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Observations on the Directing & Ensemble Creation Institute Pilot Convening by Ed Bourgeois

Observations on the Directing & Ensemble Creation Institute

Pilot Convening

December 1-8, 2012 – Minneapolis, MN

By Ed Bourgeois

As an Alaska-based theatre director working primarily in the context of a Native cultural center, I was honored to receive an invitation to attend the pilot intensive of the newly created Directing and Ensemble Creation Institute, held December 1-8, 2012 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  Coming from a background of Western theater – with training in the classics at Catholic University, and stage directing experience in the operatic and standard theatrical repertoire – I came to the Pilot Institute with no real experience in ensemble or devised theater process.

It was immediately apparent to me that the majority of invited participants in the room were well versed in the process and practices of this form.  Indeed, many were respected leaders in the field:  former leaders and faculty at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst’s New WORLD Theater, veteran performers in the National Performance Network, and founders of ensemble companies with decades of continuous practice.  In the midst of these luminaries, I felt like a college freshman among alumni and professors.

These are my observations regarding the convening, from the perspective of a novice in this environment.

I was welcomed with open arms.  In this substratum of the theatre world, specific to ensembles and devised work, and despite that I was a newcomer in a world of peers, I was warmly welcomed as a colleague.  This group of professional practitioners gladly gave themselves over to a democratic environment of equality, where everyone – regardless of artistic pedigree or source of theatrical training – generously shared their own skills and experience, and humbly opened themselves to new learning.

There was a staggering amount of activity packed into this eight-day intensive, but kudos to the organizers for creating a most efficient schedule and adhering to it.  Panel discussions and hands-on skill development workshops were mixed with exercises, experimentation and play in such a way that participants were challenged but never over-taxed, with just enough time set aside for meals, rest and socialization.  Convening organizers and staff had every detail well thought-out, and moderated activities so that the group stayed on track and completed objectives each day, and throughout the week.

Noteworthy elements included:  beginning the week with the development of collective Agreements, or consensual standards for operating respectfully as a group; daily morning warm-ups, including Viewpoints training; moments of silence to begin sessions; an altar of sacred objects; guest speakers and discussion panels; development sessions for a proposed Institute curriculum; emphasis on incorporating a focus on social justice into process and creating a respectful, safe working space; and a generous sharing of process and practice by all participants.

Beyond its design, structure and content, what truly set this intensive apart from other convenings, for me, was its soul.  It is clear that a guiding principal for the Institute is its firm grounding in values.  Beginning with the development of the shared Agreements, every decision by workshop leaders and every step of the Pilot process incorporated a focus on diversity, respect, and a commitment to ensuring that all voices were heard.  This bodes well for future participants, who will not only gain theatrical skills, but also the tools needed for incorporating social justice concepts in their directing practices.

Another example of the intentionality that characterizes the Institute is the insistence by hosts Dipankar Mukherjee and Meena Natarajan, Artistic and Executive/Literary Directors of Pangea World Theater, that the indigenous North American voice be honored and incorporated in the Institute, and their invitation of Native American theatre artists, and those who work with them, to participate.  From the initial welcome by Ojibwa community leader and theater artist, Sharon Day and smudging of the space with sage smoke, to the inclusion of an Indigenous Artists panel and elements important to Native participants, such as prayer, music, and conducting work in a circle, Pilot Institute leaders made a bold statement regarding diversity with their intentional inclusion and deference to indigenous voice, practice and values.  As a theater director of French/Haudenosaunee (Mohawk) lineage, who works with Alaska Native artists, I appreciate and was encouraged that this reaching out occurred.

During the Intensive, workshop leaders did not simply demonstrate their process, or “set it on” a company of performers.  Rather, the entire group of directors engaged as an ensemble, participating in the exercises and actively creating work through the process. By the end of a week, more than two hours of material had been developed through writing and improvisation.  In the spirit not of performing, but of demonstrating the process to Minneapolis practitioners, an invited audience of local peers took part in a sharing of work on the final evening of the convening.  In a glorious destruction of “the fourth wall,” members of the audience participated in nearly every presentation, and the house was empty for the culminating piece, which incorporated the entire audience.

But this was not the Intensive’s only magical moment.  Other memorable highlights included:  having Institute organizers push the boundaries of what it means to include everyone; story circles, in which participants’ sharing of their cultures and personal family stories brought a deeper understanding to peers who thought they knew each other before, but perhaps really didn’t; and a focus on “song, story and food – the three critical keys to working with community,” according to Linda Parris-Bailey, director of Tennessee-based The Carpetbag Theater Inc.

And there are some quotes from that magical week that will stick with me, too:

Dipankar Mukherjee on aesthetics:  “The text is a boat on the surface of the water; process is everything underneath, down to the ocean floor.”

Marty Pottenger (Art at Work/Terra Moto) on community engagement:  “Community members that we do this kind of work with never want to be in the show.  Invite them instead to come to the workshop.  Chances are they’ll want to perform their own story in the end.”

