Theater ensembles now on the rise


Workers strike at the Ghazl el-Mahalla paper mill.

Tension builds toward the Arab Spring.

And alongside it, fire and fear lead another man to cry let my people go -- Moses in the first deliverance from Egypt, the Jewish story of Passover.

Building from records, first-hand accounts, narratives and histories, the theater ensemble the Anthropologists has woven the new performance, "Mahalla."

Their performance, premiering at the Berkshire Fringe Fesvital this summer, is not only a new work -- but a new way of thinking about theater. Sara Katzoff, artistic director of the Berkshire Fringe Festival, and Ilan Bachrach, founder of the new Mass Live Arts festival launching this summer, both see ensemble theater emerging as a movement -- here and across the country.

Festivals like theirs are growing to support it, they say, and larger venues are inviting new ensembles in and presenting them.

Ensemble theater groups share source material, research and exploration. The group shares roles and performs together for years, or decades.

When the relationship between the director, the actors and the writers becomes more fluid, Bachrach believes the relationship between the audience and the performers can become more alive.

In "Seagull (Thinking of You)," the first performance he will bring to the Berkshires, Tina Satter has formed a new work in response to Anton Chekhov's "The Seagull," drawing on many translations, and letters and recorded recollections of the original play. Chekhov's "Seagull" calls for an ensemble cast, a group of equals rather than leads and walk-ons, and Satter's ensemble company, Half Straddle, have worked together for five years.

New York City Players, who will join her here to work on a new production, "Mona's House of Dance," have been together more than a dozen years, and Radio Hole, the Brooklyn-based group who will bring "Inflatable Frankenstein" to round off the season, have performed together for at least 15.

"There are different ways of making theater," Katzoff agreed. "It's not always ‘the playwright writes, the actors work, the producer produces.' "

She and Bachrach have both immersed themselves in working this way. Bachrach performs with Nature Theater of Oklahoma and has performed with the National Theater of the United States. Katzoff develops new work with her own Kickwheel Ensemble Theatre, within the Berkshire Fringe Festival. With her background in ensemble theater, she works with her husband, Peter Wise, a musician , and Timothy Ryan Olsen, a playwright.

"You can only half finish a piece until you put it in front of an audience," she said. "You can feel when it's working and resonating."

The work that resonates for her handles "serious and dark issues with humanity and humor," she said -- it brings an event alive, mixes it up and reinterprets it.

"There are so many ways to tell stories," she said.

She is drawn to work that gives the audience something to connect with.

"It may be an abstract series of images," she said, "but it often comes through in an element of story."

She also enjoys collaborating with other local theater and performance groups including WAM and Mass Live Arts.

"Arts organizations are never competing with each other," she said. "We're competing with Netflix and Facebook and take-out food." More people making new work gives more people more encouragement to get out and see it.

Bachrach sees Mass Live Arts' relationship to the existing Berkshire theaters as Mass MoCA's relationship to the Clark Art Institute -- the contemporary edge to the classical. Paintings can travel through people's lives and through time, he said. Paintings can last. A performance won't hang in a museum in 200 years.

So, while he is wishing for broadband and for light rail between Great Barrington and his New York City rehearsals, he can bring performances here.

"I want the Berkshires to be a better place," he said. "I can contribute by bringing work here that will open people's minds. I know from seeing it, and from watching people who have seen it, that it changes people."

Katzoff agrees. She thinks about her work, as she feels tension around events like the Boston Marathon bombing.

"What we do is important in reminding people to reconnect as a community," she said, "to acknowledge humanity and resilience.

"When I'm in an audience and go to a show, I feel we're losing our presence as a society. When I'm teaching teens, they're on phones all the time, streaming videos while they're writing papers, and in the theater world it's hard to get them to be in a room -- I'm thinking this for all of us -- it's hard to get us to be still, just to sit and have a communal experience. We're so starved for that."

'A Seagull' flies again

Ilan Bachrach hopes the first performance in his summer lineup, Tina Satter's "Seagull (Thinking of You)," will hit his audience as hard as Anton Chekov's "A Seagull" hit the Russian theater crowds in Petersburg in 1896.

Chekov's "Seagull" started out as revolutionary -- disastrously -- and then became a monumental success. Russian audiences had not seen a play that worked by indirection, that was about something more than the words the characters spoke. Chekov changed the way they understood theater.

In a letter to Chekov, one member of the audience wrote: "In the first act something special started, if you can so describe a mood of excitement in the audience that seemed to grow and grow. Most people walked through the auditorium and corridors with strange faces, looking as if it were their birthday ..."

Bachrach wants to bring that feeling back.

A performer with Nature Theater of Oklahoma and has performed with the National Theater of the United States (a nonprofit ensemble not at all associated with the government), Bachrach has founded the Berkshires' newest contemporary theater venue, Mass Live Arts.

He has spent time over six summers in the Berkshires, where his parents have a home, and he has enjoyed performances at Tanglewood and at the long-established theaters. In his professional life, he has toured Europe and has seen, as well as performed with, artists and ensembles creating new work.

"My tastes are less about seeing an authentic Shakespeare or Molière," he said, "than about exploring what a live performance can be."

The National Theater of the United States has in fact presented a Molière Play, their own re-creation of his "Don Juan," in 2010.

"It was a transformative juxtapostion," Bachrach said. "It helped people to see the new work in a new way."

In the same way, he hopes Satter's reformation of "The Seagull" -- which she has continued to develop since she brought it to residency at Mass MoCA last winter -- will raise contemporary heart beats.

Satter's show has that immediacy for him. He has seen her "Seagull" six times.

Chekhov's play "became well-known because people related to it," he said. "Why don't we relate to it that way now?"

Through Satter's work, he does.


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