September 8, 2011

The Ensemble Studio Theatre: A Love Story

 
I’d like to introduce you to the Ensemble Studio Theatre (EST): we’ve been in love for 33 years. In fact, hundreds of other theatre professionals participate in our love circle – including my husband.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I’ve been a member of EST since 1978 and was elected to its Board in 2010.

Roger Morgan, my husband and business partner, is a founding member. He signed the articles of incorporation alongside the late-great Curt Dempster (EST’s Founder) in 1968. 

So what’s to love, you may ask?

EST is a safe haven for several hundred theatre professionals who apply for (free) membership: actors, writers, producers, directors, designers, managers, technicians and critics. They represent the 8 roles of Theatrical Intelligence.

The ENSEMBLE in the theatre’s name = its members.

STUDIO = a “theatre gym”, where members gather for vigorous workouts and candid de-briefs from fellow members and the artistic staff.

THEATRE = Place: 549 West 52nd Street, which in spite of its grit and an occasional mouse, is passionately loved by its users.

These three elements make up THE ENSEMBLE STUDIO THEATRE, which provides a lifeline to creativity throughout the best (as well as the worst) years in the lives of its members.

Since its inception, EST has developed an astonishing 6,000+ plays. More importantly, it continues to nurture its artists for as long as they care to be nurtured, using its own collaborative technique.

With a current annual budget of $1.3 million, EST has been recognized by the American Theater Wing, the NY Outer Critics Circle, Drama Desk Awards and Village Voice Obies; collectively, its members have won Pulitzers, Oscars, Tonys, Golden Globes… the list goes on.

So why does this trashy little place matter so much to its members?

To use myself as an example, I dared to write, direct, produce, and spread my wings as an artist at EST. I had never stepped into any of these roles before.

In 1987, EST actress Christine Farrell asked if I’d join a group of leading ladies in an evening of our own making. She knew that we’d never be cast in the same play, and she simply wanted to be onstage together for a change, instead of competing for the same roles. EST member Pamela Berlin joined us as DIrector.

We wrote, workshopped, disagreed, re-wrote, disagreed better, re-wrote better, learned to trust, performed, published and produced MAMA DRAMA, a collaborative piece that is still performed in academic and community theatres nationwide.

My development as a leader is directly attributable to EST. By the late-80′s I was sick of performing, but I wasn’t trained to do anything else. I wanted to work ON a play instead of IN it. Because EST members are able to initiate their own projects, I did. I wrote. Directed. Managed. Experimented. Convinced people to work with me for free.

It became clear to me that I could bring a project to life by identifying strengths in my collaborators that they didn’t necessarily know they had. The trick was to reflect them back so they were somehow quantifiable.  Each time this happened, a profound level of trust was established in the group and we often believed that together we could do anything! (This was frequently followed by a spectacular and unforgettable failure.)

Immediately after the experience of writing, directing and producing, I shifted my career, a direct result of exploring these roles. Writing is now one of my great passions and part of my daily life, and it would never have happened without EST. It’s where I discovered my “CEO shoes”, and they fit so comfortably I never wanted to take them off.

Curt, Christine, Leslie, Rita, Annie, Donna, Marianna and Pam changed my life.

There are many EST stories just like mine. Why? Because this theatre is the place to try out new stuff and know that it’s OK to fail. In fact, absence of failure is a bit suspect, and falling flat on your face is certainly the quickest way to learn: check out the 6 Principles of Theatrical Intelligence.

And at EST, once a member always a member, so we get to fail again and again!

These days I’m back at EST experimenting in yet another role: Vice Chair of the Board of Directors. 

I believe it’s essential to spread the word about this model of creativity, and work to ensure that it builds a financial foundation for its future. Because EST is not only a theatre that is deeply loved – it is a theatre that knows how to love back.

What could be better?

 

Photo above left: The Ensemble Studio Theatre by Christopher Cayaba

Photo above right: MAMA DRAMA, clockwise from left: Leslie Ayvazian, Christine Farrell, Rita Nachtmann, Anne O’Sullivan, Ann Sachs (seated, center). Not pictured: Director Pamela Berlin, Donna Daley and Marianna Houston.

If you’d like to see what’s going on at EST: please join us!

 

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9 Responses to “The Ensemble Studio Theatre: A Love Story”

  1. Mindy says:

    Ann,

    What a wonderful relationship you have had (and, still have) with EST. You are lucky to have found such a nurturing partner. How rare to find a place where you are able to be creative and passionate and accepted for your creativity and passion. May the dance continue into the wee hours.

