The Group Theater

It's a heydey for collaborative work in New York. How six companies put it all together.

While a few Civilians projects have been suggested by other company members (like the divorce play now in development called You Better Sit Down), most of their shows commence with Cosson bringing “a very broad subject,” often a daunting one, to his collaborators. “That’s an unwritten rule of the company,” he says. “If you don’t feel that fear, then it’s not important enough to pursue.” Liska says he usually begins with a “stupid idea,” but one just interesting enough to drive people into the rehearsal room. (An example: Doing the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet in super slow motion, so that it lasts an hour and a half.)

It’s interesting to note that, with the exception of the Civilians, each of these companies launched themselves with extant scripts, either an original or one adapted from another source. ERS commenced with a Dadaist play, Mr. Antipyrine, Fire Extinguisher, the Debate Society with a Symbolist one, A Thought About Raya. Nature Theater debuted with Three Sisters. NTUSA began with a script James Stanley had written on a film shoot, while Eric Dyer penned Radiohole’s Bender before teaming with any of his collaborators. (Both NTUSA and Radiohole established their collaborative methods because everyone wanted to act in those scripts, leaving no one to direct them.) In subsequent years, these companies have all rejected such pre-existing texts, while the Civilians now often employ more typical playwriting.

Yet even as the process of composition has become more free-form, many companies have moved from an intensely democratic model of collaboration to a somewhat more stratified one, often as a means of resolving conflict. “Having worked together for 10 years,” the Civilians’ Cosson says, “we’ve defined our boundaries over the course of this evolution. The phases of the work are more delineated, and it’s certainly more defined who’s in charge of the script.”

The Select (The Sun Also Rises): ERS goes over the river and into the Hemingway
Mark Barton
The Select (The Sun Also Rises): ERS goes over the river and into the Hemingway
Nature Theater of Oklahoma's Obie-winning No Dice
Peter Nigrini
Nature Theater of Oklahoma's Obie-winning No Dice

At NTUSA, Yehuda Duenyas explains, “it’s not so much of a free-for-all anymore. Structuring the collaboration has made it much, much easier. We used to fight a lot and it was really miserable in rehearsal.” Yet he also believes that some of that conflict “is what made our early work really fun and awesome. But you exhaust that way of working.” He and Sherwood do observe that while various roles of director and writer are now more established in preparing The Golden Veil, slated for the Kitchen this fall, the group still decided many of the production’s aspects via voting.

Like NTUSA, Radiohole, who are currently remounting the gleefully messy melodrama Whatever, Heaven Allows (WHA?!) at the Collapsable Hole, used to suffer terrible fights. But on WHA?!, the cast (two of whom had recently given birth) elected Dyer as a final arbitrer. “Eric having control made it really easy and really nice,” says company member Hoffman. “Before we had that, we fought all the time, constantly. I think about a dress rehearsal when a chair got thrown at a photographer and the show was going to be canceled.” Yet Dyer, like Duenyas, sometimes longs for this more chaotic stage of their collaboration. “I don’t miss fighting at all,” he says, “but I worry about not accessing these interesting and surprising places because there isn’t friction.”

Collins has gradually assumed a more central role at ERS, but he also sees power relationships change even in the course of a single play—it’s highly collaborative at the outset, then he takes on a somewhat authoritarian role, then he again allows for participation once the show has been running. “It’s a process that moves gradually from being more democratic to much less democratic to being a little democratic again,” he says. “With Gatz, a show we’ve been working on forever, we’re at a point now where it’s easier for someone to come to me with a new idea about it.”

Alternatively, Nature Theater of Oklahoma has always maintained a strict hierarchy. Liska, who takes a cheerfully tyrannical attitude to play development, says, “People imagine we all get together in a room and say, ‘So what should we do, guys?’ Then somebody comes up with an idea, and we vote on it, and we try it out, and then at the end of the day, somebody says, So what did we like about today?’ You’d have to have 12 years to make a show. You’d be spending all your time discussing.” (The Debate Society, who do attempt to resolve any aesthetic questions via discussion, take about 18 months to create each project.)

Most groups cite a development schedule of between one and two years per show. For some projects, such as Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s ongoing 10-part, 24-hour-long, biographical musical Life and Times or the Civilians’ ambitious new project on climate change, The Great Immensity, the process may take much longer. Companies can work more quickly—as in Radiohole’s 2008 Anger/Nation, created in nine weeks—if subsidies exist to pay group members full time.

While a few groups can now fund a small staff year-round, most artists work for free during most of the rehearsal process and supplement their income with a variety of other work—nannying, DJ-ing, set-building, waiting tables, computer programming, roof garden construction, playing the harp at weddings, etc. Dyer jokes that he has recently become a hit man for Mexican drug cartels: “It’s lucrative. It doesn’t take much of my time.”

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