The Cult of Ensemble

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Banner image by Jesse Bonnell


This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Okay, let's begin with a little check list of warning signs. See if any of these sound familiar:

The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader.
The leader dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel.
The leader is not accountable to any authorities.
Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group.
The most loyal members feel there can be no life outside the context of the group.
The group is preoccupied with making money.

With the exception of making money, this list could be titled "Warning signs you may be part of an ensemble theater company." In fact, it's one of the first Google hits for 'Signs you may be in a cult' and serves as a great indoctrination to the latest work by the LA-based company Poor Dog Group.

In Five Small Fires, currently at the Bootleg Theater, Poor Dog Group captures, or channels, a cult-like group trapped in what feels like an inverted community rec room in Glendale.

The group of five young actors, or should I say members, are in the "Meeting Area." We're told "The Practice" has begun. They are recording confessional videos. Slowly, we learn through recognizably clipped, poetic double-speak about Houston; The Crystal Palace; about "The Sexual"; about a dark trip to "Costa Rica" and something about children; about swastikas on the light poles in Glendale. And about Agamemnon? And the house of Atreus?

It's creepy, oddly familiar, and mesmerizing all at the same time.

Keeping the whole thing together, like any cult I suppose, is the dedication of the members. These are talented, trained actors who capture not only the words but the deeper meanings and relationships that are bubbling beneath the surface. It's a level of nuance that you can only achieve with an ensemble company where the lines between personal history and artistic event become dangerously and deliciously blurred.

It's part of that affinity that makes it easy to mistake an ensemble for a cult whether it's Grotowski, The Living Theater, or even the Rude Mech's with their more recent Method Gun. What makes this such fertile ground is that each company is trying to articulate something deeper about the group inside of a troubling world. Whether it's these theater companies or a David Koresh or James Jones, buried inside of the madness is a commentary on society.

It's this commentary that will stick with you in Five Small Fires.

Poor Dog Group have been something like that rare, blooming flower at a botanical garden -- often talked about but seldom seen. Even though they're celebrating their fifth anniversary, they've only produced a handful of works. A decade ago a young company in Los Angeles would have produced that many pieces in a single year. This speaks less to Poor Dog's commitment and more to the economic realities of making theater in America now.

It's hard not to read this promising piece as both a warning and an allegory for that struggle. It's a warning you shouldn't miss.

Poor Dog Group's Five Small Fires plays at the Bootleg Theater through March 29.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Run time: 90 minutes without an intermission.