    ~Mindy

  2. Roger Morgan says:

    An excellent piece about an excellent place. If there have been more than 6,000 plays presented, just imagine how many actors must have worked there. EST is a real success story.

  3. Kurt Wehmann says:

    Ann,

    What an beautiful article! EST is truly an amazing entity. I feel immensely honored and blessed to be able to contribute in my own little way to its place in our world.

    Please, everyone, share your EST stories!

    -Kurt

  4. Paul Slee says:

    Dear Ann, only the internet can accommodate the hundreds of thousands of stories that must exist in the hearts and minds of all those artists and audiences collaborating on the 6,000 plays presented by EST (and counting)! I so look forward to reading those stories by whomever is moved to respond.

    I met a prominent Broadway producer this summer at the O’Neill, where I was a guest of a trustee. I was a bit shy at first because she is so important in our big commercial stage community in NYC. But the first thing she said to me was, “Oh, I actually wrote a play that was presented at EST years ago!” She said this in front of the head of the Broadway League, Charlotte St. Martin, who did a double take, possibly unaware that this producer’s passion for theatre had once extended to writing a play. And EST had hosted that risk-taking endeavor.

    I encounter stories like that all the time. At the TCG Conference in June, at least four people I did not know previously told me of their early professional theatre experiences at EST, whether as interns, producers or crew. Thanks for inviting many more people to tell their EST stories!

    Paul

  5. Bob Jaffe says:

    Ann –

    Clearly EST is in your bones, as it is in the bones of many that I have met over the years that I have served as a member of the Board of Directors.

    There is a passion for this theater – a vital interest, not only in its well-being and continued health, but in its role as a place to develop new works, to experiment, to succeed and, also, (as you have said) to fail. And to do so in a venue where it is safe to do so.

    Thanks for telling your story!

    - Bob

  6. Ann,

    Terrific piece! And so reminiscent of my own EST Experience.

    Becoming a member as a young actor in the early 80′s, my very first opportunity as a producer came in member initiated projects on the 6th Floor. Then, as Co-Directors of the Summer Conference at the Forest Inn in Tannersville, my wife and EST member Emma Walton Hamilton and I first discovered the joy of watching the new work of emerging artists’ first awkward, often brilliant steps. Drawing on that experience. we founded Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor where I was Executive Director and Emma Artistic Director and Director of Children’s Programming for 17 years. Just recently, we left Bay Street to build an MFA program in Theatre at Stony Brook University where both the special satisfaction of fostering the artistic growth in others, and our participation in the membership of EST has come full circle. EST has become an active participant in the Stony Brook Southampton effort, and we feel blessed to have a partner so rich in the kind of resources that matter most in this world: passion, creativity and an ever-evolving entrepreneurial spirit.

    Thanks, Ann for giving us this opportunity to share our own EST Love Story!

    Steve

  7. Ann, your love and dedication to EST are inspiring – in this blog posting but more importantly in the energy and enthusiasm you bring to every EST meeting, and your volunteer and fundraising efforts which directly impact the capacity of EST. Thank you for sharing!

    Miriam, EST’s Development Manager

  8. Ann Sachs says:

    Thanks to so many of you!

    Mindy: what a joy it is to work with you every day! I am lucky indeed, to have found EST as a partner and to have found Roger as a partner: “twice blessed” as my darlin’ Irish mother used to say.

    Kurt: thank YOU for your architectural expertise over 10 years now (can it be?) And regarding the EST Stories: “Workin’ on it!” as Roger would say. I’m with you – each story is so different and so compelling.

    Roger: MHHAP-TMWMITWWW

    Paul: So exciting to hear these stories (did you see Steve Hamilton’s?) Thanks for helping to spread the word!

    Steve: I love the image of you and Emma, watching “… the new work of emerging artists’ first awkward, often brilliant steps”. How can we get more EST members to share their love stories?

    Bob: you are so right – the passion gets into your bones, and stays there. And working with you on the Board of Directors is now in our bones too. Learning so much from you! Thank you.

  9. Ann Sachs says:

    Miriam, right back atcha. You’re a beautiful example of the inter-generational component of EST, one of its unique assets – think there’s a blog post about that! You inspire those of us who’ve been around forever-and-a-day, so it’s a win-win equation. (Maybe that true of all love stories?)

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