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Platform Paper 23
‘If there is one Australian production that deserves to be seen by the rest of the world, it is this one. [... It] alone makes me grateful that the Actors Company— however painful its birth-pangs, and regardless of the tantrums and tears along the way—was brought into existence.’
So writes James Waites of Benedict Andrews’ radical reinterpretation of Patrick White’s The Season at Sarsaparilla.
The Actors Company was the visionary initiative of Robyn Nevin, Director of the Sydney Theatre Company, who in 2004 persuaded NSW Premier, Bob Carr, to fund an experimental ensemble. It had been Nevin’s dream but her major responsibilities soon drew her away and left the group to the mercy of itinerant directors. Personal crises, accident and frustration dissipated the original ensemble; they became hostage to crippling costs and the demands of the mainstage.
Those involved account Sarsaparilla, the eight-hour epic The Lost Echo and The War of the Roses their most rewarding experiences. Although the Actors Company gave their final performance in March 2009, within months a new ensemble was born, this one modelled by Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton. It is with comment on The Residents and a look to the future that the essay concludes.
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By its very nature theatre is a social activity, groupcreated, and the best theatre strives to reflect the ideals of an ensemble approach—one in which the work that results on stage, the ‘whole’, if you like, is noticeably greater than the sum of its component parts.
George Ogilvie, who was a founding director of the melbourne theatre Company, has directed either theatre or opera or ballet for every one of australia's major performing arts companies.
Whatever Happened to the STC Actors Company? is a meticulously researched paper by James Waites that recounts the sad history of a major theatre project that left behind 'a glitter of fabulous memories', but was ultimately less than it might have been. As someone who has spent almost sixty years in the Australian theatre, as both actor and director, I was keen to read this essay. Having done so, however, I was left with a fundamental question unanswered: Why was the Actors Company formed in the first place?
It is useless asking an actor why s/he is an actor. S/he will seldom know why they are prepared to spend their lives prostituting their god-given talent for becoming someone else. Nor are most theatre directors able to give a more satisfactory reason for doing what they do, unless it be that they 'love working with actors', 'bringing the great classical texts off the page' or 'making audiences laugh or cry'.
However, when it comes to the formation of an 'extension company', a new addition to an already long-established theatre company, a serious answer is required: an idea, concept, philosophy, a raison d'être is vital. Something better than 'to put on a number of plays' is needed as justification for binding a dozen highly individual and talented actors together for several years. Mr Waites describes in detail the individuals connected with the STC project, but nowhere, it seems, was there ever a central philosophy that bound them all together at the outset, or (as Dan Spielman hoped) that emerged as they embarked on their work.
'Ensemble' is a term much bandied about in the theatre world. It is a term that implies a project of some kind that has brought actors and directors together and that drives them all towards the same goal. This justification usually comes from the heart and mind of a single initiator, or else from those of the participants (who may be selected on the basis of their suitability). Perhaps the most famous ensemble in the last hundred years of Western theatre has been the Berliner Ensemble, whose founding father was Bertolt Brecht and whose function was the production of Brecht's very particular 'epic' form of political theatre. There have been others, of course, as Mr Waites notes, both elsewhere and in Australia. I often think back to the vision of (the greatly missed) Rex Cramphorn and his (wickedly underfunded) company's tightly focussed Shakespeare project. Different as all these ensembles have been, what they had in common was a unifying goal. That goal might have been, like Brecht's, the translation into theatrical terms of a Marxist ideology. But it could as readily be the use of mask; stage narrative, the telling of epic tales; an exploration of mime; comic playing, from farce to high comedy of manners; unknown European classics (the drama of Golden Age Spain, for example); forgotten Australian plays … the list is endless.
The STC did not use the term 'ensemble', but called its actors and directors an 'Actors Company', implying that the actors or that acting was the point of the operation. But I don't think that is enough. Actors compose all spoken drama companies (except puppet companies) and we presume that somehow the exploration of different modes of performance and improvements in acting standards (whatever they are!) are what all theatre companies are about. It seems to me particularly important that there be a specific, clearly defined project-especially when one remembers that the 'mother company' was already a broad community company. (Was the purpose of the Actors Company discussed with Premier Bob Carr and the original funding body?) The STC is a community theatre company and as such its unspoken duty is to serve community taste by presenting a wide-ranging program of plays that both keep it alive and also give it a defined identity. Though they have been doing this for many years, with the ups and downs inevitable in any great city, they seem currently to be seeking to establish for themselves an 'International name' rather than developing a distinctly 'Australian identity.'
