Ensemble-Made Chicago: A Guide to Devised Theater

Ensemble-Made Chicago: A Guide to Devised Theater


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Featuring the work of: About Face Youth Theatre • Albany Park Theater Project • Barrel of Monkeys • Every house has a door • FEMelanin • 500 Clown • Free Street Theater • Honey Pot Performance • Lookingglass Theater • The Neo-Futurists • The Second City • Southside Ignoramus Quartet • Teatro Luna • Walkabout Theater • Young Fugitives

Ensemble-Made Chicago brings together a wide range of Chicago theater companies to share strategies for cocreating performance. Cocreated theater breaks down the traditional roles of writer, director, and performer in favor of a more egalitarian approach in which all participants contribute to the creation of original material. Each chapter offers a short history of a Chicago company, followed by detailed exercises that have been developed and used by that company to build ensemble and generate performances. Companies included range in age from two to fifty years, represent different Chicago neighborhoods, and reflect both the storefront tradition and established cultural institutions. The book pays special attention to the ways the fight for social justice has shaped the development of this aesthetic in Chicago.

Assembled from interviews and firsthand observations, Ensemble-Made Chicago is written in a lively and accessible style and will serve as an invaluable guide for students and practitioners alike, as well as an important archive of Chicago’s vibrant ensemble traditions. Readers will find new creative methods to enrich their own practice and push their work in new directions.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780810138780
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 11/15/2018
Series: Second to None: Chicago Stories Series
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 591,172
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

CHLOE JOHNSTON is an assistant professor of theater at Lake Forest College. She performs and workshops with the Paper Machete, Write Club, Second Story, and the Neo-Futurists. 

COYA PAZ BROWNRIGG is an associate professor of theater at DePaul University. She is the artistic director of Free Street Theater and cofounder of Teatro Luna, and is a regular commentator on race, media, and pop culture for Vocalo radio.

Read an Excerpt


500 Clown

Theater sucks, no one likes it, but everyone likes the elements of it.

— Ensemble Member Adrian Danzig

The performers make sounds that aren't quite human. They climb down the stairs, through the audience. Scottish kilts are thrown over their shoulders. Their heads are shaved in a variety of ways, their hair dyed various colors, they wear disheveled white shirts, high socks, biker pants, knee pads. Each has one ear painted bloodred. Not only do they acknowledge us but they also play with us, check in with us. We are part of a game we don't know how to play, but the joy is in realizing they are changing the rules as we go along. Sound effects, made by the actors, let us know they are not simply stepping onto a stage — they are flying. In the world of the clowns, every movement and sound is a new discovery. Plastic bags somehow become violent weapons — before they are used to trick-or-treat. Then, in direct violation of the rules of parents everywhere, the plastic bags are stretched over their heads, and suddenly they are the three witches of. "When shall we three meet again?" Unlike those witches, who seem to be the arbiters of fate, these clowns are responsive, every gesture and laugh the audience makes pulls them in a new direction. Once music begins, they are pulled into that, it's impossible not to dance. At least 50 percent of the audience is pretty nervous that someone is going to get hurt. In any other show, the scene in which explosive devices are attached to a performer's groin might be the climax of the show. Here it is amazing — but there is more chaos to come. More fragments of the familiar script are tossed around: "Fie, my lord," "Who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?" At the mention of blood, the clowns can't help but use it — at first, each smudge a wound, by the end blood is the air they breathe. There is something poignant about seeing these three beings we have come to know, drenched in blood, their sadness a meditation of the absurdity of violence. But still, we laugh. According to Paul Kalina, one of the performers onstage, we are watching "the clowns' attempt to do, but they can't do it, and in not doing it, they do it." The set collapses. Everyone survives.

