Ensemble as Lighthouse

Nov 16, 2020

I would like to thank you for your warmth and support regarding SITI Company’s recent announcement outlining our upcoming transition. In two years time, during the 2022-23 season, we will reach our thirtieth year together. Currently we are hard at work preparing our archives and planning for a big celebratory final SITI season. Executive Director Michelle Preston, Producer Megan Carter and the SITI Company Board are guiding the path with the great care and attention.  Their consideration for the individual members of the company, this band of collaborators, many who have been together for 30 years, is monumental.  As with most of SITI Company’s key decisions, the idea about making a transition from a production company to a resource center was a collective consideration, made over the course of hundreds of conversations and always with much feeling.  The question ultimately came down to this: are we an institution or are we a group of like-minded collaborators who joined together nearly thirty years ago to make plays?  We decided that we are, in fact, a group of people who have journeyed together over the theatrical landscape, and for that reason, we chose not to continue on indefinitely. 

That said, we do want SITI to become a resource center for individual artists and for young companies and to remain a lighthouse for the art of ensemble. The idea of Ensemble Theater did not always exist; rather, it came into being through the individuals who decided that collaboration and shared artistic innovation are worthy enterprises. 

Countless theater companies have existed throughout history and around the world, but an ensemble is not the same as a company. Perhaps the birth of ensemble, or the “big bang” that then expanded into a worldwide phenomenon, happened inside the Slavic Bazaar, a busy restaurant in Moscow on June 22, 1897.  At 2 p.m. that day, two young men named Konstantin Stanislavsky and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko sat down for lunch to discuss the state of Russian theater, which they felt was burdened by the gestural histrionic style of acting that was in vogue in Russia during the 19th century.  18 hours later, after breakfast, they finished their conversation at Stanislavsky’s family home. During this legendary encounter, the two discussed a radical new approach to theater and together they dreamed the idea of ensemble into existence. They wanted to ensure that actors and designers would be central to the ethos of their theater. They mapped out ideas as varied as the proper ethics for the theater and how to design decent dressing rooms and green rooms. They emerged with an approach and a doctrine for a theatrical revolution that would change the destiny of theater. From specific actor training to directing and dramaturgy to artistic ideals, rehearsal structures, compilations of plays and seasons, they forged the notion of a professional company with an ensemble ethos that discouraged individual vanity and narcissism. The company that emerged from this protracted dinner became the Moscow Art Theater.

Later Stanislavsky described this meeting and his relationship with Nemirovich-Danchenko: “Here fate helped me again, making me meet the man whom I had sought for a long time. I met Vladimir Ivanovich Nemirovich-Danchenko, who, like me, was poised by the same dream … the theater which performs a cultural mission. … He, like me, thought the theater’s situation hopeless, for the brilliant traditions of the past had degenerated into a plain collection of easy technical devices … the theater was in the hands of dilettantes and bureaucrats …”

A year after that Moscow dinner, a new company of like-minded artists met for their first rehearsal in the nearby town of Pushkino. Stanislavsky’s opening speech urged the team to dedicate their lives to creating “the first rational, moral and accessible theater.”  Nemirovich-Danchenko would manage the theater, serve as dramaturg and direct. Stanislavsky would train the actors and direct. Both agreed that it was necessary not only to counteract the prevailing ham and cliché acting, but to shatter the narrow traditions of the musty drawing-room and thesis-plays of the day. 

Nemirovich-Danchenko and Stanislavsky’s idea of ensemble was new and it was radical. And the idea quickly spread to theater people around the globe and fomented nothing less than a revolution in the theater that has endured to this day. SITI Company is part of the lineage that benefited from the long-ago meal in the Slavic Bazaar Restaurant.  Our intention is to contribute to the trajectory of this splendid history. 

To clarify, here is what an ensemble was not meant to be:

It was not simply about getting a group of people together to form a company.

It was not project based, or ad hoc. 

It was not based upon the star system.

And here is what was meant by ensemble:

• Ensemble Theater would be formed by like-minded people with a common goal, who wanted to be and to create together and were fully dedicated to making theater according to this goal.

• Ensembles would share the same expectations and values (Stanislavsky called them foundations and ideas)

• The “creatives” (writers, actors, directors, designers, musicians) were to collaborate respectfully with one another so that the various elements (words, music, light etc.) could come together in a unified and structured whole. 

• A balance would be struck between individual interests and general integration.

• An ensemble would think of the shared work as a transcendent entity to which everyone involved had to defer. 

• An ensemble would celebrate an organic rather than a fixed nature of creativity.  

• Rather than being product-oriented, the ensemble would value the processes. The work would be about something coming into being, something that gradually takes shape and form.

• The scenic design was meant to construct space rather than illustrate it and, in addition, of providing not decorative backgrounds for situations but a visual insight into and an interpretation or even synthesis of the core aspects of a production. 

• An ensemble would distinguish between individuality and individualism. 

• An ensemble approach would be about collective creation. The actors would be united by a common purpose, and would be deeply connected to one another in how they acted: acutely listening to and hearing each other and coordinating each nuance of sound, glance, gesture and action so that the overarching movement developing from moment to moment was like the music played by and orchestra. This finely tuned and tuned-in ensemble playing was indispensable for any group identified as Ensemble Theater.

• Working within an ensemble would be immersive and continuous and would inspire individual and collective confidence, while protecting the members of the group from fragmentation, dislocation and isolation. In this, an ensemble is like a family, and in its devotion, it was comparable to a church.


On another subject, I finally finished my new book, The Art of Resonance, and sent it off to be published with Methuen/Bloomsbury.  As with rehearsing a play, I find that writing a book also “takes a village.” I can only do so much. I can write, but at a certain point I lose perspective and I even lose the will to keep on going. I needed Rena Fogel’s razor attention to detail and her constant challenges to clarify and streamline the sentences and paragraphs. I needed Jocelyn Clarke’s radical cuts and challenges to my many unexplored assumptions and over-generalizations. I needed Anna Brewer the Commissioning Editor at Methuen/Bloomsbury in London to take a global view of the book and suggest the kind of adjustments and rearrangements that will ultimately help readers to journey smoothly through the chapters.