TroupeThink: The New Ensemble reinvents theater in A2

BY ADDIE SHRODES
Daily Arts Writer
Published September 12, 2010

For a fledgling local theater company aiming to develop a rock star-esque following, a concert version of a brilliant 20th-century anti-war play makes for the ultimate second production.

The New Theatre Project’s New Ensemble, a group of 20-something artists led by founder and Creative Director Keith Paul Medelis, certainly shares some traits with a rock band already.

Experimentation and collaboration are key words for the group, as illustrated by its edgy and inventive first production, this past summer’s “The Spring Awakening Project,” along with the scheduled plays for its first season, themed “Identity.” And its members want to use those traits to win over a young audience.

But not to be ignored is the members’ contagious shared enthusiasm — verging on radical artistic devotion — that powers their innovative project.

TNTP originally planned its second production as a one-night, 16-person staged reading of Bertolt Brecht’s groundbreaking 1941 anti-war play “Mother Courage and Her Children” in Ypsilanti’s Frog Island Park.

But the first-rate cast of leads had to withdraw three weeks before the Sept. 19 event because of scheduling conflicts, causing a last-minute scramble. With the staged reading no longer a possibility, the New Ensemble took up a “wouldn’t it be cool if” idea that had been languishing in the back of its members’ minds.

“Brecht as a rock concert in a club atmosphere,” Medelis explained.

The one-night “Mother Courage in Concert” on Sept. 19 will now take place with a full band and orchestrations in Main Street’s Elmo’s Hideaway. New Ensemble members Caleb Kruzel, an 18-year-old student at Washtenaw Technical Middle College, and Amanda Lyn Jungquist, a 21-year-old LSA senior at the University, wrote original music to go with the play’s existing score.

“It will be fun, but we’ll just have to hit this thing hard for a while,” Jungquist said about the shift to a concert format.

Eastern Michigan University associate professor and local Brecht expert Dr. Pirooz Aghssa will conduct a pre-show discussion about the playwright, and the New Ensemble will read portions of the play throughout the performance to frame the songs. The production is listed on the United Nations International Day of Peace website, and Ann Arbor’s 5th annual P.E.A.C.E. DAY on Sept. 19 on the Diag will feature selections from the production.

The show, perhaps now more than before, keeps with the mission of TNTP, part of which is to reinvent old work for a new audience and part of which is to present work that was revolutionary when it premiered.

“I want something you aren’t going to forget about,” 22-year-old Medelis told the Daily in his “office” — Café Verde in the People’s Food Co-op. “A lot of theater is lukewarm, but this is not lukewarm. It’s the definition of boiling hot, actually.”

The “awakening” of the New Ensemble

“The Spring Awakening Project,” the equally hot inaugural work inspired by Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play “Spring Awakening,” was entirely responsible for the TNTP’s ascent into local theater stardom — but not before inspiring the group's creation.

“The Spring Awakening Project” followed six characters in a unified plot to explore the transition between childhood and adulthood with topics such as sex, homosexuality, social pressure and suicide. The play drew attention and acclaim this summer.

Medelis was an apprentice at Ann Arbor’s Performance Network theater and a recent graduate of Albion College when he began to develop the play last winter. He ventured to start TNTP because of the success of “The Spring Awakening Project” and the cast with which he was working.

But it was where the content originated as much as the content itself that boosted interest in TNTP. The innovative six-month development process created for the play by Medelis and the cast has become widely admired in the Ann Arbor theater scene.

In January, Medelis got permission to produce his own adaptation of “Spring Awakening” — distinguished from the 2006 Broadway rock musical of the same name — in the Performance Network’s small black-box theater. He then asked friend, playwright and fellow Albion graduate Jason Sebacher to join him in his adventure.

Sebacher, 24, who was working in Chicago as a high school English teacher, heartily agreed, and Medelis cast six people ranging in age from 18 to 22 to play the teenage characters. It quickly became apparent that they would be much more than actors.

Medelis asked the cast to answer what he pinpointed as “the question” of the play: “When was the moment when you realized that you were no longer a child?”

The cast members, who now form the New Ensemble, journaled together in workshops multiple times a month for six months to answer that question and many other prompts. They wrote up to 15 pages each per workshop, and Medelis sent the entries to Sebacher to construct scenes with.

“We shared the most personal details,” said Austin Michael Tracy, 21, a Theater Arts and Arts Management student at Eastern Michigan University who wrote 28 pages (front and back) during the journaling process. “Like, everyone in the cast knows my entire sex life.”