The anarchic energy of clowns challenges what we think we know about performers on a stage. They are neither acting, nor being themselves. Though the aesthetic could be considered a kind of physical theater, there's a particular philosophy, an ethos of honesty and discovery, and an embrace of risk that shows like 500 Clown Macbeth showcase that seem to cut to the heart of the live performance experience. 500 Clown was formed in 2000 when performers Adrian Danzig, Paul Kalina, and David Engel, directors Leslie Buxbaum Danzig and Jon Foley-Sherman, and set designer Dan Reilly created 500 Clown Macbeth. The show premiered in a bowling alley turned arts space on Chicago's North Side. According to Buxbaum Danzig, "Six people attended opening night ... Three weeks later — after no advertising but plenty of word of mouth — over one hundred people filed into the space." The Chicago Reader described how the characters seemed to be "thrown into a Keaton-esque universe, [where] they must deal with uncooperative props and set pieces, and small dramatic gestures quickly devolve into dangerous stunts." Perhaps unconsciously, the reviewer was responding to something fundamental about the company's performance style; Adrian Danzig describes its clown aesthetic as "Think Buster Keaton, not Bozo."

Performer Molly Brennan was in the audience for that first performance, and when David Engel left the company to pursue other projects, she was asked to join. The artists came from a variety of backgrounds, with training from physical-theater schools around the world, including the Dell'Arte school in California, and with Jacques Lecoq and Philippe Gaulier in France. The artists came together out of a common frustration with the limits of naturalistic, text-based theater and a desire to produce something visceral and exciting for the audience — and maybe a little scary. They wanted to create something with wide appeal, for audiences of different tastes and backgrounds. As Danzig puts it, they were guided by the question, "What if we had an audience that was five to eighty-five years old and spoke every language?"

From the beginning, the company embraced its different influences, in part by declining to talk about them. Rather than articulating a common definition of clown performance, its members performed it. As Buxbaum Danzig writes, "Company members found that verbal debates on clown stymied creative collaboration, but when translated into the physical activity of performing, the different views have led to energetic and complex productions." They soon decided the audience would be their guide — as Danzig wrote, "We just had to listen" — creating a style focused on a broad and visceral appeal. Kalina had spent some years as a street performer, a world in which capturing an audience's attention is paramount, and this background infused the company's work.

Central to the company's appeal was the slight cognitive dissonance between its rowdy, dangerous, and untamed energy and the canonical works to which members were drawn. Their approach to the material revealed to the audience that which was wild and grotesque at the heart of the text. Macbeth is the story of the way uncontrolled ambition leads to endless violence, and each murderer is haunted by ghosts and witches. The characters are at war throughout the play, their bodies and psyches under constant attack, and finally their psyches fall prey to the chaos they've unleashed. In staging this story, the performers pushed themselves to their physical limits and embraced the absurdity of the horror the characters inflict. One reviewer, when describing the transition of 500 Clown Macbeth from the fringe venue of Charybdis to the more mainstream Looking glass Theatre, noted that "Danzig's infamous crotch-lit-with-two-hundred-firecrackers stunt is gone this time — sadly, no pyro allowed at the Looking glass — but it has been replaced with an equally uproarious sight gag involving an exploding hot water bottle. You've got to give props to any guy who continually thinks up new and novel ways to potentially disfigure his groin." For these clowns, the stakes were just as high as for the ruthless Macbeths, and their reckless ambition is shaped by humor as much as violence. Still, the violence of the text never disappeared.

For their next project, 500 Clown took on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the story of a man-made monster that resembles his human makers. The company continued to find ways to startle its audiences with its physical risks. In 500 Clown Frankenstein, members worked closely with their set designer to create a new tool of mayhem: a large transformable table with hidden capabilities that became another metaphor for the monster: "Used for stunning feats of physical comedy by the performers, the table takes on a distinct personality, transforming into a beast with its own hidden dangers." As in Macbeth, the performers used nonverbal means to get at the essence of this dense text. The stories may have focused on bodies at risk, but, unlike in traditional literary adaptations, standing before the audience were real bodies at real risk.

Not long after the company's founding, the ensemble members found there was a demand for them to teach their emerging creative techniques. In 2001, Danzig produced the City of Fools Clown Festival to showcase clown theater across the city. Classes were planned as part of the project's mission to develop Chicago's understanding of the form. Both Danzig and Brennan agree that teaching helped them understand what 500 Clown did, to analyze their own creative process in a way they never had before. As Brennan puts it, "We realized we were doing something really compelling," and this forced the question, "How are we doing this?" Danzig agreed that inherent in their teaching method was a tension between articulating a philosophy and simply living it. "The point of a 500 Clown class is to get people in action before they understand what's happening."

