I love going to The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. On a recent visit there, I happened upon a postcard for a new show called S.O.S. Looking at it closer, I learned that the Wallis had recently formed an acting troupe. Looking at it even further, I saw it was a new devised show being presented in conjunction with Circle X. This took me forward and back. Forward to some devising projects that I am working on this spring and backward to the nascence of Atwater Village Theatre, when Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA and Circle X were sharing what was a renovated either toy or pillow factory in a part of town that was quickly becoming a new hub for creative thought and millennial lifestyle romping. That was about 10 years ago.
The task at hand: to find out what are S.O.S. and the Wallis Studio Ensemble. To help me on this quest, I got in contact with director Madeleine Dahm. Here’s what I learned from her.
Roger Q. Mason (RQM): To my knowledge, Wallis Studio Ensemble is a fairly new company here in Los Angeles. Tell me a little about the history of the group?
Madeleine Dahm (MD): In the 2016 I approached The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts about the idea of a company for early-career actors, that represented the diversity of actors here in LA and explored theatre as a force for social change – they liked the idea and so Grow at the Wallis joined with me in launching the ensemble. Since its inception two-and-a-half years ago, The Ensemble has steadily acquired a reputation for creating socially conscious, cutting-edge theatre, with a strong physical component. The Ensemble has mounted four full-length productions at The Wallis and performed at two international performing arts festivals.
2018 saw the mounting of Douglas Adams environmental satire The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (LA Times ‘Pick of the Week’) and Disposable – an original devised work that examined the intersection between environmental destruction and human displacement, also seen at The San Diego International Fringe Festival in June 2018. It was hailed as “hauntingly beautiful” (San Diego Tribune) and “mesmerizing….this is avant-garde theater that sticks with you long after the curtain comes down.” (ArtNow LA).
In 2016/17 The Ensemble premiered at The Wallis Thebes, a contemporary feminist adaptation of the Greek classic by British playwright Gareth Jandrell, and its first original devised play Word of Mouth, an examination of Post-Truth and a response to the 2016 election rhetoric. Word of Mouth was not only featured on National Public Radio by Priska Neely, but was also seen at Rise Up LA and at The Crisis Art Festival in Tuscany, Italy, where The Ensemble spent a week in residence in July 2017.
RQM: Your current show is being presented in conjunction with Circle X. How did you link up with the company?
MD: This is not a partnership with Circle X, we are renting their theatre for this particular run. We really wanted to get outside of The Wallis space this year and into the 99 seat theater community, and we are very excited that Atwater Village Theater and Circle X were able to assist us with that.
RQM: What was the inspiration for S.O.S.?
MD: As we discuss topics and themes for our yearly devised work, we are always drawn to contemporary issues that directly impact our company members and their communities. The one thing that we found ourselves coming back to as we began this process three months ago, was the general sense of alienation and isolation felt by many people right now. With so much focus today being on attaining financial wealth it’s interesting that a country’s GDP is not related to the overall happiness felt by all its citizens, in fact it seems to be the opposite. Recent studies by the World Health Organization and United Nations have revealed that feelings of loneliness and alienation are reaching global epidemic proportions, and that this general sense of feeling disconnected is reaching many communities worldwide. So much so that now many countries have actually appointed ministers for loneliness in their governments, the UK being the most recent. There is no easy answer or fix to this problem but we wanted to explore how small acts of kindness, and authentic expressions of love can help us reach across the divide, and remember more thoughtful ways to interact with each other.
RQM: This piece is devised. What was your devising process for this show? I’m curious to learn more about the dynamic between you and the ensemble members specifically.
MD: The devising process usually begins by brainstorming topics and themes that are of interest to the company – as we begin to narrow down themes that we would like to explore, each member brings in support materials that can include text, photographs, music, newspaper articles, videos, all kinds of references. There is a lot of discussion in the early stages but, once we have landed on a specific focus for the work, we primarily begin developing the piece through improvisation. The devising process is very long and much of the material that is originated in the studio actually ends up on the “cutting-room floor.” As we hone in on the arc of the piece, many wonderful moments that we have created simply no longer have a place in the work and so we have to let them go. As the Director of a devised work it is my job to be the keeper of the initial vision and to bring all of the elements together in a cohesive way. It’s like shooting a movie out of sequence, sometimes you’re working on a section that will end up being at the end, but you’re working on it first. Devising can be challenging for actors because there isn’t an obvious through line that you would have with an existing play, and so there is a lot of trust that has to develop between director and actor, and actor and actor. It requires actors who are willing to jump off at the deep end, and have faith that we will get to where we need to by the end of the process.
RQM: What’s next for Wallis Studio Ensemble?
MD: We hope to bring S.O.S to the Hollywood Fringe Festival this year. Then we have our second production of the season, which will be at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts June 6th through 9th, that will not be a devised piece but rather an existing play, on which we have yet to decide.
Featured photo: Cast of S.O.S. – photo by Jo Rodriguez