Medelis knew he wanted to use the material in creating the final product, but the process was uncertain in the beginning.

“(Medelis's) idea was you’d take the life and words and talents and true stories of the cast and integrate them with the stories of the characters — somehow,” Sebacher said. “That he left up to me.”

Sebacher, who is now playwright-in-residence for TNTP, wrote scenes and sent them to the cast and Medelis for feedback. Both the cast and Sebacher wrote plenty of useful material that didn’t make it into the final product, but about two-thirds of the script was the cast’s own words.

“If one actor had been different, the whole play would have been totally different because we would have had a different story,” Medelis said. “The play literally cannot exist without an ensemble of people creating it; they are not replaceable people.”

It came as a surprise to the cast that so much of the script came from their journals.

“All of the sudden we started getting little chunks of scenes, and we were like, ‘That’s my writing, that’s my story.’ We just started playing our lives,” Tracy said.

Tracy added that no one acted his or her own story. Rather, the actors played each other.

“I never once said a line that was my own,” Tracy said. “But I can say that at one point or another in the play, everyone in the cast said a line that was my own.”

Meanwhile, every cast member began to take on other roles beyond writing and acting.

Kruzel composed an entirely original score. Matt Anderson, now the group's managing director, choreographed dance elements. Ben Stange, a 2010 graduate of the University’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance, designed costumes. And Jungquist became the company photographer.

Although Medelis didn’t cast the show intending to capture such diverse talent, he wasn’t just looking for polished actors, either.

“When I cast a show, I look at who you are as a human being and as an artist, not necessarily if you’re a really good actor,” Medelis said. “But I found that when you are so connected with the play, your acting steps up hundreds of notches because you care so much about it.”

The rest of the New Ensemble agrees.

“We got so much creative input, and that was what was so inspiring and what made me really grow as an actor,” Kruzel said.

After Sebacher created the final storyboard and script, the group had three-and-a-half weeks to rehearse, meeting every day for six hours. The cast members adored the outcome, perhaps even more because they put so much of their time, talent and personal stories into the play.

“I was able to really put my all into it, because this is me, it’s my words,” Tracy said. “We all put 150 percent into it and were able to create something new and beautiful.”

“The Spring Awakening Project” was originally only slated to show at the Performance Network for four days in June, so Medelis decided to start his own theater to continue the show for another three weeks in a small performance space in the local Pot & Box flower shop. The soon-to-be New Ensemble was surprised but thrilled to extend the show.

“It was like, ‘Wait, of course we have to continue with this thing — this is amazing, and we’re putting so much time and energy in,’ ” Jungquist said.

There was some worry over whether the New Ensemble would go over well with the local audience, especially because the Ann Arbor area only has a handful of theaters and thus fewer opportunities for emerging groups.

“There was a lot of hoopla about whether or not we could be taken seriously,” Jungquist said. “So we felt a lot of pressure initially to make the show really good to kind of build a reputation for ourselves.”

Enthusiastic responses to “The Spring Awakening Project” eased any qualms about TNTP.

“People saw that we are not just some group of kids who are getting together to put on some half-ass mediocre production,” Tracy explained. “A lot of people left, not to honk my own horn, but they left saying that it was the first piece of legitimate theater they had seen in a long time.”

News of the show spread by Facebook and word of mouth, and audiences grew larger each week. By the show’s last weekend in the beginning of August, TNTP had such a demand that it had to add another performance — which also sold out.

The popularity of “The Spring Awakening Project” bodes well for TNTP, but the art of theater has always been an experiment for Medelis and the New Ensemble.

“If it fails, that’s something that’s perfectly acceptable,” Medelis said. “And if it’s my life’s work and becomes this big thing, that’s also perfectly acceptable.

“We’re all young. We’re trying a lot of things and taking a lot of risks that I hope are meaningful and people care about. But ultimately the idea is to create art in the present.”

Risky innovations

It’s that spirit of risk-taking that the New Ensemble and its champions believe has made and will continue to make TNTP important. The process of collaborative playwriting developed during “The Spring Awakening Project” was the group’s first original creation.

“No one has experienced this (method) before, to my knowledge, and we’ve checked,” said Sebacher, who recently started the M.F.A. program in Theater Arts at Carnegie Mellon. “It is unprecedented and a wholly novel way to approach playmaking.”

Sebacher explained that improv and adaptations are both popular, but TNTP’s process takes a different angle.

