Creating ensemble in Harlem
An account from Project Director, Ari Warmflash, about the process of bringing people together to create something new for the first time.
There is a specific nervous excitement that I feel before a new ensemble gathers for a first rehearsal. Who are the people in the room? What will we talk about? Will we have anything to say? Will anyone even show up?
This wasn’t technically the first rehearsal for either ensemble coming together this night. Groups from JTS have been meeting in their building in Harlem at 122nd & Broadway, and folks from Exodus Transitional Community at their Harlem location on 125th & 3rd for the last several months. Both have been exploring the narrative of Exodus through their own lenses and developing content in response. These two groups have been exploring themes of freedom, transition and hope, practically side by side and this was the night we finally got to bring them together.
So this first rehearsal came with a different set of questions. How will the groups get along? How can we create a space that best serves the participants? How do we start creating an ensemble?
We met at the JCC Harlem, somewhere between the two locations. It began as most first rehearsals do; sharing names, nervous laughter, recognizing initial similarities. We shared our stories silently, through an activity that asked us to stand together in solidarity about statements that were true for us. We shared our stories out loud, offering memories of our own experiences of freedom or from accounts passed down to us from grandparents. We then took all of this personal story sharing and we used it to inspire the context of a beautiful and dynamic new scene.
Two chairs, two actors; one from Exodus, one from JTS. They sat side by side and read a scene that had been inspired by the phrase “I will be who I will be.” The actors read the scene once, and the audience offered feedback. They read it again, more invested this time. The audience reactions got more specific, and the actor’s adjustments did as well. They read it a third time, more invested, more nuanced, and the audience loved it. I had to remind myself that these were not audience and actors - these were all members of the same ensemble. They were developing a scene together through a process of trial and error and feedback and adjustment. In just the first rehearsal they were already acting like an ensemble, sharing pieces of their talent and ideas and personal histories in order to create the best piece of art they could collectively imagine.
There is no one tried and true method of creating ensemble, but I am eternally grateful for the art and power of storytelling. It requires generosity, trust and a certain amount of flair. I am grateful to the folks who have agreed to be a part of this process with us, to share their stories and be a part of our Exodus ensemble.