Ensemble theater has changed—offbeat scripts, fractured story lines, ambiguous characters with stories that spill over from one scene into another. Plays like Reykjavik explore what it means to be human with new structures and a whole new vocabulary. The result? Big choices and big risks for actors.
by Jackie Pray, Reykjavik photos by Casey Gardner
It’s awards season in Atlanta. Suzi Bass Awards, Atlanta’s version of the Tonys, are out. Among the big winners this year is the highly praised Actor’s Express production of Angels in America. It earned three major awards—best ensemble, best director (for Freddie Ashley and Martin Damien Wilkins) and best production.
Actor Joe Sykes was on stage to say “thank you.” Joe knows ensemble work. This Suzi is Joe’s second, after an award for Clybourne Park at the Aurora Theatre. And he’s working on a new, cutting-edge ensemble production—Reykjavik by Steve Yockey at Actor’s Express.
“I really like ensemble work because it’s such a team effort,” Joe says. “You have this incredibly talented group of people put together—with uncanny skill—by directors and casting directors, who balance these diverse talents, personalities, little bits of genius—because we all have that—and come up with a cast that’s incredibly well suited to a script.
“On top of that, in ensemble work today, you have these wonderful, offbeat scripts that examine what it means to be human with a whole new vocabulary.”
Reykjavik, the long awaited new play by Steve Yockey, directed by Melissa Foulger, demands a strong ensemble cast. The play includes eight interconnected vignettes—with names like Jawbone, Twelve Ravens and Wild Game—featuring six actors playing multiple roles, including lovers, hotel employees, sex workers, birds… obscure mythic characters and ordinary people with supernatural powers. In one scene Joe is a drunk vilifying the shortcomings of his gay partner; in another he’s a gentle huddle folk (Huldufólk)—a hidden person from Icelandic mythology. In yet another offbeat piece, he and his lover receive cryptic messages from a flock of ravens lined up outside their hotel window.
Heads up, Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.
“Scripts that lend themselves to ensemble productions tend to tell a different type of story,” Joe says. “The structure doesn’t take on the traditional dramatic form—inciting action, leading to a climax, followed by a denouement. Rather, every scene has its own journey. All these journeys do come together, but it’s much more of a fun puzzle for the audience to experience and put together.”
“In a traditional play with a lead actor and supporting players, the lead is typically someone the audience can identify with. So, with that, you can put yourself in the character’s shoes and say, ‘What would I do?’ But with a play like Reykjavik, people can go home and drink coffee and say, ‘I’m more like this person,’ or ‘Well, I’m more like that person.’
“In a play like Reykjavik, you’re not focusing on one lead character whom you’re following throughout the action of the play; rather you’re focusing on the ideas. The text becomes much more important. The themes become more apparent and, I think, the experience is more engaging for an audience.
“Reykjavik has to do with fidelity and trust and we’re giving all these examples—through these scenes and multiple characters—that lend themselves to more exploration.
“Ensemble pieces, particularly pieces like Angels in America and Reykjavik, demand a lot more attention from the audience because you don’t get to follow a straightforward story arc. Audiences have to juggle a whole bunch of storylines and characters. You don’t get a primary character who is supported by other characters. Instead, you might have ambiguous characters who are tangled up in fractured story lines. And that creates a lot of tension—exciting tension for the audience.”
Big choices—big risks
In 2015, Joe and the cast of Clybourne Park, directed by Melissa Foulger at the Aurora Theatre, earned Suzi Bass Awards for Best Ensemble Cast. In that play, Joe and the other cast members each played two markedly different characters in parallel stories. Such productions carry particular challenges for actors, Joe says.
“You have only so much time to show the most important traits of your character. You just have to make a large choice quickly because you don’t have the luxury of a lot of exposition and it’s not so much about the long journey of that character but, rather, what that character is embodying—what that character means for the story that’s happening—at that moment.”
“But, of course, that’s also what’s fun. You get to flex your character creation muscles. For example, the Actor’s Express production of Angels in America put actors in multiple rolls—much more than other productions have done. And there, we had to do just what we’re doing right now in Reykjavik—quickly create the essential traits needed to bring home the meaning of multiple story lines.
“And there’s this alchemy that happens when actors play different characters with different story lines in the same play—the shadow, or afterglow, or whatever you want to call it, of one character can add texture to the next—till you get this crazy synergy and people in the audience are feeling human connections long before they can sort them out intellectually. It’s magic.”
The Actor’s Express production of Reykjavik is the premiere of the National New Play Network’s Rolling World Premiere of the play. So Atlanta audiences and directors of upcoming productions set for other cities will be paying close attention.
Joe and playwright Steve Yockey and director Melissa Foulger have worked together many times in the past. As one critic wrote, it’s a collaboration that conjures “that old black magic.”
“It’s always funny when we work with Steve,” Joe says. “As the author, Steve has all the answers. But Steve will tell you that one of the reasons he likes writing plays is that he likes the idea of his producing something and writing something and seeing other people take his work and create something entirely new. And it doesn’t mean that something is better or worse when new sets of hands get on it, its just more.”
What makes it all work?
“First off, no doubt, it’s the directors and casting directors who put our teams together,” Joe says. “Synchronicity is at the heart of all great ensemble productions and that means precise casting.” He adds that creating strong connections among cast members is essential. Connections foster trust and creative risk taking.
Sometimes actors create connections in the most basic ways, Joe says. “For Winnie-the-Pooh (which earned multiple Suzi nominations this year, including best ensemble cast in theater for youth), we had four adult and three child actors. Between shows we’d have about an hour break. I’d go the green room. I drank coffee and ate animal crackers and we messed around during that hour. We played. I really like kids. I think they’re hilarious. I got to have fun with these kids all summer. Does it improve the kids’ acting ability? Maybe. Because they’re really comfortable with me, if they were going to take a chance and make a big choice—and many kids are not ready to make big choices—they feel the trust required to make that big choice. So, I think it’s a good thing.”
Some theaters choose to make ensemble work part of their identity, their brand. Joe cites Atlanta’s Out of Hand, where he’s a long-time core member. Out of Hand is known for innovative, edgy productions and its use of “devised” theater that leans heavily on the creative skills of ensemble casts.
“In the traditional sense,” Joe says, “ensemble-based theaters like Out of Hand are groups of people who work together over and over on different projects. They come together and they produce new work, maybe original work, or work with a special look, a personalized look, depending on how that company defines itself in relation to older works. In working with the same people over and over again, the work and risk taking becomes easier because you build relationships and trust—a great environment for growth and creativity.”
Working on Reykjavik has been a homecoming for Joe. Over the past 15 years, he has worked with director Melissa Foulger and playwright Steve Yockey on four other premiere productions at Actor’s Express. All of these productions won their own awards and recognition.
“Working with Melissa and Steve is my most favorite thing in the world to do,” Joe Says. “I think Steve loves everything I bring to the table, even if it is dead wrong. But that happens much less frequently. Working with them is just Trust. And with that trust comes a freedom to explore.
“People who like my work, like it because I’m ready to jump—just step off the ledge and make the big choice. And I gained that fearlessness through working with Melissa and Steve. It’s always way cooler to make a big choice. It’s more fun. They are so good at what they do and they build up my confidence. That carries into the rest of the world. I can say, ‘Well, this is what I would do with Steve and Melissa and I’m gonna do it here and if they like it, they like it; if they don’t, they don’t.’ And more often than not, they like it.”