ensemble work methods

On Our Own Terms

by Alyssa Hughlett


Back in January, we leapt with full hearts into our residency at Circus Center armed with a great deal of enthusiasm and gratitude. Nicholette, Juliana, Hannah, and I were looking forward to having a longer than usual time (i.e. more than two weeks) to create a new work. This would also mean more room for training and new skill development and the opportunity to try new things in the creation process. The only way this could get better was if we were being paid a salary for our work (which we one day hope to accomplish).

Now, fast forward to two weeks later, whereupon if you peeked into our rehearsal and internal group communications you would see the opposite picture: a huge shadow of doubt, fear, and stress hanging over us all as we prepared ourselves for, not a full length show, but two short cabaret performances. Our aim was to take material that we were developing and show it off a little bit within the acrobatic and circus community to see how it plays in that sphere. The purpose was to not make material specifically for cabaret, but simply to perform our work for the community and meet people.  

Yet, we were back in that all too familiar mode again, which I am sure many performers and artists would recognize. The mode where it feels as though all the organically discovered creative material you have developed is being thrown on a conveyor belt headed directly for the meat grinder to be processed and packaged for a performance or two. Things really do get nihilistic at that point. You find yourself saying “I have no idea why I am moving this way now, but I guess I have to do something,” or “maybe I was not doing anything different after all.” In our case, we wondered if we were ever going to have a chance to create a new work without the stress of having it finely packaged up and ready to go in two weeks or less.

This is the point where I could now diverge from talking about our process and begin to write extensively about the REAL NEED for more federal and private support of the Arts and Artists. I mean what happened to the day when a company was given money to pay their actors, directors, and designers what they needed so that they could simply do what they do? This is not an extinct thing, it is happening for several established theatre, dance, and performing companies, but the opportunities are rare for the smaller, and at times, more innovative companies to be able to make the kind of work that breaks conventions or standards.

I have already digressed.


The thing is, we made it through those two and a half weeks of stress and doubt, emerging from it all with having learned a great deal more about the physical and emotional nature of the relationships in the work we have begun to develop. We also learned that we want to start doing things “on our terms,” which is just another way of saying that we are learning to discriminate more clearly between what is really important to us versus where we think we should be at any given point. This carries through on every level of operation within our company: from rehearsals and show creation to the administration of our company. Now that we are back in rehearsals after the two cabaret performances, it seems as though we hit a reset button, only we have not lost any work or material. We have fully committed ourselves to making our performance on mid-March at the Circus Center a works-in-progress showing, along with a three hour workshop to precede the showing. Sometimes, even works-in-progress showings can put pressure on actors and performers, but we really hope to fully generate and develop up until that day when we present our “research” or the bare bones of a new play; bones that may not even be fully arranged into a working skeleton.

"Beauty cannot be forced. It alone decides when it will come and sometimes it is the last thing we expect and the very last thing to arrive." -John O’Donohue

For the past two weeks, Hannah, Juliana, and Nicholette have been following a detailed rehearsal structure that I issued as soon as they finished the cabaret. The structure is very detailed in its instructions, including what to send back to me if I could not be streamed online (I gave them them the times that I would be available online). I asked for free writes, open explorations that had a given context, scenes to be written, as well as new material to be created. I sent them pictures and videos that I felt represented something of what I was trying to describe in words when this was necessary. I also gave them time to do some “uncensored play” or training. What we mean by “uncensored” is that we give ourselves license to do, say, or explore anything without worrying what the outcome will be. As the videos, audio recordings, and writings came in, I set about reviewing them. I then had a notes session online with Juliana, Nicholette, and Hannah at one of their Circus Center rehearsals, saying what resonated with me, images or ideas that came up for me, directions to move toward, text that should be kept, and thoughts about what is happening in the dramatic circumstances of the play.


I once thought that I was not putting in the effort or time that Hannah, Juliana, and Nicholette were putting in for rehearsal, as I was not having to travel or show up in the room with them. However, now I very much feel that I am rehearsing with them as well as equalling their time with my own work. I use an hours tracker app on my iphone to keep track of the time I spend with their material from rehearsals, and it shows me in a concrete way that my effort is significant. Looking ahead, we have about 40-45 hours left of rehearsals until the works in progress showing and workshop on March 13th. We will be in full gear rehearsing and playing, “on our own terms,” and maybe we will see you at the public showing March 13th, where we can get your thoughts and ideas about what you see.  We will return to develop the play and have it ready for premiering and booking by Fall 2016. It is still unentitled, but at this point, I am holding off on giving it a name until the name gives itself to us (in the past, we have had to name our play before even having a play).

On our own terms.

