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Core Value - Ensemble Structure

Thursday, August 20, 2009 Leave a Comment

One of the Core Values being discussed at our 4th Annual Retreat at Little Pond is Ensemble Structure. This value is currently given this rough phrasing:

"Flux values a collaborative decision making process that respects the voices of all Ensemble members involved."

In practice, Flux votes on the plays and directors of the season. Occasionally we open up other decisions to the Ensemble as a whole, and try to solicit Ensemble feedback during the process (I have many pages of notes from our last Lesser Seductions workshop to work through).

But collaborative decision-making can quickly become cumbersome, and it's impossible to keep all Members equally informed on the factors involved in a particular decision.

Additionally, in a culture that values the efficiency of the corporation, models and best practices of non-hierarchical structures are hard to find. It was partly to address this need that the Network of Ensemble Theaters was formed.

However, reading through John Laurence's excellent The Cat From Hue (researching the Vietnam War for Lesser Seductions), I was struck by this quote:

"In the bubble of unreality that surrounded the daily war news, the farther away you were from the front lines, the less you knew what was actually going on. Men like Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara and William Westmoreland, who were the farthest from the front and consequently knew least about the reality of the war, were the very ones who were planning the strategy to fight it."
It's dangerous to extrapolate from the tragedy of war, but taking into account the difference in the scale of loss, the warning is the same. Truth is diluted with each turn it takes in a bureaucracy, and struggles most swimming upstream. In a hierarchical organizational structure, those with the first hand experience of a crisis are often the furthest from those finding a solution.

The box office staff hears all the angry complaints over a choice senior management made; but by the time the complaints reach senior management, they've been diluted by the desire to sugar over the bad news. Each rung on the ladder adds a little more sugar, so that like a game of telephone, the original message bears little resemblance to its final incarnation.

The tech crew knows what is possible in the changeover, but their feedback doesn't reach the designer; the actor knows the moment isn't working, but isn't given access to the playwright; the volunteer knows the audience leaves grumbling, but the Artistic Director only reads the big review.

Whatever the flaws of artist-produced theatre and ensemble structure, the front line truth is much less diluted. The artist-producer feels the consequences of their choices first-hand. It may be that the value of that front-line experience is worth the cost of consensus-building, multi-tasking and knowledge-sharing. Either way, articulating that balance is a big part of our conversation at this upcoming retreat.

What is your experience of this tension between the differing strengths and challenges of hierarchical versus collaborative structures? Is it possible to find the best of both worlds? Any thoughts you can post will be greatly appreciated.