Blood Ensemble was a Seattle-based devised theatre company. It created original works based on the process created by Tectonic Theatre Project around telling stories, creating character, and making a theatre experience that entertains and challenges audiences.
Blood Ensemble had been working together for a handful of years and had experienced a lot of great success in the work they had created. However, after pushing out production after production, they were finding that their relationships were straining and their desire to do the work was waning.
I was asked by one of the artistic directors, D, to come in and figure out what to do next with the company. We set out to have a process of strategic planning, organizational development, and healing so this group of close friends could heal their burn out and find the passion and joy for the work again.
One thing that had changed was where the founding members of this group were in their lives. Some wanted to produce different work or wanted to devote time to other projects. They were at a serious crossroads about how to move forward and could not seek consensus among themselves let alone the rest of the company.
What we did
My first step was to do some data collection. With this group being so small, one on one interviews were easy to complete. I asked each company member about the following:
- What they did outside the theatre work
- How they came to Blood Ensemble
- What they thought the purpose of Blood Ensemble was
- What they thought their informal role was
- To draw the org structure to see how each of them perceived it
- How much Blood Ensemble infiltrated their lives
- How much time they wanted to invest in Blood Ensemble in the future
- Where they saw Blood Ensemble in 5 years
- How much they thought their personal vision for the company aligned with the larger company’s
- What their future was with the company
- Feedback for the artistic director, D, who brought me on board
Overall we learned that most people were unsure about their future with the company, didn’t think their personal goals would align with the company goals, and had little interest in investing in the company at that point.
With that in mind, we came up with a plan to give the company some healing space and chose to do an offsite retreat purely for dreaming and expressing all these differing perspectives in one place. Of the 7 company members, 4 had expressed a desire to step back from the company, but I thought with the space to explore some of their deeper desires and how to do the work sustainably, we could win them back and move forward.
We arrived at the retreat and I had a full plan of creating a space for dreaming, talking through ideal scenarios, and what everyone want to do to contribute to that situation. Since it had been so long since these 7 friends had been in the same place, we started with some social time.
After about 20 minutes of settling in, drinks in hand, one of the company members announced that they had intentions of leaving the company…permanently. This was followed by other similar echoes from 3 other company members. They all finished their drinks, got back in their cars, and left.
So, in the space of about 30 minutes we went from creating a space of respite to a space where we were actively processing surprise, anger, and grief.
I switched gears, scrapped my original plan, and instead set up a circle for the remaining 3 members to talk about what had just happened. I also expressed my surprise since while the other 4 members had indicated they were burnt out, all had said they were willing to give this retreat a try and take some space before deciding what to do.
There were tears, anger, I turned on my skills for managing someone in acute distress and put words to feelings so the three members could see that they were all having similar responses.
After all three had processed their initial feelings and had some space to calm their nervous systems, we made a plan. The plan was to walk away for a couple of months and reconvene after having some space from Blood Ensemble as a whole. They would use this time to determine what they wanted to do and just take simple stock of how they were responding to the time without pressure to create or produce new work.
Two months later I checked in with D about their feelings moving forward. Being the sponsor of the project and one of the founders of the group, I assumed that if the company was going to move forward it would either require D’s full involvement, or a concerted effort to pass off responsibilities and systems to the remaining members of the group.
D had determined in their time away that they “definitely wanted to put Blood Ensemble to bed.” There was a plan to meet with the other members of the group in a few weeks and to take their temperature. I was asked to come to that meeting so if there was anything that needed to be transferred I could facilitate the process and any discussion that had to happen.
A month later we met up with the three remaining members and it was unanimously decided to shutter Blood Ensemble. The remaining members would each take a bit of responsibility for the shut down and would write letters to the remaining fans that would be posted through their social media sites. They also planned a work day to go through the acquired props, costumes, and other supplies and determine what could be donated, distributed among other members, or dumped.
They came up with a quick turnaround time of 3 weeks for posting the letters and getting the rest of the pieces complete. I left as they moved from work time to social time and agreed to follow up with D in a bit to see how it all went down.
Prior to even meeting with D, I got quite a few messages from friends who read the goodbye letters. They said that the whole thing seemed so amicable and professional while also being deeply heartfelt. I agreed. I read the goodbye letters before they posted and they were all about the friendships they had built, the work they had created, and the audience they had cultivated and were grateful for.
When I met with D, they were in a good place. The plan had been carried out and there were a few very minor details left like officially closing the social media accounts, but all money and property had been distributed.
I am happy to say that at this point, I regularly hear about how former members continue to have friendships and make art together. The goal was to move the group to a place where friendships could be salvaged above all. Closing the company was the best option to save everyone from future burnout and it seems to have created deeper roots among company members for future collaboration.
“I started working with Verhanika/Willhelm Consulting to address internal working relationships within Blood Ensemble that arose from a lack of proper structure and clears roles and responsibilities. Blood Ensemble was the verge of closing its doors due to burnout, personal conflicts, and the need for a few key members to extricate themselves from the company.
We worked with Verhanika for about 6 months and were able to complete a compassionate closing of Blood Ensemble as a working theatrical company. The compassionate closing was exactly what I needed and exactly what the other members of BE needed. Initially, we all thought that BE would continue on from our work with Verhanika, but after doing exploration with her and taking an appropriate amount of time to think on our own, we were able to come to the right conclusion. Closing the doors of BE was a better business decision because we left on a high note, we were able to start a conversation within the theater community about the difficulties this sort of work poses, and we hope this measure prevented the rough ending of important friendships.
Personally, I no longer feel obligated to my art the way I felt obligated to my theater company. I feel excited to create art again, empowered to go into a production situation with the right amount of forethought and anticipation. I feel that I’ve preserved the most important relationships with fellow producers after the closing of our doors.
The entirety of the process with Verhanika was wonderful. She was thoughtful, mindful, present, and open. She validated every person at every possible step while guiding us as a group with a firm hand towards whatever we were already headed towards. On top of all the emotional support Verhanika provided, she was organized, prompt, and a joy to work with.
I would recommend any company hire Verhanika after my experience with her. I’d recommend her on the basis that she is very intelligent, resourceful, mindful, and capable of moving a group of disparate individuals towards a common goal while making them think it is their doing the entire way. She never pushed harder than we were ready for, but always moved us forward. She would be great to work with any company that is at a pivotal point of growth. She helped us make decisions based on our past body of work and our personal goals moving forward. The next time I plan to start a company and/or production endeavor, I will be consulting with her first thing.”