What is it that makes great theatre? Some would say it is a perfect combination of text, acting and technical feats. So if one or more of these pieces is missing, can theatre be great? What is it that makes a show engaging and insightful?
Ann Arbor’s The Brass Tacks Ensemble, founded in 1999, has been producing shows – once a year for the most part – with the mission of stripping away everything that is unnecessary to telling the story. A core group of actors, writers, directors and logistical types gather to put on a play. It’s as simple as that. Financial limitations are a reality, sure, but the group is a concrete example of theatre at its core, its heart. Gone are the distractions of “the perfect space,” “ideal lighting,” “realistic settings” and in their place is storytelling. More succinctly, “The Brass Tacks Ensemble is a pre-professional theater group that produces plays with a focus on the relationship between actor, text, and audience” (their words – I can’t take credit for that one!).
Historically the group has produced a healthy mixture of classical plays (Shakespeare, Chekhov, Calderón de la Barca) and original works (We Broadcast this Interruption, written by James Ingagiola, and A Park, a Policeman, and a Pretty Girl, a show consisting of sketches/variations on that theme, written individually by Executive Director Isaac Ellis, Anne S. Rhoades, Rob Sulewski, and Elif Wisecup) with that core group at the center. It wasn’t even until recently that they held auditions; this was a group of artists who put on a one-time show and found that they had the people and the drive to keep doing it. In the past two years or so, the Ensemble has expanded to utilize talents of the original core members and community members who share the same vision. In fact, in 2014, they produced two plays with plans to continue expansion at a slow-but-steady (or, some would say, sustainable) pace.
The ultimate mission is to have a true ensemble with a home (currently they must cobble together rehearsal space, relying on the in-kind generosity of friends, and rent performance space for the shows – traditionally they have performed at the Kerrytown Concert House but more recent shows have expanded to additional locations), a full season and a non-profit operation. As many Michigan artists have seen, this is a challenge. Ann Arbor is still reeling from major changes at the Performance Network, and theatre in Michigan is facing an existential crisis, to be dramatic, in losing the Magenta Giraffe Theatre in 2015 as well as seeing META (Michigan Equity Theatre Alliance) suddenly and shockingly close its doors.
So the founders are smart. They have had fifteen years to really hone the mission, to see what works and what doesn’t, and to mine the area for talented artists who have the same passion for connecting with audiences on a deep intellectual and emotional level. The Brass Tacks Ensemble was formed when James Ingagiola, a local actor and writer and current Artistic Director of the Ensemble, gathered with a few other theatre lovers (Rob Sulewski and Anne S. Rhoades) to produce King Lear at the Performance Network’s now-defunct TreeTown Festival. As it stands right now, there isn’t a specific title for each member other than for Ellis and Ingagiola; they are working on harnessing the strengths of their members to fulfill all of the needs of the Ensemble from moment to moment, and to develop those strengths.
After this summer’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream closes, the group will focus on checking things off of its considerable to-do list. Isaac Ellis, who has been handling most of the administrative necessities (as well as writing, acting and directing), has a long list of goals with specific deadlines. At this time the group is trying to recruit new members and collaborators, solidify the artistic goals/purposes of the organization, increase marketing to create awareness in the area, and expand the season.
Having already doubled the length of their season (two shows in 2014), Ellis and Ingagiola are seeking new company members (currently the company comprises Sulewski, Rhodes, Ellis, Ingagiola, Amanda Barnett and Rachel Robbins Toon) and contributors. They invited the public to attend an informal meeting at Zingerman’s Deli in May to get the word out about what they are trying to accomplish and to see what kind of interest exists in the community. They would really like to create both Patron (financially supportive) and Artistic memberships to have a consistent funding stream and group of like-minded people who can really function in the ensemble mindset.
As is the story with many arts-based organizations, it is a major challenge to create and expand a group such as this when the members have full-time jobs, families, and other commitments that also demand time. Per Ingagiola, “Now that we are more actively trying to push the BTE forward into new territory, we are finding that the time commitment, more than anything else, is very daunting. We have to get to a point where this is our full-time job, so that we can give it the attention we feel it deserves. And I do believe that there is an audience out there for our work–I don’t think we’ve ever had negative feedback for any of our productions–but finding one space to call home will give that audience an opportunity to find us.”
As a first-time participant in a Brass Tacks show, I’ve found that they do stick to their principles while the work is going on. Ellis says, “…I love watching an actor as they realize that they are being asked to do something they have never really been asked to do before, or they are being pushed into an area of acting and theater that they never realized they could use. …I love hearing from audiences when they realize… that the way we do theater is affecting them in a way they never realized. I will always remember being stopped by a woman after Antony and Cleopatra. We all played multiple characters and did the gigantic show with costume changes right in front of the audience. This woman stopped me in mid-conversation with my parents after the show, and, with a big smile, said, “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I just have to say…I understood all of that.” And she was so happy, and I could see that she expected to be mired down in the language and massive story, yet we presented it in a way that allowed her to come along with the story and understand everything that happened. This is what I really love.”
Frequently theatre groups that “usually” produce “full productions” will perform a show on a bare stage as some sort of statement, or purely due to financial limitations. The Brass Tacks Ensemble is committed to the aesthetic of connecting with the audience, not distracting them. Technical aspects are minimal and allow the audience to use their imaginations to bring those pieces of the story to life. They may see actors changing costumes, light bulbs attached to extension cords… as Ellis says, “no dragon we could put on stage could ever be better than the one the audience is imagining.”
This isn’t revolutionary–quite the contrary: It’s going back to what theater used to be. Bare stages, minimal costumes, very little in the way of technical wizardry. – James Ingagiola
The Ensemble excites people who are involved. They do quality work. If real life allows for it, they have a chance at thriving in this state.