The topic has been close to my heart for years because I hate writing in isolation and is top of mind right now because Chaos, aOWP would never have existed (certainly not as quickly or as well) without the ensemble. And yet I freely admit that I can't stand to watch most ensemble creations.
That slamming sound you just heard is me in the throws of massive cognitive dissonance.
So what's happening here?
Part of the problem, I think, with the ensemble play process is that most people do it wrong. It tends to be a director or actor/director driven-form. The playwright is forced into the hinterland and as a result story and structure are sacrificed favor of theme and style.
That's cool for performance art (under whatever guise you want to use) but it is death for theater.
Death for theater? Is that statement too blunt? Maybe. Too generalized? Absolutely. Incorrect? 'Fraid not.
Ensemble should mean everyone participates in the process of creation from the beginning, but it doesn't follow that everyone should or can do the same thing or should or can operate outside their areas of expertise. Directors have skill sets that actors and playwrights don't. That's why they are involved. The same holds for actors and playwrights. What makes us think that calling something "ensemble play creation" is going to change the reality of theater?
This sense that everyone should roll around in a rehearsal space until a play squirts out is nonsense. Letting actors or directors control structure or story is more likely a disaster than a godsend. The result more often than not looks like a lovely splattering of goose shit on a gilt mirror angled to reflect the ensemble back on itself. It goes nowhere and ultimately says nothing.
If that's your thing -- as an audience member or as an artist -- rock on! Just don't call it theater, even if it takes place in one.
On the other side of my conflicted soul is this belief that theater is a collaborative effort and good theater should start that collaboration sooner rather than later.
There are valuable elements of ensemble play creation and these should be explored/exploited by playwrights lucky enough to have the chance.
I just finished working on a experiment that was a hybrid form of ensemble playwriting. It tried to address some of the flaws and capitalize on the strengths. I'll talk more about it in other posts, but it is important here to mention that it went remarkably well, because, I think, it tried to rigorously respected the strengths of all members of the troupe from the onset.
Director, direct. Actor, act. Playwright, construct. Designer, design. Everyone, share.
DISCLAIMER: This is just my opinion and does not reflect, for example, co-artistic director Jamie Rosler's opinion on the subject. I think that's because she's artsy and I'm crass.