“The actual process of getting to know people, playing games with them, journaling with them, interviewing them, taking their stories and talents and actual words and mixing them up with a canonical text has not been done before,” he said.

Theater expert Davi Napoleon, who graduated from the University and has a M.A. in drama and a Ph.D. in performance studies from NYU, followed and documented the production process for “The Spring Awakening Project” for her blog on thefastertimes.com. She also recognized the process as unique.

“They’re adventurous, they’re committed to what they’re doing, they’re excited about what they’re doing and they’re taking a chance,” Napoleon said in a phone interview.

Some work encourages actors to think about how they personally relate to the script, she explained, and the 1975 Broadway musical “A Chorus Line” features individual stories based on the lives of the actors. But those don’t start with a classic text and are not organized around a unified story. “The Spring Awakening Project” was new, and thus inherently risky.

“It’s different than taking Shakespeare and knowing that you’ve got something solid,” Napoleon said. “But when you risk that kind of failure, you can also really make a contribution to the future of theater.”

Although Napoleon said it’s much too early to say what TNTP will add to the future of theater, she likes where the group is heading.

“Clearly they’re taking the kind of risks that make it possible to make a contribution,” Napoleon said. “That’s the only way that theater can progress from what it has been to what it will be.”

Medelis plans to continue to run the theater collaboratively. The company's meetings to plan and market shows are open to the whole New Ensemble, and everyone in the group is encouraged to contribute ideas. In the future, Medelis hopes to have the New Ensemble pick the season’s shows and theme collaboratively.

“The theater is really inherently hierarchical, and it really kind of pisses me off,” Medelis said, referencing his time as a theater apprentice. “I don’t find it interesting to walk all over people.”

Creating a younger theater movement

The members of the New Ensemble believe that their experimental perspective on theater is drawn in part from their age.

“We’re all so willing to change the way that theater is normally viewed, creating new things that we’ve never seen before because we’re all trying to find our own voices,” Stange said. “TNTP provides this outlet to get our ideas heard rather than being thrown into an established theater company where things happen from the top down.”

TNTP’s youthful energy seems contagious for Ann Arbor’s young people. The theater has had an unusually young audience so far, Medelis said.

For "The Spring Awakening Project" in particular, far more student tickets were sold than adult tickets.

“It’s really important to me to do relevant, good work that’s important to young people,” he said. “The (Performance) Network is really struggling right now to get anyone under the age of 60 through the door, and that’s just depressing.

“But ‘Spring Awakening’ was very much made for young people, about young people.”

“We were just short of making a goddamn checklist about why young people don’t go to the theater,” Sebacher said. He and Medelis instead brainstormed elements of theater that would bring young people.

Some of the cast, many of whom have extensive experience in community and college theater, were surprised by the large audiences “The Spring Awakening Project” drew.

“Really, this whole thing stemmed out of a bunch of kids wanting to do something different, and it’s kind of amazing how much it’s grown,” Stange said.

But Sebacher sees the potential for even more growth in Ann Arbor, adding that TNTP wants to convert new theatergoers.

“You’ve got all of these young people, and it’s kind of a cool, hip town,” Sebacher said of Ann Arbor. “The goal is to get a name and have people follow you like you’re a rock band.”

The New Ensemble agrees that TNTP is well on its way to becoming part of the Ann Arbor theater scene — and creating a new young audience for the stage.

TNTP has a season of provocative and experimental plays and staged readings themed around “identity” planned through summer 2011, including an original by Sebacher next summer. The next major six-month “Project” is “The Everyman Project” scheduled for next April.

It will be an experiment, this time directed by New Ensemble member and MT&D graduate Ben Stange and written by Franco Vitella, to see whether the collaborative writing process developed under “The Spring Awakening Project” can work again with a different outmoded play and a slightly different cast. The New Ensemble is working with “Everyman,” an anonymous 15th century morality play about a dying man who has to decide what virtue to take with him in the afterlife so that he can get into heaven.

Five of the six New Ensemble members from “The Spring Awakening Project” will join “The Everyman Project,” and a few more will be added. They have yet to decide “the question” to begin journaling around.

“It really worked for ‘Spring Awakening,’ and I think it can really work for lots of things,” Medelis said of the process. “But we’ll find out.”

Experimental though it may be, TNTP doubtless has an audience intrigued by its first production. “Mother Courage in Concert” will launch a tempting first season.

No doubt, its fans certainly hope the New Ensemble isn’t the latest one-hit wonder.