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New Visions In Artistic Direction

Bret Love • Artistic Direction • May 1, 2008

How two bold theatres are trying to reinvent the A.D. wheel

The history and evolution of theatre can be traced back more than 2,500 years, yet the role of artistic director doesn’t seem to have changed much since the days of Aeschylus.

In general, the A.D. has a range of responsibilities that may include choosing the theatre’s production slate, hiring creative/production personnel, directing productions, serving as a resource for the theatre’s other directors, speaking to the media and, in many cases, raising funds to support the theatre. In short, the artistic director is more often than not the primary face, voice and creative conscience with which the theatre is associated.

Shedding Light on the Neo-Futurists
But many theatrical companies have found that the singular vision A.D. model doesn’t work for them, instead turning to more democratic systems that share the balance of power among several artistic directors, or in some cases, a whole ensemble. One such organization is Chicago’s Neo-Futurists, the hip creative collective founded by Greg Allen back in 1988 that’s best known for its 30-plays-in-60-minutes show, Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind (and for famous alumnus Stephen Colbert).

"When I created the company,” recalls Allen, “I based it on my cooperative living experiences at Oberlin. Rather than setting up a traditional hierarchy, I established a company run completely on consensus voting, where no one had any more power than anyone else. I felt this was by far the most ethical way to run a company and the best way to buck Uncle Sam’s capitalist system and create art. Everyone would be that much more invested as equal partners.”

Even now, 20 years later, neither Allen or Artistic Director Jay Torrence (both of whom receive a part-time salary) have any greater power over the rest of the ensemble, with all decisions regarding the theatre’s productions, tours, gigs and policy made by consensus.

“We have a nurturing, challenging environment where each writer/director/performer from the ensemble in that week’s cast gives and receives critical feedback throughout rehearsals and after every performance,” says Torrence. “We spend a lot of time talking as a group about the art we’re making. We experiment, we tweak, we challenge one another. It keeps the work alive and ever-changing, and our approach is full of chaos and personal voice, passion and individual advocacy.”

Of course, as with all experiments, the Neo-Futurists’ democratic trial-and-error hasn’t been without its fair share of challenges. Allen and Torrence confess that their collective has confronted obstacles ranging from the facts that reaching a consensus decision takes forever and endless meetings require everyone to be respectful and mature in the midst of highly emotional discussions (a tall order in any group dynamic) to the simple realities that sometimes creative artists don’t think with a business mind, and when everyone has power it’s difficult to know who can steer the ship when inevitable storms come along.

“The consensus approach theoretically lets everyone be equal,” admits Allen, “but the actuality is that often the people who speak loudest and have the most stamina to keep discussing are the ones who rule the roost. I admit that I’m often one of those loud speakers and, since I have been around for 20 years, it takes great effort for me to give equal weight to the opinion of someone who has been with us for six months. But I try.”

 Still, both Allen and Torrence insist that the payoff is worth the effort, resulting in distinctive productions like Too Much Light that truly set the Neo-Futurists apart. “No one person can dictate something not going into the show,” says Torrence, which “allows for a broad range of style, voice and risk-taking in our art. We are allowed to experiment, and we embrace noble failures on our stage. We keep a high regard and respect for the quality of our art. We each feel it is our name and our theatre, and the individual is closely linked to the identity of the artistic product we make. This ownership comes with a high price and commitment, but also reaps a generous personal reward.”

Collaborating In Out of Hand
That personal reward seems to be equally generous for the ensemble of Atlanta’s Out of Hand Theatre, which aims to alter the way people experience live theatre via engaging, interactive productions such as the self-help movement parody of HELP! and the drug culture critique of MEDS. Named “[one of] a dozen young American companies you need to know” by a prominent theatre magazine, this offbeat ensemble operates with a three-A.D. structure, with founding members Maia Knispel, Ariel de Man and Adam Fristoe sharing responsibilities equally.

“Out of Hand is a collaborative ensemble,” says Knispel, “and we believe that our best art is created collectively. So we have three artistic directors that all have equal say in the artistic decisions of the company. We feed off of and build on each other’s artistic ideas, and rely on each other to further our own creativity.”

Fristoe explains their creative approach in a more esoteric fashion, describing Out of Hand’s collaborative ensemble as a reflection of what people love about theatre in the first place. “I believe the primary element of theatre that excites audiences is the way performers offer an alternative way for people to interact with each other. Actors function as a cohesive group working towards a common goal. They really listen to each other, move together and form a true community. The three of us bring different perspectives on the art form and when we marry those perspectives, we challenge ourselves, our company and our audience to grow in ways that we as individuals wouldn’t imagine.”

They acknowledge similar challenges to those facing the Neo-Futurists, but insist that the benefits of their approach far outweigh the drawbacks. “In many ways the challenges are also the blessings,” Knispel insists. “The three of us have many different ideas and opinions, and distilling all of that to only the finest gems is very hard and time consuming… but so totally worth it! We disagree, we argue, maybe we fight, but that’s all part of what makes it so awesome. All those things create the path that leads us to the best product. We know that we share the same artistic goals, and the struggles are just signs of our depth of caring about the work, and an inherent part of achieving the goal.”

The goal for Out of Hand is to continue to create original theatrical productions that appeal to everyone from non-theatregoers to traditionalists and theatre scholars, but also to attract the coveted 18–35 set. “We want to keep making the kind of crazy stuff we’re making,” says Knispel. “We want to find better and wilder ways of making it. We want to share our shows with as many people as we possibly can, touring nationally and internationally. We want to introduce multitudes of people to our methods of training and share our work and knowledge as widely as we possibly can.”

Taking It Home
Asked what advice they would give other theatre companies contemplating adopting a more democratic A.D. structure, Allen, Torrence and Knispel all agreed that their unique approaches should be handled with caution. Allen recalls a time in the Neo-Futurists’ history where literally every decision regarding the theatre was decided via consensus, from casting issues to what concessions were offered at the theatre, which ground things to a halt on an organizational level.

“I think our consensus model works great for the art if you’re creating an ensemble-driven, ever-changing, on-going production which is all about self-expression,” Allen admits, “but it is not the best model for the governance of an organization.”

“Don’t do it because you’re trying to be democratic,” Knispel warns. “Do it only if it is the best artistic choice for your company. Be very careful. The key to successful artistic ‘power sharing’— which is a dangerous way to think of it — is knowing that you have the same artistic goals. You must love and respect those with whom you share something this personal and precious.”  

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