Memories of The Brass Tacks Ensemble – Part 1

The History of the Brass Tacks Ensemble.  (Hmm.)

A History of The Brass Tacks Ensemble.  (Better.  Maybe?)

The Story of The Brass Tacks Ensemble.  (Moving backwards.)

The Lamentable History of The Brass Tacks Ensemble:  A Tragicomedy in Five Acts Wherein the Author Recounts the Vicissitudes Befalling… (Zzzz…)

How about, simply, Memories of The Brass Tacks Ensemble?

Having been asked by Isaac Ellis (our beloved Executive Director) to throw together a summary/history/walk-down-memory-lane in observation/celebration of The BTE’s twentieth anniversary, I find myself flooded with mixed emotions:  Nostalgia for the days of yore when a plucky group of individuals put together their first show (King Lear) at the Performance Network’s TreeTown Festival way back in the summer of 1999; depression at the fact that (I believe) there were at least a couple cast members in our most recent season (2018) who were probably not alive (or, at the very least, who were in their infancy) when that first production was mounted (I was 26 at the time of that production, for God’s sake); pride in the number and quality of the shows that we have produced since that summer.

Two things to keep in mind as you read this:  One, these are the recollections twenty years on without benefit of diary, journal, keepsakes, souvenirs, etc.  They will most assuredly be faulty recollections. I will remember what I can remember. Two, these will be very subjective recollections.  Most of my theatrical experiences over the past twenty years have been with the BTE, and this may end up reading like personal reflection rather than objective history.  I’m hopeful something interesting will come out of this.

Where to begin?

How about the name?

How The Brass Tacks Ensemble Got Its Name

It must have been early in 1999 when The Performance Network, a professional theater that was formerly a “network” for “performance” groups, initiated its TreeTown Festival.  The Festival would be a summer (off-season) showcase for outside groups to mount their own productions, thus keeping some of the flavor of the old Network–whether that was the intention or not, I have no idea.  At any rate, it piqued the interest of our little band of friends.  

Rob Sulewski, Jeffrey Steiger, and I had performed together a few times over the previous two years–including a production at the pre-professional Network of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party (what Rob has termed a  “proto-Tacks” production).  We, along with Anne Rhoades who had now hopped on the runaway train, decided to apply for a spot in the inaugural TreeTown season.  

Of course, one of the first lines on the application was “Group Name” (or “Name of Group” or “Production Company” or something like that).  This had not even been a consideration before. Even when we produced Birthday Party, we didn’t have a name.  A name meant serious business, and I don’t know how seriously we took the business at the time.  We certainly wanted to put on a good show–we were serious in that respect–but we weren’t a full-time (or even part-time) theater group.  We were just a group of friends who liked doing shows. Together.

Here’s where it gets a little tricky.  (I’m probably going to type that sentence more than a few times in this process.)  I can’t remember if the Brass Tacks Ensemble’s name came first or if the Brass Tacks Ensemble’s aesthetic came first.  Or if it was one of those beautiful moments of serendipity that brought the two together simultaneously and subconsciously.  I suppose it doesn’t matter.  

Jump back eight years to 1991:  The first show I acted in when I was at college was a student production of Clifford Odets’s Waiting for Lefty.  (I was Joe.  Which certainly helps a lot when you’re trying to identify male characters in American realistic drama.)  A few of us in the show so enjoyed working with each other that we attempted to put together a show a couple of months later.  And we decided to give ourselves a name based on one of my character’s lines in the show, a line that we all liked: “Let’s get down to brass tacks”–the sweet spot for a name or title:  A phrase common enough that everyone knows what it means but not so common that it’s used every day. We decided to call ourselves The Brass Tacks Ensemble. That show and that ensemble did not pan out.  But…

I don’t think we had thought too much about the production aesthetic at that point–certainly not as much as the BTE thinks about it now.  Today, we’re trying to forge a distinct identity among a larger-than-you-would-think number of theater groups in the area; back then, we were just trying to get onstage.  But with hindsight, it’s easy for me to see that this show (if we were accepted) and this group (if it continued to work together) would be the next step in a progression–a progression that started with tentative experiments in scattered productions throughout the area and would eventually morph into more and more specific examples of a distinct philosophy.  

But I think we knew enough at that point that when I put forward “The Brass Tacks Ensemble” as a possibility, it would be a great name for what we were going to do, given the chance.  And so it went on the form.

James Ingagiola, founder

Come back in August for the next piece of this continuing saga!