Ensemble companies are recognised for providing a rare opportunity for actors to work within a stable and enriching environment, enabling them to grow and develop as artists. But while running the UK’s only permanent ensemble at Dundee Rep for almost 10 years, I learnt the benefits can be broader than simply for the performers.
In Dundee, working with the same group of actors over many seasons helped me develop my approach as a director and allowed us more freedom to play and time to develop our skills.
Every rehearsal was an enquiry, not just into the questions posed by the show we were working on but also into the process of theatremaking itself. Each project demanded more, but because we had established a culture of learning and reflection, the company was able to adapt and grow to meet new challenges.
The nature of an ensemble meant our audience also grew to know and love individual performers in different and surprising roles. There was also an impact on the organisation itself. Having 10 actors (plus another 10 dancers from Scottish Dance Theatre) resident in the building resulted in a much higher proportion of artists across the staff than is the norm in British theatres, ensuring that the performers’ creative energy fully infused the bloodstream of the organisation. We developed a wider family of artists, who regularly joined us for individual shows and all of whom were exhilarated by the shorthand that had developed. The graduate scheme meant young actors could work with the company for a year after leaving drama school. An ensemble is the perfect way to develop the skills and confidence of new actors, because it offers a safe environment to experiment, play and grow.
Yet I understand why permanent companies in the UK are so rare. Co-productions are now a staple of producing theatres and ensembles are a complicating factor. Also, many actors want a more varied range of work than the commitment to a permanent ensemble affords. It also requires sustained investment by the theatre and places limitations on the scale of repertoire and its ability to tour. As a way of making great theatre though, it’s second to none.
When we considered options for our redevelopment period at Leeds Playhouse, it was clear to me that here was a brilliant opportunity to experience the joy of an ensemble company, for a year at least, and we have brought together 10 actors, most of whom are from Leeds and the greater North.
Back in 1968, campaigners for Leeds to have its own producing theatre wrote a manifesto that described their vision of a theatre as deeply connected to its communities and also hosting a permanent acting company. For me, it feels important that 50 years on, as we embark on the next chapter of this great theatre’s story, we are realising their vision.
James Brining is artistic director of Leeds Playhouse. The theatre’s year-long pop-up season featuring the Playhouse Ensemble opens this September and includes Jim Cartwright’s Road, David Greig’s Europe and Debbie Tucker Green’s Random