Who’s in charge here? In most collaborative endeavors, the question has a simple and obvious answer. There is a designated leader, one who assumes ultimate responsibility for the project’s success.
But there are two major exceptions where this familiar structure does not apply: marriage and string quartets.
Since the form was invented a couple of centuries ago, quartets have consisted of four equal partners: two violinists, a violist, and a cellist. The repertoire they play, and the way they play it, is decided by consensus.
An individual player can, and often will, insist that a certain passage needs to be played more quickly or more slowly, with more warmth or more crispness. But if he can’t convince his colleagues, the idea is discarded.
“Leadership has to be in flux,” noted playwright and sometime-violist Michael Hollinger, who is on the faculty of Villanova University. “That can be thrilling, or disorienting. I love an environment of equals trying to work something out together. Because of this, I sometimes get in trouble in my university life, where hierarchy and seniority are particularly valued.”
Saturday night, Ensemble Theatre Company opens its production of Opus, Hollinger’s drama about the inner workings of a string quartet. The 2006 play has had more than 30 productions to date, which is fairly astonishing given that chamber music is very much a minority taste.
So what are audiences responding to? “Most people work in some combination of small groups, even if they’re part of a huge corporation,” Hollinger noted in a telephone interview from his Pennsylvania home. “I think people respond immediately to the idea that we’re trying to accomplish something, and we need to get past, over, through the idiosyncrasies of our individual temperaments.
“On a deeper level, I think the play is about legacy and the value of the work you leave behind. Because it’s ephemeral, performance of any kind is a good, poignant metaphor of our temporary natures as living things. Just as the note dies, we do, too. Therefore, the question becomes: What do we make of it when it’s passing through us, and what resonates after it’s gone? The play strives to hint at this without beating the audience over the head.”
Those are indeed universal themes. But it’s likely that audiences are also responding to the authenticity of the play. Hollinger grew up playing the viola, and while he decided after college that he didn’t want to become a professional (“I was tired of being in a practice room”), he has played in many string quartets as both an adolescent and an adult. He also spent time in a rock band and a touring children’s theater company.
“These were all groups of three to five people who were trying to make art in a pressure-cooker setting,” he recalled. “I think all of them have a lot in common in terms of high ideals, big aspirations, passionate personalities, and a certain level of explosiveness. The debate over apparent minutiae can be so vibrant—even violent!
“One thing a drama can do is give you an insider’s view of the workplace—whatever the workplace may be. It’s why shows like The West Wing or E.R. are interesting to us. We’re grabbed by the human dramas, but we’re also fascinated by the novelty of the setting. We’re curious people!”
Hollinger first envisioned writing a play about a quartet 20 years ago, early in his career as a dramatist. But he got stuck and put aside the project for 15 years. “I thought by then I had enough craft to pull it off,” he said, and he was clearly right: The 2006 premiere at Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre, his home base, was followed by a critically acclaimed off-Broadway production the following year.
For that first production, Hollinger and his colleagues had to solve one daunting puzzle. “Most of the time, attempts to simulate playing on stage—or on film, for that matter—are terrible,” he noted. “Having someone pretend to be a musician or dancer can be very distracting. We had to find a theatrical language for playing.
“We tried a variety of things before discovering the right combination. We found that, to get the sense of shared breath and movement that is the hallmark of a really good ensemble, the actors’ right arms needed to be moving in sync with the music, but we didn’t need the left hands at all.”
For the actors portraying the musicians, “This can be a daunting prospect,” he conceded. “It’s a lot of work for a cast to do it right. They need to bring in a consultant—a professional player who coaches the actors. Sheet music goes out with the script, along with a video that shows a quartet playing the music. They learn the bowing for their parts.
“It’s a little bit like beginning rehearsal with tai chi every day,” he said. “You come into rehearsal and do half an hour of bowing work. It’s like when actors have to learn intensive fight choreography together. The discipline and focus required can be a bonding experience.”
Not unlike, say, making music.
Opus previews February 3 and 4 and runs February 5-27 at the Alhecama Theatre, 914 Santa Barbara Street. Tickets are $30-$50 ($20 for students). For more info, call 965-5400 or visit ensembletheatre.com.