First they needed to figure out how to translate their embrace of risk to a teaching environment. Put another way, how to teach risk and keep your students safe. Brennan recalls asking students to pay attention to how these risks made them feel and be aware that the behavior encouraged in class could lead to unintended consequences in lives outside the classroom. She remembers that in their first class, a participant injured himself and kept right on participating. Although the participant was unfazed by the incident, Brennan became aware that other students were shaken. In that moment, she realized the responsibility she had to the ensemble of the class and started to think strategically about how to build an environment where art can happen and everyone can survive it.

Watching a performance of 500 Clown, especially in the company's early days, felt less like watching an ensemble than watching another species of performer. Brennan described it as a tribe. "We painted our ears red. To be part of the same tribe. To show we weren't quite human. To have a Clown element without the expected red nose. To put emphasis on listening. We painted each other's ears. We were to never paint our own ears. The pre-show ear-painting became a very important part of our ritual." The company's work, though bearing the traces of members' various training, seemed so original, it was difficult to imagine anyone else on that stage. Yet the company collaborated closely with designers and stage managers, who became as versed in the aesthetic as the performers and came to be key players in bringing the shows to life. A stage manager used to working a regular rehearsal schedule with a set script might be thrown by the process, not to mention the challenges of calling cues for a show that changed every night. Over the years, other performers were brought in for specific projects, sometimes replacing the original performers in remounts of the company's most popular shows. By that point, 500 Clown had been teaching and performing in the city for several years, and the impact of its style and training methods was felt throughout the physical-theater community.

By 2014, the members of the company had been pulled in different directions, in terms of both performing and teaching. The company's final project was an exhibit at the Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, The Art of Experience, in which cocurators Rebecca Stevens and Adrian Danzig applied the same philosophy to a museum exhibition as in their clown work, by challenging what is "supposed" to happen in a museum. Museums and theaters have similar problems: aging and insular audiences. They decided to disrupt the museum experience by centering the audience and giving its members agency over how they understood the work. Just as a 500 Clown performance was rooted in the performers' relationship with the audience, The Art of Experience was intended to empower the spectator. The curators asked themselves, "What if we curated in such a way that the audience has a way to notice their own experience?" The experience was playful and highly interactive. Attendees were given playing cards that functioned as invitations to make connections between what they saw and their own lives. The idea was to communicate to the audience that participants should leave behind their ideas about what this art form should be. Like a 500 Clown show, the art experience appealed to something deeper than appreciation. Its creators wanted the audience to think about what kinds of human connection art can facilitate.


500 Clown

Taught by Adrian Danzig

According to cofounder Adrian Danzig, the 500 Clown classes offer a technique built around "risk, action, play, and the audience." To that end, their creators made sure to get students up on their feet and physically involved before they introduced themselves — this illustrated an important concept: we are what we do, not what we say we are. Danzig credits the Chicago theater artists John Musial and Meghan Strell with introducing foursquare to the theatrical community. The company first adopted it as a warm-up during 500 Clown Macbeth. It used it to get bodies and voices activated to create "an arena in which action can happen that no one can plan." It is a game, but it is used to introduce the concepts of action, narrative, and character.

A few aspects of this version of foursquare separate it from the school-yard version. One key is to make the lines of the four squares "unspecific." According to Danzig, "This echoes the clown idea of finding the 'gold' or 'food' in what is broken and wrong — looking at trouble and failure in a playful and generative way." Another surprising element is the prescribed yelling at the players. Thiscreates an uncomfortable moment in the group, bringing them together. "Yelling is a way to raise the energy in the situation — it's a prompt or a provocation. The teacher yells in order to capture the real energy that's released in response to it." The yelling itself might be planned, but it is used to engender a real reaction in the moment. Danzig was also a member of the Neo-Futurists, and that company's interest in nonillusory performance informs this exercise. Unlike artists who want to create art out of life, exercises like this make life itself art. According to Danzig, "The exercise incorporates the realness of the interactions we have ... It should make us more vulnerable and more able to choose to be vulnerable. It invites our monster into the play space. So we move toward a more whole version of self that's essential to clown and to good theater." Thus the yelling is disruptive, inappropriate, provocative, and a pedagogical philosophy in action. "We are brutes, but we are also philosophers."