Skyping It In

by Alyssa Hughlett


Anything can be difficult to run remotely. Whether it is a business, project, company, vacation home, rental, you name it. Directing a play or performance piece in the theatre is a business that typically takes place in the rehearsal room. In fact, it seems like a kind of blasphemy for the director to be anything but physically present in the same rehearsal room with the actors. And yet, here I am the director of UpLift’s newest project, an adaptation of our 8-person, 2015 summer production, “Terra Incognita,” to be created with three of our extraordinary female core ensemble members. Juliana, Nicholette, and Hannah will tell the story of a woman’s suffering and loss by means of expressive acrobatics and movement combined with original text written by the cast.  

As an ensemble and in our personal lives, we are largely in a Terra Incognita - an unknown place. For most of us, the second half of 2015 was spent relocating and putting down roots in different places. This was expected from everyone when we first joined forces, but brings obvious challenges. Jerome is in Ohio immersed in his first year of teaching as a professor at Dayton University. Moses moved back to LA to pursue a career as a performer. Andrea is finishing her masters in Puerto Rico, performing her butt off, and teaching. Nicholette moved to Oakland. Hannah moved to San Francisco. I stayed put in Blue Lake, but moved into a new house with my partner, took on a faculty role at Dell’Arte International, and I am building a life here in Humboldt, California - as challenging as that is for a theatre professional.

In December we held a hearty two-day retreat in Oakland, with ensemble members outside of the Bay Area joining Hannah, Nicholette, Juliana, and myself over Google Hangouts, where we made some much needed decisions about what direction to move forward in over the next five years. One of the many decisions we made at this meeting was that in the next year we wanted to focus on creating work on the West Coast, specifically in the Bay Area. We have applied for a residency between January and March to create this next work at a local training center. ­­The residency will allow us access to a facility specifically designed for highly physical performers and is great for us to not only train new skills and grow our physical expertise, but it is also gives us a space to rehearse and perform our work for an audience by the end.

So why did we agree to have me remotely direct a show? And, do we even a need a director? What is the benefit of having a director who cannot be physically present at most of the rehearsals? Why not hire someone in the Bay Area to direct? The simple answer that lies beneath it is this: technology makes it possible.

For the record, I suppose, I need to state that we would not be able to work on a new show in this manner without having spent a little more than three years together training, studying physical theatre, generating material in a laboratory-like setting with the support of mentors and teachers and (let’s not fail to mention) the vibrant community of Humboldt County. We have established not only a way of working together, but a constantly evolving physical language or vocabulary. This has allowed us to develop a perspective, or lens, to look through and see what it is we are doing.

We often have our computer’s open at rehearsals, streaming our creative work to fellow cast members and creative eyes. We record pieces and explorations and send them to others to watch and give us feedback or even to write text to. We use project organizing forums to share everything from creative ideas, to booking information, travel arrangements, costume ideas, and more. We are adept at working both in the room with each other - or rather body to body I should say - as well as virtually.

So let me bring you up to speed with where we are in our latest project, which I refer to as 3WTI: The Three Woman Terra Incognita (our working title). In early December, Nico, Hannah, Juliana, and I met in a Google Hangout and we brainstormed how to make or adapt “Terra Incognita” into a version with only three women. I acted as a facilitator in the conversation and listened to the three of them pour out ideas about who was interested in stepping into previously created duets, trio’s, etc., and what that may require in terms of skill development.  We also talked about character, story, themes, music, lighting, training, as well as personal goals or desires while working on the piece. Hannah then began working fervently on coordinating everyone’s schedules to arrange rehearsal times and space - which was a harrowing task to undertake indeed. As the director, it was my task to cast the play and propose a structure to the group for our next rehearsal. Juliana, our director of training, would act as a rehearsal manager, and she would help me implement rehearsals in the room, which means that I would be working closely with her to set a rehearsal plan and guideline.  One week later, I sent Juliana my proposal and vision for the overall structure of the piece and she responded with a brave and bold suggestion: that as director, I keep my vision of the structure to myself and give the cast (Juliana, Hannah, and Nico) only what was needed, step by step. This way the cast could relinquish themselves to the discovering of the piece and we could avoid falling into the trap of long-winded ensemble conversations and debates about order, structure, etc. It also gave me license to either stay with what I put on paper or change the piece as we move forward with creation.

On December 23rd, the four of us met in Hannah’s movement studio (located in San Francisco’s  Mission district), where we checked in, warmed up our bodies, did a handstand workout, and then jumped into the first exploration. I had the three of them go through the original show as it existed over the summer, moving through the entire thing on their feet. In many cases, they were moving with an imaginary partner, but I still had them totally commit to doing just that, full out. This was followed by a ten minute free write or reflection, which we then proceeded to share and discuss for the rest of our time together. I gathered their writing, most of which was creative material (i.e. writing from the perspective of a character).

Since that point, I have been reflecting on the next step forward. I sent out a skill and training list to Juliana who is implementing the training and development of these skills in rehearsals. At this point, I cannot divulge the next step of the process, as I have not even told Nico, Hannah, and Juliana what that is yet.

