The Group Theater

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

Several companies are eager to emphasize that even a 12-month process doesn’t imply daily or even weekly rehearsals. Many groups like to provide—or, depending on funding, have to provide—fallow periods in which company members can leave a project and then return to it reinvigorated and with new perspective. Even Cosson, who seems quite skilled at attracting financial support, notes “there’s a big gap in the beginning when you have an idea and you’re trying to figure out how to make it possible, because all of our funding is project specific.” Though as the Civilians often work on several projects at once, in addition to performance and touring, there’s relatively little down time.

Lengthy rehearsal schedules and flexible development processes mean that shows sometimes alter almost entirely from initial concept—rare in traditional theater, but commonplace in devised work. Collins notes that Highway to Tomorrow, ERS’s take on The Bacchae, actually began with The Great Gatsby, then turned to The Last Tycoon before arriving at Euripides. A couple of dances inspired by Tycoon’s film version survived into the final performance. The Great Immensity, the Civilians’ climate change play, actually began as a piece about time. Radiohole’s initial interest in Moby Dick became Fluke, an odd piece that rendered the performers blind for much of the show.

One of the reasons that many shows take such strange is that few companies hew to a standard rehearsal method. Time together may be spent researching, reporting, discussing, fighting, improvising, dancing, playing games, attempting exercises, presenting prepared scenes. Typical rehearsal room activities like table reads and blocking do usually occur, but not in an organized order or fashion. And many companies alter their method from one project to the next. As the Debate Society’s Thureen explains, “Explicitly we decided that every one of our processes would be created to mirror the work we were creating. We create it in tandem for every single play.”

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

Radiohole’s Dyer says that the spontaneous nature of their rehearsals often provokes frustration. “It’s not a very efficient process,” he says, “and at times it feels incredibly lost. Sometimes you’re just sitting there thinking, “Why are we doing this?’ Because you end up going up a lot of wrong alleys.” Collins reveals that ERS strategies include re-creating scenes from films, improvising dances, and “pushing around chairs and tables and playing with the space that we’re in”—a tactic that may have resulted in the unusual staging of the bullfight (horned folding tables sub for cattle) in The Select (The Sun Also Rises), which will play New York Theatre Workshop this fall.

No two of these companies are alike, even in their differences, though at least three did cite an off-kilter sense of humor as the quality that distinguishes them. A spectator won’t find much similarity between the Debate Society’s loopy atmospherics, ERS’s swoony literariness, the Civilians’ musical documentaries, Radiohole’s jubilant food fights, NTUSA’s stylized comedies, or Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s blend of the colloquial and the formal.

Despite these individual styles and the years and months spent developing work and the acute attention to process, the results are not always successful. The early works of the Debate Society tended toward the arch; Radiohole has produced several duds including None of It; ERS could not achieve quite the same magic with Faulkner as with Fitzgerald; the recent investigations of the Civilians, while displaying admirable political and social engagement, have perhaps lost some of the giddiness that made their early pieces so pleasurable. And who knows what will become of the 24-hour Life and Times, which has so long a running time and so large a cast it may never be shown in New York.

Yet when critics like myself come to make our end-of-season lists, these companies and those like them often occupy the top spots, quite a small reward to the immense amounts of work that devising these pieces demands. (How they would laugh at Cole Porter’s production model!) But despite the fights and the frustrations and the constant need for day jobs, all the artists—perhaps unsurprisingly—insist that they couldn’t or wouldn’t make theater any other way.

Dyer says that even when tensions in Radiohole were at their highest, he always knew “that I wasn’t going to go off and make the theater of my dreams without my company. I always understood that even if we were screaming at each other, I had no place else to go.” Conversely, NTUSA’s Sherwood particularly enjoys the communal aspects of the devised method. “It’s working with people you really trust and knowing that when you give your idea over to the group it’s very possible that someone will make that idea a lot better.” Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Liska likes the individual freedom it affords himself and Copper. “We’re not responsible to the playwright,” he says. “We’re not responsible to the director, we’re not responsible to some preconceived expectation— all we’re responsible for is the event.”

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