When a company has in its ranks a great actress with an international reputation, it seems a pity that the company should have taken coals to Newcastle by taking an American play to America. Why not look to take, say, Ray Lawler's Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (with our great actress in the tragic role of Olive), a classic play as important to the Australian psyche as Tennessee Williams' Streetcar Named Desire is to the American. Or, as Mr Waites very properly suggests, take the Actors Company's very fine production of Patrick White's Season at Sarsaparilla together with the highly talented Kate Mulvany's The Seed, with its Australian experience of Vietnam? It would be an Australian package worth sending to any of the world's great theatre cities. What is the point of this seemingly irrelevant paragraph, you ask. It is to illustrate that such a plan could easily involve both companies, and to best advantage. Therefore, what on earth was the intention behind the STC's decision to divide itself in two and create a second 'community theatre' company, with a repertory that the 'mother' company could have presented?
In short, what Mr Waites has brilliantly demonstrated is that not enough thought was put into intentions and goals, and more particularly, that no central idea was offered that would identify the new company as an entity independent of its mother company. This Platform Paper is a timely and important document, and should be required reading for anyone inclined to set up an ensemble company in our country.
George Whaley is an actor, director, writer and teacher. formerly head of acting at nida, head of directing at aftRs, director of University theatre at melbourne University, he has been co-founder of two theatre companies. his biography of leo mcKern was published in 2008 by UnsW press.
Whatever Happened to the STC Actors Company?, James Waites' instructive page-turner, is an essential read for every performing arts professional. Robyn Nevin's ambition for a Sydney Theatre Company acting ensemble and its eventual realisation has everything required of an engrossing melodrama: an inspirational vision, wealthy benefactors, philosophical differences, internecine conflict, high expectations, suspense, triumph-and disappointment and regret as the vision dimmed. It also has a great cast of characters.
The author's title is a question that he does his best to answer. If he does not quite succeed it is for reasons he knows and we can guess. Meanwhile, a few hungry pachyderms loiter in the prompt corner, unfed except by gossip, innuendo and blame. This is not helpful.
All theatre companies should be ensembles, as indeed, many are and have long been, worldwide. An ensemble's guiding principle, in the Macquarie Dictionary's admirably clear definition, is that 'each part is considered only in relation to the whole'. Theatrically speaking, ensemble is the antithesis of the star system, in which satellite actors orbit the incandescent star who must always be the centre of attention. In these days of celebrity and individualism, when fame ranks more highly than excellence, a revival of the ensemble ideal is well worth fighting for. The perceived 'failure' of the Actors Company will, doubtless, provide ammunition to those who should know better, who believe that an ensemble company is neither desirable nor affordable. (And there are others, in suits and the screen trades, who believe that rehearsal is neither necessary nor affordable. But that's a debilitating story for another occasion.)
The Actors Company's high aims may not have been fully realised, but they did present some high-quality theatre. Waites' final paragraph reads: 'Examined from close up, as this essay has done, the story of the AC is fraught with set-backs and trauma. Seen from the distance of the stalls and in hindsight, however, it is a glitter of fabulous memories.' That's high praise indeed, and comes from an honest and informed theatre critic appreciated by readers, if not always by theatre managements, for his fearless probing.
What's so good about an ensemble? The short answer is: the quality of the work is enhanced. Ensemble actors play for each other, not primarily for either the audience or the camera. The resulting quality of communion between characters draws the audience into the interrelationships and, therefore, the story. Ensemble involves a commitment to, and insists on creating time for, in-depth exploration of the internal and external details of character and story-and the sharing of common objectives. These principles and qualities are the hallmark of ensemble acting. Ensemble actors and directors worthy of the name are team-players, and at their best have an edge, a dynamic, a quality of danger and unpredictability. They do not woo, nor do they aim to charm: their focus and the detail they give their work demand the audience's attention. The ensemble is a place for exploration and experiment; it must never be a sheltered workshop for time-servers.
