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Rising Like a Phoenix

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You wouldn't know it by looking at its current season, but Phoenix Theatre Ensemble is just getting started. It was only October 2004 when the company mounted its first show, but in the next seven months it will offer six new productions, the return of a previous play, and a community-based work on social justice. That level of output puts the Phoenix on a par with many large New York theatres and major regional companies. But unlike most of those groups, the Phoenix doesn't even have its own space. It doesn't have an office or a leader, either.

When they founded the company in early 2004, the Phoenix's five core members—actors Craig Smith, Elise Stone, Michael Surabian, Angela Madden, and Jason Crowl—knew they wanted to avoid the hierarchical leadership of most institutional theatres. After departing Jean Cocteau Repertory, another ensemble-based Off-Broadway theatre, where they had worked for a combined 80 seasons, they decided to re-emerge as a truer kind of ensemble. Thus, all administrative decisions—from artistic planning to budgeting—are reached by consensus. Each year one member is named "ensemble leader" should a tiebreaking vote be needed, but that fail-safe has reportedly never been used. Apparently, team spirit always prevails.

This communal philosophy is as essential to the Phoenix's art as it is to its business meetings. Each season's plays are chosen based on group interests, not a mission statement that requires, say, only contemporary scripts. The company might offer a new play—last season it premiered Glyn Maxwell's Wolfpit—or it might mount a classic, like The Sneeze, a collection of Chekhov shorts running at New York's Ace of Clubs through Nov. 14. Stone says the only requirement is that the ensemble believe in its choices: "As long as one of the five of us feels extremely passionate, the rest of us are happy to support it."

Once work on a production begins, the communal vibe spreads, according to Stone: "Most people will tell you that in their theatre careers, they're aware that some people are considered to have more-valuable opinions than others. Our core value is that we serve the art and the artist, and that everyone who participates—and we mean everyone—is treated as though they are as important as every other person."

So even though box office managers and scenery painters may not be invited to choose a season, they are always encouraged to make suggestions. "We say, 'Weigh in with ideas,' " says Smith, noting that the Phoenix found The Painting, an obscure Ionesco one-act the company will produce in November (along with the playwright's more familiar The Lesson), because Smith asked a friend about plays that excited him.

Smith feels this open-door policy also gives the Phoenix a unique relationship with its board members: "We're very interested in knowing what they think, which is not always typical of a company. Because our board members are audience members as well, they're in some ways in a better position to tell us things that we couldn't know ourselves." More than just discussing finances, the board offers feedback on everything from the type of plays they want to see to how subscriptions should be sold.

But egalitarianism isn't fostered only through the free exchange of ideas. No matter the job, everyone who works on a Phoenix show is paid the same rate—and since the company operates under an Equity Seasonal Showcase contract, that means the entire cast and crew earn a union wage. What's more, the five founders (they prefer the term "staff") do not receive an additional salary; they're paid only for shows in which they're involved. Stone believes this further upends the traditional power structure: "Everyone who works with us sees the Phoenix—the five of us—doing everything from buying toilet paper to scrubbing out the toilets in the theatre we rented. But they also know us as artists getting on stage with them."

Perhaps because all five founders are actors, the Phoenix aims to make performers feel especially welcome. "When you come to an audition, you're made to feel safe," Stone says. "We say, 'Hi, how are you? Relax,' and unlike other theatres, we actually call you if we haven't hired you, and we tell you why." Maybe more surprising is that the company isn't put off by actors who turn down roles that don't excite them. "We've offered actors extremely plum roles and had them say, 'I don't really like that playwright,' " Stone says. "And we'll go, 'Great.' We want [everyone] to feel passionate about what we put on the stage."

To that end, participants in a Phoenix production are encouraged to stray outside their job descriptions. Take Alexis Powell, a recent college graduate whom the company has regularly hired as an assistant stage manager, assistant director, and box office staffer. After the founders learned she was involved with a film production team, they asked her to shoot a documentary about the company's community-outreach project, which involves artists developing autobiographical theatre pieces with Manhattan teens and senior citizens.

Smith and Stone know that some view the Phoenix's approach with skepticism. Smith concedes, "It isn't for everyone. But it isn't the kind of mayhem or chaos I think some of these people—who think in the more corporate structure of hierarchy—think it is." On the contrary, staffers worry over all the usual things: money, space, ticket sales. The difference, Smith says, is how much they can accomplish. "[At] so many theatres, by necessity of the way they're structured, the overhead of the administration and the overhead of real estate takes over the organization. You've got this massive administration, and then, oh yeah, they're doing these little three-character plays—that's all they can afford."

The Phoenix keeps its overhead low by not having a permanent performance space, which means the company doesn't have to pay for rent or utilities unless it's in production. It doesn't have an office either, so staffers often communicate via email. A voicemail account catches business calls, and tasks like bookkeeping and publicity are outsourced. This leaves most of the budget—projected at $300,000 for next season—to be spent on bringing work to the stage. That's largely how the fledgling group has been able to mount seven shows in only its third season.

Of course, even a small budget must be raised, and as the Phoenix presses on, securing grants and selling tickets remains a concern. Discussing new theatres, Smith says, "The first years [run on] adrenaline, but by the time you get to the third season, the major stumbling blocks and barriers are starting to pop up. For us, the financial stumbling block is huge…. Right now, artistically, we are employing 45 people [on various shows] and they're all getting a fee. That adds up to a chunk of change."

Yet the company is attracting support from foundations, including grants that emerged from leads supplied by audience members. As the Phoenix's budget grows, however, it will move into the next Equity bracket, increasing the pay for everyone on its quasi-socialist payroll. A possible additional revenue source is the theatre's core audience, which Smith pegs at about 2,000. Most of them, Smith says, followed the founders from Cocteau, where Smith acted for more than 30 years and Stone more than 20.

Given their audience's clear loyalty, maybe it's surprising to characterize the Phoenix's fast-rising fortunes as a matter of embracing a certain amount of flux. Still, Stone and Smith seem sanguine. "People might say we're slightly insane," says a smiling Stone, "but somewhere in our hearts we have the belief that this is the right way to do it."

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