Theater Commons.

This is post “2.2”—How do we define four key terms—theater, ensemble, audience, and engagement?

(Note: a full turn around the circle would me 100% of responses contained this element or category.)

ABEF Terms

Part of a series I am collaborating on with the assistance of Melanie Harker and Kate Ahern Loveric under the stewardship of Howl Round / Center for the Theater Commons.

This is the second post in a regular column exploring the junctions of ensemble theater and audience, my two paths, or rather passions, in life. I’m journeying to the convergence points of multiple paths, many previously traversed, armed with this question: how can investigating the crossover between disparate spheres provide fresh perspectives, possibly new insights? See the first post here.

And when I say “second post” I really mean the second series of posts. Inspired somewhat by the wisely-naive and endlessly-curious character Dory from Finding Nemo, I created A Big Eyed Fish (ABEF) in order to investigate every nook and cranny of the bowl I swim in, as well as the oceans beyond, for new discoveries. The logical place to start was with definitions and assumptions about the art-artists-audience triangulation. My ABEF collaborator Melanie Harker and I shaped a series of questions on Ensemble Theaters & Audience Definitions meant to be a pulse-check or a survey of the landscape. Our goals were not to draw consensus, but to highlight the many similarities and many, many differences in this collection of aggregated people, practices, and perceptions. Melanie and I then worked with our third ABEF collaborator Kate Ahern Loveric to develop a series of infographics to capture and convey the collected data. Stay tuned for more infographics later this week!

This is post “2.1”—Who participated in this poll?

Infograph: Who Participated?

This is the first post in a series I am am collaborating on with the assistance of Melanie Harker and Kate Ahern Loveric under the stewardship of Howl Round / Center for the Theater Commons. Posts on A Big Eyed Fish will inevitably wrestle with related topics, questions, and musings, but those which are part of the official “series” (like this one) will also appear here.  -rg

Robert Frost famously professed the benefits, when approaching a point of divergence in a journey, of taking the road “less traveled by.” Yet: I’ve found the travels that made all the difference for me have been on roads created from the convergence of multiple paths, merging snakelike into one another. The goal isn’t to explore undiscovered terrain, but the intersection of lands (supposedly) already traversed. How can investigating the crossover between disparate spheres provide fresh perspectives, possibly new insights?

Armed with this question, I enter into a year-long quest exploring the junctions of my two paths, or rather passions, in life: ensemble theater and audience.

I possess a self-described “healthy obsession” with the triangulation of art, artist, and audience. In other words—I am endlessly fascinated with the relationships formed around a work of theater by artists and audiences. This fascination guides, even “dictates,” everything in my career as a theater artist, producer, and administrator. Luckily I found people to share this obsession with: the eleven other company members of dog & pony dc and the host of artists with whom we collaborate.

d&pdc is an ensemble-based company in Washington, DC focused on devising performances that provide audiences new ways of experiencing theater. We weren’t audience-fixated at first. d&pdc was initially founded as an ensemble company focused on remixing classical texts into contemporary performances. My two co-founders and I wanted to increase collaboration between all the players in the theatrical production—producers/administrators, artists, and audience. We believed ensemble-based collaboration would not only create stronger, more complex productions, but it would amp up the intensity and immediacy of shows in performance.

Over the course of a handful of productions, the audience experience quickly emerged as d&pdc’s raison d’etre. We had always wanted our shows—whether original works or productions of previously written scripts—to shake up the stagnant theater-going experience, aiming never to take the audience’s presence for granted. With every show we were inclined to increase the audience’s agency and participation: first we acknowledged the audience’s presence; then we casually interacted with them; then we moved them around the theater; invited them to create their own characters; requested (almost required) they perform with us—literally assigning the audience parts integral to the show’s narrative arc. We came to view the audience as our final collaborator in shaping productions; so much so that the company and board almost immediately came to agreement at our annual retreat last year that one of our defining values is “the audience completes our ensemble.” Our collaborative, ensemble process transitioned to becoming the means to our “audience integration” ends.

When d&pdc began dialoging at the national level we were surprised by how broad and inclusive our definition of “ensemble” was in comparison with our colleagues. While we don’t operate at the “consensus” end of the collaboration spectrum, we value transparency and inclusivity at all points in the production process from all participants and the audiences’ experience is the central component of our devising process. As we plan our company’s organizational development and artistic growth, we’re trying to figure out—where do we fit into the spectrum of ensemble theater? What can we learn from our colleagues? What do we have to share? How can we make stronger work? And, most importantly, how can we alter artists’ and audiences’ expectations for theatrical events in DC and the country? 

I see myself as an artist of two “types”: 1) a maker of theatrical experiences that are conversational in nature, and 2) a maker of interpretive opportunities around performances that build community. As much as my devising, directing, and performing is affected by my art-artist-audience, so too is my interest in engagement initiatives. My enthusiasm ignited quietly and smoldered throughout a twelve-year career in arts education and community-arts projects in regional theater.. It fully manifested and unleashed during my time at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company leading the conceptualization and launching of their “connectivity” innovation. I served as the first Connectivity Director at a critical point in the emergence of the “audience engagement” field in regional theaters: social media became mainstream, “marketing departments” widely began reframing as “engagement departments,” and dramaturg-led audience engagement activities (e.g. post-show discussions) peaked in popularity.

At Woolly, I submerged myself in shaping systems that would allow the theater to harness the power of its art and the resources of its city to reposition theater itself as a center of discourse. I sought to develop processes that would be repeatable and yet yield results unique to each production, and involve many voices (staff, artists, current audience, future/potential audience, community members with a stake in the conversation shows teed-up). But as engagement became a leading buzzword, it remained almost exclusively on the lips and in the minds of administrators—and select administrators at that. In the past few years the conversation about audience and their engagement with and around the art has not been dominated by the artists making the work or the audience that takes it in. This feels like playing a football game without your receivers, most of the coaching staff, and another team.

What are the lines of communication between artists, arts leaders, and audiences? Why are artists/leaders making the art that they do? How is this vision translating to shared sense of purpose in organizations? With audiences?  With connection to communities?

One + Two = ?
At the 2012 TCG conference, Howard Shalwitz examined the “innovative” concept of a shared sense of purpose around productions in American theater, making a case for increased collaboration between artists and institutions in play development and productions. Ensemble-based companies responded to the resulting benefits Shalwitz listed with a fairly resounding “but of course! it’s why we chose this method of creation.”

I am curious: do ensemble-based companies have this shared sense of purpose? They are primed and inclined toward artistic collaboration and exchange already, aren’t they? But who is involved in the production process and at what stage (particularly for devising ensembles)? How does process affect project? What is the relationship between the makers and the receivers, the artist and audience? (Is there one?) How do your “art,” “artist,” and “audience” triangulate?

As I seek to define the uncharted land dog & pony dc has inhabited, I need to survey the vast landscape around me—to learn about the transitioning relationships between ensemble companies, the communities they’re based in, their impetus for creating, the people they create for, the manner in which they shape their experiences, and how all of this ultimately impacts the work they make. For myself and for my ensemble, beyond naming my healthy obsession with the triangulation of art-artist-audience as an ensemble theater maker, I must interrogate and share.

Care to help me on my journey?

Take five minutes to complete my Ensemble Theater & Audience Definitions Poll here.