But is an Australian ensemble possible-at a time when the art-theatre companies are living beyond their means and seeking more government subsidies and private and corporate sponsorships? And when more and more actors are longing for Hollywood, as a generation earlier they had longed for London-or at least for a local television series or movie-rather than a long-term commitment to working in an ensemble?
The answers, in my opinion, are yes and yes! It is affordable, or the Sydney Theatre Company would not have formed another ensemble, this time of younger actors, called The Residents-not, the 'Holy Twelve', as Waites calls the Nevin's ensemble, or 'the best of the best'. This latter appellation is both offensive and silly. There is no such thing. Acting is not an Olympic sport: there is no 'best'. A dozen directors, critics, theatregoers or actors would each make a different list of their preferred ensemble members-which, by the way, should always include a director or and actor-director or two-with playwrights specially commissioned to develop works for and, importantly, with the ensemble.
I believe that the subsidised companies should be ensembles, and not have ensembles. If they claim that more funding would be needed for that to be feasible, let them look to their payrolls and lists of offstage employees. A reordering of priorities might be in order.
If more taxpayers' money is to be spent, it should be for the development of lean, independent, alternative ensemble companies-unencumbered by 'national theatre' additions and expensive real estate. Variety is the lifeblood of the performing arts; paucity of choice is their death. The generally timid repertoire currently offered by the subsidised drama theatre companies to the few who can afford their ticket-prices is determined by about a dozen individuals nation-wide, individuals who also decide who will direct, design and act in the productions. This concentrates too much power in the hands of too few. And worse: most of this elite cabal will remain glued to their office chairs long past their use-by dates. Current audiences are being short-changed and potential audiences deterred. Safe programming and long-term enthronements can result in organisational sclerosis.
It is said that actors are wary of joining an ensemble. Some are, as was the case with one or two members of the AC, but wariness is not general, if only for economic reasons. Unlike the artistic directors and administrators who hire them, few actors earn a living wage and must rely on casual employment unrelated to their training and skills. The majority of graduates from our many full-time (and part-time) acting academies would leap at the chance to be part of an ensemble that offered, say, one-year contracts. So would the many experienced actors looking for a greater challenge than is offered by the occasional TV commercial or guest role in a soap. As Waites notes, there is a range of different models, from the fixed membership-which perhaps works best when the object of the exercise is the exploration of well-defined program of work (e.g. Rex Cramphorn's Shakespeare Project)-to the core membership model in which the nucleus is joined by 'associate' actors and directors who come and go (e.g. Sydney's Old Tote Theatre Company in its early days).
It might also be objected that audiences get tired of seeing the same actors in play after play. This was not my own experience some decades ago, when I acted and directed in Melbourne's Emerald Hill Theatre and Melbourne Theatre Companies. Nor was it the case with Theatre ACT, which I founded more recently. All of these were ensemble companies. There was little philosophising (not that there's anything wrong with a little philosophy!) and there were some disagreements (aren't there always?) and it was obvious to all involved, including the audiences, that teamwork enhanced the quality of our work, as well as the development of the actors' skills, range and courage. Audiences assumed a sort of 'ownership' of the actors and, far from being bored by regularly seeing the same faces, came to see what their favourite actors were doing 'this time'.
Robyn Nevin's aspirations and James Waites' analysis of them have reopened debate and discussion about the virtues and vicissitudes of ensemble companies. There is more to be said-and Waites (he was dramaturg on the Rex Cramphorn project) is both well-placed and well-fitted to the task of writing a comprehensive treatment of the subject. Should he be tempted, I suggest he look at Gus Worby's 1979 doctoral thesis, which he wrote at Flinders University. It's titled 'The Ensemble Ideal and the Australian Theatre, 1956-1966', and it deals in depth with the Emerald Hill Theatre. I have to confess a special interest here: I was co-founder and associate director of the company, which was led by Wal Cherry.