1. Make the squares.

Tape or draw a foursquare grid on the floor. Lines might be curvy; there might be breaks in the lines. The center of each line exists in the minds of the players.

2. Just start.

Don't announce the game. Don't explain it. Just start playing it. Explain the game as you go. If someone makes a mistake, yell at them, but not abusively. The idea is to raise the energy in their body. Don't put them down — provoke them. Create an impulse in the group. The length of the game depends on the duration of the class. Stop the game when you feel that everyone has exhibited a moment of following their impulse.

3. Play the game.

• The contested borders are part of the point. The top left quadrant is 1, the top right is 2, the bottom left is 4, the bottom right is 3. The game is played with a kickball.

• There is one player in each square, with the remaining players waiting in a line outside the grid to cycle in.

• To begin, the player in square 1 serves the ball to any other square.

• A player is eliminated if they miss the ball bounced into their square, and everyone below them moves up a spot (quadrant 3 to quadrant 2, for example), while a new person off the line cycles in. A player can also be eliminated if they hit the ball into their own square. The player in square 1 gets to decide who is eliminated, so it can be helpful if the instructor starts there. Each time a player is eliminated, she is added to the end of the line.

4. Then talk.

Ask participants to think back to the moment the instructor yelled at them. Ask them, what energy does that create in your body? Make something happen. Make things active. Point out the difference between acting on impulse and acting consciously. Talk about the relationship between the people in line, waiting to enter the game, and those who are playing it. Ask them to think of those in line as an audience. For 500 Clown, what's most important is how the audience reacts, what the action provokes in participants. Talk about what happened in the game — that's narrative. Ask participants what they think they know about the players by watching them play — that's character. Theater is made through sport.


• This is a play-based exercise that emphasizes the importance of physical embodiment.

• This is written in such a way as to be used with a new group of students — but playing foursquare is a common rehearsal technique for several of the companies in this book, including the Neo-Futurists and Barrel of Monkeys.

I'm Falling

500 Clown

Taught by Molly Brennan

Brennan learned this activity from Adrian Danzig and Paul Kalina, two of the cofounders of 500 Clown. It was one of the first exercises they taught in their workshops and an activity they returned to repeatedly throughout a multiweek class. Brennan tells a story of the first time they taught this and a particularly enthusiastic student fell and got a bloody nose. This inspired the teachers to discuss the difference between risk and certainty — risk is encouraged, but don't put yourself in a situation you know will cause damage. Remember, the other people in class are your partners, and they are responsible for you. Help one another by taking care of yourself.

1. Explain the rules.

Tell the group the four steps:

1. Raise your hand.

2. Engage your whole body.

3. Announce that you're falling.

4. Fall.


Excerpted from "Ensemble-Made Chicago"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Chloe Johnston and Coya Paz Brownrigg.
Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Exercises
500 Clown
I’m Falling
Object Scene
Open Scene
About Face Youth Theater Project
            The Vending Machine
            Genderless Storytelling 
            Performing a Story
Albany Park Theater Project
            Mingle Mingle
            Spatial Exploration
Barrel of Monkeys
            Clap Your Hands
            Follow the Leader
Every house has a door
            First Day of the Abandoned Practices Workshop
            Body Image Performance
            New Choice
Free Street Theater
            Rant Pants/Party Pants
            Where I Come From (Soujourn Theater)
            I Come From (Albany Park Theater Project) 
            Wiggle and Jiggle
            Memory Web
            Affirmations/Messages of Support
Honey Pot Performance
            Ring Shout
            Witness, Caller, Mover 
            Sewing Stories
Lookingglass Theater
            Alternating Speaker
            When I Was a Child…
The Neo-Futurists
            A Task in a Circle
            Site-Specific Performance
            Inspired by “The Arrow” 
            Profession of Faith
            Profession of Faith (Diana Slickman text) 
The Second City
            Walking Warm-Up 
            Power Improv
Southside Ignoramus Quartet (SIQ)
            Memory Tag 
            Brainstorming and Context Analysis
Teatro Luna
            Binary Tag
            Pushing and Hugging
Walkabout Theater
            Skill Sharing
            Creating a Score
            Empty Box
The Young Fugitives
            The Pushing Game
            Live Animation
            Line Tag
Timeline of Key Dates

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