But I believe the most valuable information I’ll bring back to my community and try to put into practice is how to begin incorporating the process of true ensemble work. Until now, whenever I’ve gone into rehearsal process, I’ve sat the cast down at a table for a read-through of the script. But what I’ve learned here completely throws that Western text-based interpretive structure out the window. The process that began to be codified during this intensive looks at the creative process in a completely different way – which is beginning with the group itself and mining what each artist contributes to that sacred space that will be home to the rehearsal process, and ultimately develops into the performance itself. Beginning not with words on the page, but with intense physical warm-ups, group process, and interactive activities that form bonds of trust and create a safe place for exploration.

With Institute founders Dipankar Mukherjee and Meena Natarajan of Pangea World Theater and Andrea Assaf of Art2Action Inc. at the helm, a powerful training ground is being prepared, which promises future participants a wealth of practical tools for directing ensembles, but also for making positive change in our world.  It has been an honor to add my voice to the process, and I look forward to news of its further development.

Respectfully submitted,

Ed Bourgeois

Ed Bourgeois performing the Raven Stories at the Pilot Institute (photo by Luminous Concepts, at Intermedia Arts, 2012)

Ed Bourgeois performing the Raven Stories at the Pilot Institute (photo by Luminous Concepts, at Intermedia Arts, 2012)


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Reflections on the 2012 Pilot Institute for Directing & Ensemble Creation by Sharon Bridgforth

2012  Pilot Institute for Directing & Ensemble Creation*


by Sharon Bridgforth


I was thrilled to receive an invitation to participate in the 2012 pilot intensive of the National Institute for Directing & Ensemble Creation.  Due to a prior engagement I wasn’t able to be present for the full week of work so Andrea Assaf, on behalf of Art2Action & Pangea World Theater, asked me to join the pilot Institute for two days of the process. My contribution would be to facilitate a public work-sharing and discussion with an invited audience, and to facilitate a closed debriefing with Institute participants on the final day of the Institute. I am a long time fan of Pangea, and have wanted to work with Andrea for ages. So this was an easy yes for me. The roster of participants revealed an exquisite list of artists. I felt nervous. Excited. Blessed by this invitation. The fact that the group was going to be engaged in an intense process for five full days before my arrival was scary, but I trusted Andrea, Meena and Dipankar’s faith in me. After officially agreeing to join up, my mind swirled in anticipation. How does one find footing in a circle that is already in motion? What can a facilitator do to establish trust, create safety, be most useful in a short period of time? How could I plan work that would be in harmony with the intentions set during a process that I wasn’t a part of? How does one effectively join a group that is already established? I was absolutely intrigued. I knew the challenge would offer me a tasty time of growth. I knew that working with the Institute participants would require I stand tall in my grown people shoes.

Each step closer to entering the room affirmed my experience of knowing that work with the Institute was a Divine Opportunity for me. I could tell that participants were invited, not only because they were brilliant artists, but because they were hard working, respectful, professional, community loving, generous, spirit driven collaborators. The organizers took great care and consideration with each detail along the way. Communication was clear and forthcoming. Upon arrival I found that the lodging was beautiful and convenient. Ground transportation was available. There was wonderful, healthy, delicious food everywhere, all the time. Questions and concerns were welcomed. And I received my check in my hand upon arrival. Great ingredients for making optimal productivity possible, and fun.

The National Institute for Directing & Ensemble Creation was envisioned in response to the dearth of professional opportunities for directors in the U.S., particularly directors of color and women, and to the lack of in-depth ensemble training in various forms for future aesthetics. During the Institute, attention was given not only to the wealth of experience in the room, but to the vast expertise amongst surrounding communities of local and national folk.  Institute organizers worked diligently to activate its goal of creating collaboratively generated material. To open and link the circle. To actively share the work with broader communities. Indigenous, and global traditions were not only embodied in the room, they were valued as models, tools, resources to the circle. This was critical as participants worked to re-imagine theater with no separation of aesthetics and social justice. After all, as Audre Lorde said, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.”**

Stepping into the Institute workspace, I immediately felt Lifted. The room was electric. The evidence of deep connection vibrated in the space. Workshop notes layered the walls. There was lots of laughter. Theatre games. Small groups sprawled about deeply engrossed in brainstorming. Some were totally quiet, in contemplation. It was church. Holy, like gumbo. Like Love in action. In this room, filled with heavy hitters, long time artist/leaders/activists. People who have earned national reputations for excellent work. For service. In this room, everyone knew that the work was not about them. That the promise of a greater good was at hand. There was an absence of ego. A kind of generosity and playfulness that felt warm and assuring. Their integrity and soulfulness gave space for me to step in/to step up. For days before my arrival I meditated on a series of questions, ultimately praying to be of use to the greatest good at hand. Standing there breathing in the room, the road map to my quest became clear. Be present. Listen.

Follow their lead.

Circles and circles and circles. Deep breath in. Release. Silence. Open. Connect.

Extend. Honor indigenous voices. Re-imagine our new now. Respect all that Is. Sing

Linda’s song: “What is my work? What do I do? How can I serve, your purpose too?”

Deep breath in.



