Wednesday, March 14, 2012

How do you guys do this?

Contributed by Emma Chong

I see two of our apprentices trudge up the stairs after a long day in the rehearsal room, and I hold the door for them. They’ve been working on their showcase material, all original material that they’re creating on their own. They can’t believe they’ve been at this all day, and all month. “How do you guys do this?” one asks me.

How indeed?

It’s nice to be able to say, “I work in the theatre.” It feels great to be able to go to work and feel like it’s more than hiding in a cubicle or being a corporate zombie. It feels really great to be working in a small, comfortably intimate theatre, where the staff feels like family. And it’s a dream come true to be doing theatre that’s new and exciting and making a difference in people’s lives, theatre that leaves audiences wowed and communities transformed, theatre that makes its participants say, “I’ve never been in a play like this before!” Getting paid to do all this feels pretty good, too.

But on the other hand—and what an “other hand” it is—collaboration is a royal pain.

It can be hard enough to get two people agreeing on something. We have an apprentice corps of four, an Ensemble of five, eleven members of the company, plus four affiliates. Sometimes, we add onto that the input of outside artists. Still other times, we invite the community to give their input on the work in progress, or to help shape a project that we’re creating for and with them.

We can talk for hours.

The two apprentices head back to their corner of the office, and I watch them go. I came through the apprentice program three years ago, and this is my first year as a full Ensemble member. I know that their exhaustion isn’t from the physical activity or the mental tension of writing all day but the simple frustration and strain of trying to get four creative minds all speaking the same language, trying to get four creative visions into the same alignment.

Ensemble theatre is a special case for this. We sit together, and we discuss, and we argue, and we get mad at each other, and we have moments of unexpected discovery together. It’s frustrating, and it’s wonderful. I walk out of the rehearsal room bursting with ideas for what we can work at our next rehearsal session. I walk out of a meeting irritated that we can’t spend more (or less) time talking through something. “We did it! We fixed the mission statement!” an Ensemble member exults and initiates a round of high fives, after months of tedious group-rewriting and nitpicking.

Collaboration. It takes time, trust, patience, blood, sweat, tears, and love. And things aren’t always solved.

But the art that comes out of us as a collaborative collective is all the stronger for it. The question of “How do you guys do this?” is still one that I don’t know how to answer, but however we do it, I’m awfully glad that we do.


Emma Chong is an Ensemble Member/General Manager at Touchstone Theatre. Touchstone is a professional, not-for-profit theatre dedicated to the creation of original work. At its heart is a resident ensemble of theatre artists rooted in the local community of Bethlehem, the Greater Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania, and the international community of ensemble theatres. More online at

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