"Order and Beauty": Ensemble-Made Chicago
Chloe Johnston, Associate Professor of Theater, Lake Forest College
The nature of ensemble-created work is that it seems to just appear. It’s easy to forget that something as simple as a warm-up has a history, and that it was invented with a particular use or function in mind. So many of the methods used to create devised theatre have their roots in the games of Viola Spolin, who trained as an educator at Jane Addams's Hull House in the early 20th century. Addams, an early social justice warrior, prioritized access to theatre, which she described as providing "a glimpse of that order and beauty into which even the poorest drama endeavors to restore the bewildering facts of life." Teachers like Spolin and her mentor, Neva Boyd, worked with Chicago's youngest immigrants, employing a play-based philosophy and conducting a proto-ethnographic performance project. Chicago remains a crucible for ensemble-made performance, especially with a strong sense of social justice, because the process rejects a predetermined hierarchy in favor of figuring out what works best this time, with these particular people. It happens in the spaces between people, it responds to the space, it responds to the world outside the space because the people in the room can’t help but bring it in. Ensemble-created work models democracy--an aspiration to order and beauty that is rarely either.
Chloe Johnston is a performer, writer, director, and teacher in Chicago and an Associate Professor of Theater at Lake Forest College. She is a long-time ensemble member of The Neo-Futurists. She holds a PhD in Performance Studies from Northwestern University. Her scholarly work has appeared in TDR, Liminalities, Theatre Topics, and Performance Research. With Coya Paz, she is the co-author of Ensemble-Made Chicago: A Guide to Devised Theater (Northwestern University Press, 2018) www.chloejohnston.org