Sharon Bridgforth at the Pilot Institute (photo by Luminous Concepts, at Intermedia Arts, 2012.)

Sharon Bridgforth at the Pilot Institute (photo by Luminous Concepts, 2012.)

*The National Institute for Directing & Ensemble Creation is a Pangea World Theater & Art2Action collaboration, in partnership with Alternate ROOTS, CAATA, NALAC, NPN, NEFA and NET (supported, in part, by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Nathan Cummings Foundation, McKnight Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts).

**“Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference” by Audre Lorde. Paper delivered at the Copeland Colloquium, Amerst College, April 1980. Reproduced in: Sister Outsider Crossing Press, California 1984


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Art2Action partners with The Carpetbag Theatre on Creative Arts Reintegration in Tampa, FL

In October 2013, Art2Action partnered with The Carpetbag Theatre to co-present Linda Parris-Bailey’s newest play, Speed Killed My Cousin,in a week-long residency, in collaboration with the University of South Florida Department of Theatre (Faculty sponsor: Fanni Green) in Tampa.  “SPEED” is the story of an African American woman soldier who returns from Iraq with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD),  and battles the impulse to commit suicide as she wrestles with Moral Injury.  The residency included Story Circles and Digital Storytelling workshops with Veterans, USF class visits, community Open Mics, and an Open Rehearsal of the play.  Supported by the Alternate ROOTS Community/Artists Partnership Program (CAPP), partners included the Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Recovery Center (PRRC) of the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital, Sacred Grounds Coffee House, and Mason/Rhynes Productions. 

Here is a list of ARTICLES about The Carpetbag Theatre and our on-going, collaborative work in Tampa, with military veterans and CBT’s developing model of “Creative Arts Reintegration”:

USF Overview of the Residency Week

Speed the CAR: Creative Arts Reintegration by Andrea Assaf & Linda Parris-Bailey

Moral Injury Killed My Cousin by VA Suicide Prevention Team Leader, Lynne Santiago

Opening New Doors: Reflections on Art & Recovery by Veteran Peer Leader, Cheldyn Donovan

Spotlighting VETS in Tampa with Andrea Assaf on Wise Woman Media (August 16, 2013).  Interview begins at 10:18.

True American Struggle Has Many Faces:  Carpetbag Theatre & Art2Action’s USF Residency Wrap Up by Carmin Williams

National Video Conference on Arts & Health in the Military, hosted by Americans for the Arts, featuring Art2Action community partner, Rachel Brink, Chief of the VA-PRRC in Tampa. This is an excellent 1-hour discussion of the role of the arts in recovery and reintegration. To hear Rachel speak about our partnerships (Art2Action, The Carpetbag Theatre, USF and the VA-PRRC), check out 21-27:00, and 50:16-52:08 @ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xNwkHj3Ch18


A Carpetbag Theatre Inc. production

By Linda Parris-Bailey

Directed by Andrea Assaf

Media Design by Melody Reeves

Original Music by Kelle Jolly, John Puckett, and Bert Tanner

Performed by the Carpetbag Theatre ensemble, featuring:  Ashley Wilkerson, Bert Tanner, Linda Parris-Bailey, Carlton “Starr” Releford & Will Dorsey

Speed Killed My Cousin is a timely, moving new play about an African American woman soldier who returns from Iraq with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and is haunted by Moral Injury.  The story unfolds as Debra, the main character, drives down the Long Island Expressway (L.I.E.) in New York.  As she struggles with flashbacks and memories, she tries to talk with her father about his experiences in the Vietnam war, and is visited by his cousin — a Vietnam veteran who died mysteriously in a car crash shortly after his return. She also remembers her mother, and the women she left behind in Iraq, some of whom did not survive. Memories and flashbacks unfold before her, and in her rear-view mirror, as she drives. Ultimately she must decide whether to let go of the wheel, or to choose life.

Speed Killed My Cousin is a Carpetbag Theatre production, supported in part by the NPN Creation Fund, co-commissioned by the National Performance Network, Carpetbag Theatre, Junebug Productions, and Mason-Rhynes Productions; and the Alternate ROOTS Community/Artist Partnership Program.

The Carpetbag Theatre, Inc. (CBT), founded in 1969 and chartered in 1970, is a professional, multigenerational ensemble company dedicated to the production of new works. Their mission is to give artistic voice to the issues and dreams of people who have been silenced by racism, classism, sexism, ageism, homophobia and other forms of oppression. CBT serves communities by returning their stories to them with honesty, dignity, and concern for the aesthetic of that particular community, helping culturally specific communities to re-define how they organize.  The company works in partnership with other community artists, activists, cultural workers, storytellers, leaders and people who are simply concerned, creating original works through collaboration in a style based in storytelling and song.  www.carpetbagtheatre.org

Want more?  Check out The Carpetbag Theatre’s music set on the WDBX Blue Plate Special (2012)

“LIKE”  Speed Killed My Cousin – A play by The Carpetbag Theatre Inc. on Facebook!

SEE “Speed Killed My Cousin” in New Orleans, presented by Junebug Productions, at the Ashe Cultural Center, Nov 21-24, 2013.