Reflections on Ensemble

I really, really like the idea of an ensemble.  I’ve had a few experiences where I’ve felt the mysterious high that comes when a cast really pulls together and mounts a production you never want to end (no, this hasn’t happened in every show I’ve been involved in).  It’s such a gratifying feeling, being an equal member of an ensemble, that I seek it in every play I’m involved with.  How did the Brass Tacks Ensemble start?  A bunch of friends got together and wanted to put on some plays.  That’s it.  And it’s still here, even if some of the original ensemble has moved on and others have come in and taken on new responsibilities.  This year, we have a rare opportunity to build something that will live beyond one production.

A Midsummer Night's Dream
Cast of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – 2014

For me, the whole theatre thing goes back to being a kid in middle school.  I believe in my heart of hearts that the training I got as a young actor set my beliefs for the rest of my theatrical career (so far, anyway).  When I was a teenager, we were told that the theater is like a church.  You respect it.  You love it.  You do everything you can to honor it.  Yes, it meant that we weren’t to chew gum onstage and leave empty bottles in the auditorium… but at the same time, while I was learning the ropes, a great teacher (Dr. Tim Lentz, now retired), came up with his mantra, “DPTL,” which stood for Discipline, Patience, Tradition, and Love.  I giggled at the cheeseball feeling I got in the pit of my stomach every time I heard it, a feeling I now realize meant that it was resonating with me.  Despite my inner groans, that acronym stands now as the pillar that holds up my convictions.

I love rehearsals.  I love seeing people I like and being vulnerable, making discoveries through performance that I would never have made on my own.  Genuinely, I like to work hard.  It’s amazing how the time flies by when we have the discipline and patience to do a scene again and again, as long as we are continually stretching, or supporting someone in the group who is stretching.  There’s no feeling like going into a Shakespeare rehearsal and having NO IDEA what something means, humbly admitting it, and then discovering so many possible meanings and working with other people to figure out the best way to get it across onstage.

We honor our own traditions – The Brass Tacks Ensemble has a mission and vision that we stand by.  When in rehearsals, we’re trying to work something out – and all of a sudden, the answer is there.  Just remove that prop.  Are we worrying so much about that light fixture that it’s getting in the way of the story?  Let the audience see the people behind the puppets.  It’s even funnier that way.  We find those moments because we have a tradition of finding them… and because we can go back to our mission when we’re questioning what to do next.  

And then there’s love.

The Brass Tacks Ensemble - Eat Me
Eat Me: Alice’s Adventures in the Working Class – 2015

I’ve always had a hard time making friends.  It’s not that I ever had NO friends, exactly… but it took so long for me to trust someone else, and find what clicked with them, and let go enough to actually have fun that the friendships I have had through my life are few and epic.  So the idea of creating, or inserting myself into, an ensemble theatre with a bunch of “friends” is terrifying.  Are they my friends?  Will they laugh at me if I introduce them that way?  For the first time I feel comfortable enough in a group of like-minded people to see that establishing our ensemble is exciting, not terrifying.  These are people who support me.  They listen to my ideas (they push me to contribute ideas, even, because they know I need that sometimes).  They show up to install light fixtures and rehearse in hot warehouses and take notes at meetings and build websites and create revenue spreadsheets.  And so do I, because I love the big picture so much.  They want me there.  For once in my life, I don’t have to tiptoe around the things I see as BS in theatre.  Most of that revolves around ego and arrogance; one-upmanship, spectacle and snobbery.  They may just be insecurities that I made up in my head, but for whatever reason, all of that disappears with the BTE people.  

I think that this ensemble-making is the manifestation of love for theatre that I have felt, deep down, since I was twelve years old.  A therapist once asked me why I loved theatre, and I didn’t have an answer.  It probably had something to do with the social aspect, and that’s still true, but there’s something… I don’t know… immortal about what we do, too.  Finding people who are willing to jump in with just about anything to feed this undefinable love…. That’s the ensemble.  Holding each other up, always learning, gently correcting, discussing, playing, genuinely enjoying being in one another’s company.  It’s only recently that I have begun to understand my place in this world, as someone who is no more or no less than anyone else.  It seems so basic and impossible, but in this place, it’s effortless.  I’m safe.

Mary Conley is the Coordinator of Online Presence for The Brass Tacks Ensemble.  She’s applying for an acting position in the 2017 Season Ensemble. You should too!


  1. I’m with you, Mary! I never feel more comfortable with people than when I’m with theatre people. The comradery, trust, acceptance and shared creativity are more fulfilling than any group experience I’ve ever had. BTE’s upcoming Shakespeare ensemble is exciting because of its dedication to learning and bonding as a team. The heights to which we can soar are unlimited when there’s a commitment to quality work through art and play in a safe environment. What an exciting adventure! BTE rocks!

  2. Great post, Mary. I appreciate your honesty and enthusiasm, and I’m proud of y’all at BTE for building something so unique and impactful within the theater community. You’re giving Ann Arbor “a there there”, to quote Gertrude Stein 🙂 I’ve enjoyed working with you and being on a team with you.

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