Our residency began on January 9 (details of residency announced soon!). I joined the cast on Google Hangout for a part of the rehearsal, at which point they already had material to show that was fertile and compelling. They sent me two videos of the same duet, with Hannah and Juliana switching roles in each video. After watching both to see which arrangement worked best with regards to character and storytelling, it was clear that the better version was opposite from what I had originally thought when asking them to work on it. This will probably happen often throughout our creation process. Nico, Juliana, and Hannah have also been sending creative writing from each rehearsal for me to refer to as I work them through the structure.  This writing may dramatically change the structure, or it may be the underlying organs and connective tissue. Juliana is taking on the music for this production, and will draw on her digital library of local musicians -  people she has played with or knows of, and will give us music to listen to throughout the process to see what sticks. We have also been throwing around the possibility of having an original score created for the piece. If you know anyone who is interested, well, you know, drop us a line or message.

The next time I write, our rehearsals and artistic endeavor will be well underway and I am sure I will be telling you about what worked, and perhaps even more interestingly, what didn’t work! Until then, we will continue to push ourselves to edge of our physical limitations, finding ease as we take risks, and breathing deeply in our work.

It Turns Out Leadership is Empowering...For Everyone

By Nicholette Routhier


Last year, I was elected as UpLift’s Ensemble Facilitator. The position was born out of the vision to give everyone in the ensemble an equal voice through voting and ask an individual within the ensemble to facilitate that process. Here is a short summary of my responsibilities:

Ensemble Facilitator facilitates organization, communication, self-care, and the overall well-being of the ensemble via the following:

  • Maintaining online organization systems
  • Moderating business meetings and other ensemble discussions
  • Ensemble mediation if necessary
  • Facilitating decision-making in the most efficient means possible by maintaining a vision for the “big picture,” both in business and creative processes; making final decisions if the ensemble cannot come to one as a whole
  • Constant availability as a resource for ensemble members to address questions and concerns
  • Maintaining constant awareness of self-care, specifically pertaining to nutrition, hydration, rest and injury prevention/care

It looks pretty great on paper. In practice, it was disempowering and impractical.

UpLift creates theatre as an ensemble with each member contributing their own personal perspective, vision, and inspiration to the whole. As both Ensemble Facilitator and a member of the ensemble, it was difficult, and at times impossible, for me to maintain a vision of the “big picture.” Therefore, when I was called upon to make a final decision, “when the ensemble couldn’t come to one as a whole,” my decisions were almost always biased by my personal perspective. In addition, I wasn’t used as a “resource for ensemble members to address questions and concerns.” Instead, those with strong opinions, questions, and concerns kept them to themselves and brought them out during stressful situations, which, as you can imagine, was never effective and became taxing on me as a leader.

If I may be blunt, it was a shit show.

It is a testament to our skills, passion, drive, and commitment as an ensemble that our production of Terra Incognita was so successful last summer. No matter what, we always came together onstage and presented a powerful performance. With that in mind, we turned this year’s focus to finding a better way to run our company.


Last month, we made some big changes to our ensemble structure and creation process that have already made a powerful impact. We no longer have an Ensemble Facilitator. Instead, we’ve elected an Artistic Director and a Managing Director. For the next two years, Hannah is the Managing Director and Alyssa is the Artistic Director. Hannah has delegated the responsibilities of workshop coordination to Juliana and financial management to me, and Alyssa has delegated the oversight of training and skill development to Juliana. Beginning in 2018, we will alternate the roles of Managing Director and Artistic Director within the ensemble on an annual basis.

The beautiful thing about our new roles is that we are all empowered to make our own decisions and lead in our specific areas of responsibility. I got to see this in practice at our last rehearsal when Juliana arrived with a full rehearsal structure rooted in training and skill development that she formed based on discussions with Alyssa. Juliana took leadership and owned her perspectives on what we needed to train and how to effectively do so. Hannah and I trusted and valued those perspectives and improved because of it. Juliana was also open to our perspectives and feedback, which allowed for an open dialogue throughout the training session. It was such an awesome experience to have with my colleagues. At one point, we were doing an exercise to strengthen our wrists and I couldn’t contain my enormous gratitude for the space we made to allow for this. It was such a joy to see Juliana in her element and experience my growth as a result of it.


This is happening on all levels of our company now. With Alyssa as the director of our new show, we are free from having to hold the role of the “outside eye” and can apply ourselves fully to performing and devising the content of the show. With Hannah as Managing Director, we can give her the space to establish protocols and policies based on what she feels will most effectively and efficiently move our company forward. Both are open to feedback, but ultimately, we trust in their leadership.  

The unexpected benefit to establishing these roles in our ensemble is that now, we are all empowered. I’m grateful for our resilience and our creative capacity to try a new way of working together, and I look forward to seeing how our company evolves because of it.

Special thanks to Colum Hatchell for editing and Audrey Leclair for photography.