Ensemble-Made Chicago

Ensemble-Made Chicago: A Guide To Devised Theater. Chloe Johnson and Coya Paz Brownrigg. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2019. Pp. 202.

Chloe Johnson and Coya Paz Brownrigg’s Ensemble-Made: A Guide to Devised Theater (2019) is a valuable resource for theater educators and practitioners, particularly those who wish to deepen their knowledge of the craft variously known as devised theater, ensemble-based performance, and collective creation. Each short chapter of the book focuses on a distinct Chicago-based theater company (15 in total)—which range from large, nationally-renowned companies such as Lookingglass Theatre and The Second City to smaller, community-based collectives. Each chapter includes a brief history of the company alongside descriptions of games and exercises emblematic of their process and pedagogy. The co-written book also includes an Introduction which places the field of devising in its larger cultural and historical context, as well as a Time Line of the field and List of Exercises By Type, which function as the book’s conclusion. The authors’ methodologies are informed by their own relationship to devised theater in Chicago: Johnson is an ensemble member of the Neo-Futurists and Paz Brownrigg is the Artistic Director of Free Street Theater and cofounder of Teatro Luna—both of which are featured in the book. In this regard, they write as scholars and practitioners of devised theater but also as colleague-critics within the expansive but close-knit network of the Chicago theater community. (Colleague-criticism is a term developed by Paul Bonin-Rodriguez, Jill Dolan and me to describe the queer and feminist practice of writing criticism from a place of love, respect and mutual aid, as articulated in Liminalities: A Journal of Performance Studies in 2009.)

As Ensemble-Made Chicago’s introduction makes clear, Chicago theater has deep roots in ensemble-based creation methods, and, in turn, the field of devising writ large has a great debt to pay in this neighborhood-based, immigrant-rich town that propagated the craft of ensemble-based theater and performance. Johnson and Paz Brownrigg effectively detail how this history can be traced to the late 19th century emergence of the field of modern social work in the city of Chicago—which was made possible, in large part, through the establishment of the Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr Hull House on Chicago’s West Side in 1889. The Hull House was an early settlement house focused on direct services for new Americans; as the authors duly note, “very early on, Jane Addams discovered the profound effect theater had on the children who attended” (xii). The Hull House Players, as they came to be known, were part of the contemporaneously burgeoning Little Theatre Movement in the U.S. (1912-1925) which distinguished itself by its break from commercial theatre and its focus on theatre as civic good. Guided by the pivotal contributions of sociologist Neva Boyd and social worker Viola Spolin—who brought their respective skills and interests in theatre as a catalyst for play, collaboration, and issue-driven exploration to the Hull House—the authors demonstrate how the Hull House paved the way for this contemporary community of devised theatre makers to thrive.

Through both its introduction as well as its body chapters, Ensemble-Made also makes a compelling case for considering devised theatre’s relationship not only to social work and arts education, as previously noted, but also to the history and methods of physical theatre. Although not always explicitly cited, many of the games and exercises featured in the book bear obvious ties not only to the pedagogy of Boyd and Spolin (and Spolin’s son, Paul Sills, who founded Second City), but also to the pedagogy of 20th century French theatre maker and educator Jacques Lecoq who developed a codified system of actor training grounded in embodiment. Featured companies, such as 500 Clown, Albany Park Theater Project, Every house has a door, and Walkabout Theater, among others, draw from physical theatre games and exercises in their creation process, resulting in work that resembles experimental performance as much as it does community-based theater. What also becomes clear, as the reader moves their way through the book, is the fact that the Chicago devised theater community is hardly confined by its midwestern geography. Dell’ Arte International (Blue Lake, CA), Third Rail Projects (Brooklyn, NY), Double Edge Theatre (Ashfield, MA), Sojourn Theatre (Portland, OR), and Pilobolus Dance (Hanover, NH and Washington, CT) all receive honorable mentions in descriptions of exercises. In other words, the artists who comprise Johnson and Paz Brownrigg’s case studies cite not only one another but also those companies from around the country (and world) whose creation methods have circulated through a vast and interlocking network of theater educators and practitioners. In this regard, Ensemble-Made tacitly provides a compelling genealogy of contemporary performance traditions, making evident the ways in which “something as simple as a warm-up has a history” (xi), and revealing the complex ways in which embodied practices circulate across changing times, places and social contexts.

While Ensemble-Made’s explicit focus is more practice than theory, the authors productively place their book in conversation with the field of performance studies—specifically, Diana Taylor’s foundational The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (2003). Taylor’s work is useful to Johnson and Paz Brownrigg’s project because it provides them with a key rationale: citing Taylor, Johnson and Paz Brownrigg situate ensemble-based performance as a “repertoire event.” They elaborate, “it lives in performance and process, not necessarily in text” (xi). Because the creation process for devised theater breaks from traditional theater methods in which “the script” precedes the rehearsal process (and, relatedly, often from clearly delineated roles such as “playwright,” “director,” “performer,” and “audience”), both the devised theater event as well as the process of making the event do not always leave a clear archive for the historian to later interpret. As the authors succinctly put it, “all of [the companies under consideration] have developed a way of creating performance that is predicated on collective, rather than individual, agency. Their work starts in a room, rather than on a page, building a show bit by bit, together” (x). As such, Ensemble-Made Chicago is all the more indispensable: like the field of devising itself, it privileges process over product, while also serving as an accessible guidebook for the history, methods and practices of devised theater—making it a volume to be used in the present and future of the field.

Jaclyn I. Pryor
Pennsylvania State University 

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 33, Number 1 (Fall 2020)
ISNN 2376-4236
©2020 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center