by Lorie Lewis Ham
The New Ensemble is a new theatre company in Fresno that wants to provide, on a regular basis, thoughtful, powerful works of theatre for this community– works of literary and theatrical merit based in ideas and immediacy of emotion. It was officially formed in December of 2010. However, the members of the company have been involved in theatre for many years and have been working together informally as a group (under Madwoman’s Attic Ensemble) since February 2010.
According to Heather Parish, the producer of the company and one of its founding members, the reason they decided to start their own company was that as artists they believe that you cannot wait around for someone else to offer you the opportunity to do the type of work you really want to do. “It happens sometimes, but other times you’ll wait around forever. So you have to create it yourself. We began producing the type of small, serious shows we wanted to work on and discovered that there is an audience for that work.”
As the executive of the group, Heather works closely with the advice and wishes of the Ensemble’s core members. “I depend upon the two other founding members for the most intimate criticism, while the other core members of the Ensemble are an advisory board with suggestions for the future of the Ensemble.”
Jaquar Bennett (currently acting in The Pillowman) is one of those core members who has worked with Heather on many occasions, including the Woodward Shakespeare Festival. He is not only an actor with the company, but also helps with graphic design and marketing. “Heather is the best director I’ve ever worked with and one of the best directors working in Fresno. When I saw the kind of plays that Heather had selected for The New Ensemble’s first season, I knew I wanted to be a part of it…I believe theater should challenge the audience and ask us to think more deeply about important issues. I’m not interested in light entertainment — I’m interested in entertainment that unsettles your prejudices and opinions.”
As an example of the amount of theatrical experience in this group, Jaguar has been working in Fresno theatre for nearly 20 years–acting, writing, producing and directing. For several years he was also the publicity director of Fresno’s Rogue Performance Festival.
Brooke Aiello is another founding member who is finishing up her MFA in Acting from the University of Southern Mississippi, so isn’t as involved at the moment, but is excited about the future of this company. “Heather and I have been friends and collaborators for years now. We are “sisters of the soul” and have a similar view that Art and Expression belong in every community regardless of size and economics.“We do work that might not find its way onto the stages of educational and more commercial endeavors. Works like God of Carnage, Pillowman, and Turn of the Screw. There is a place for work like this in the Valley and we are filling this niche.”
The Ensemble’s 2011 season is made up of five plays all written within the last ten years; very contemporary and highly acclaimed plays. While other companies have done similar works, they don’t tend to do it on a regular basis. “We’ve planned a full season, and an ambitious one at that,” said Heather. “It will likely be a minor miracle for us to complete our season, but we’re going to do everything we can to do so.. . . and follow it up with a second season! As a group, we’ve made that commitment.”
Unlike some more long-established companies, Ensemble isn’t dependent upon the tastes of season ticket holders to dictate their choices. “We produce, market and sell for the single-ticket buyer and we budget on a shoestring. This helps us take greater risks with the type of plays we choose and then specifically market the show to an audience looking for a riskier, more substantive play. It is a different theatrical-business model and there’s a place for both in Fresno.”
Another goal of the Ensemble is to help each member of the company grow. “We work to collaborate as artists willing to push and question each other in our technique, to refine and establish our theatrical methods, and to draw out new and exciting abilities in each other,” said Heather.
Their entire approach to theatre is an ensemble approach, continued Heather. “As the director, I lay the track but the actors have to work together to get the train together, coal in the furnace and steam in the engine to make it all go in the same direction. Directors build “scaffolding” to help actors to build a performance rooted in their own voices. We encourage them to make decisions, test them, and solidify them as a team.
“And we do it FAST. There isn’t a lot of time for self-indulgence or ego in our approach. We rehearse intensely for a very limited time and then put it out there for an audience. It really begins to clarify the work for an actor to have to focus, create, make decisions and move on quickly– it takes a lot of the “mystique” of the acting process out of it for them. As a result, audiences see the most instinctive and unvarnished performances possible with our plays, which makes them very emotional.”
Until they have a home of their own Heather stated that they will be a guest company in venues around Fresno, though currently they are primarily performing at the Broken Leg Stage in the Tower. “Theatre of all types is important for the health of a community. Theatre is about asking questions as much as it is about an entertaining story.Consider seeing a few plays outside of your usual theatre groups– you never know what will move you and most of the time small companies have very affordable ticket prices (Usually well under $20, my shows are $10-$15 depending upon the production.). So take a chance!”
Their current production, The Pillowman closes this weekend. Watch KRL’s theatre listings page for updates on their next show, or visit them on their website for a list of the entire season.
You can also find them on Facebook & Twitter.