Sunday morning: I was determined not to call a session at this DandD, but as Phelim says, if you're wondering whether you should or you shouldn't, perhaps you should.

Convening as a group of three, I immediately note a distinct feeling - though only slight - of deflation, a sense that maybe I am persisting in a somewhat quixotic relationship with a form, or an idea, that has had its day. I do, however, also feel grateful for the two guys who have rolled up, Alex and Rod, with evident interest in the theme and perhaps some stories to tell.

It unfolds quite quickly and we share experiences, excitements, disappointments and cautionary tales, as we try to work toward some working notion of what an Ensemble is; how, or by what mechanism, they form; some feeling for the qualities of a functional Ensemble. Emma joins us, then Loren, then Francesca, each bringing a different perspective, but by this widening of voices also shoring up the conviction that, as Rod asserts, “there are a lot of people out there still fixated on how great it would be, if only…”

My own engagement with this idea dates back to an early infatuation with the mythical narrative of the creation of the Group Theatre of New York, in the 1930s. Two aspects particularly resonate: the members, some young and untried, some recognised and already winning attention, were united in their admiration for the work of the Moscow Arts Theatre, and for the actor-training of the laboratory which was founded in a partial image of Stanislavski’s studio. They also all subscribed to a principle of mutuality which underpinned the Group Theatre from its inception. These two strands, of a shared artistic vision and of a fundamentally socialistic infrastructure, evoke feelings of family, of church (for anyone who has that point of reference), of shared experience, of purposeful, communal endeavour; in short, of togetherness, which, as Alex noted, is the root notion of the word Ensemble.

I note my insistence on endowing Ensemble with a particular value. Should Ensemble have a capital E? Is it a pretention? Does it risk turning enthusiasm into reverence? Or does it help to accord the degree of respect which the frame deserves? If our instincts are correct, those of us in the little group seem to feel that a theatre ecology bereft of the experience of Ensemble, would have lost something irreplaceable by any other means.

Alex is with Unfolding Theatre, Rod with Red Ladder; Emma has moved back to Norfolk as an independent director, but recalls the days of her work in Scarlet Theatre. Francesca talked about being a young director looking for connection and wondering whether one thinks more healthily about building community with the ‘right people’ gradually. Does an Ensemble, in other words, most organically form itself?

I’m reminded at this point of the reports of Peter Brook’s auditioning for his first company in Paris, where none of the candidates seemed to have anything in common with one another: Brook himself said he was looking for artists of any stripe or none, who were open to themselves, open to one another and able under those conditions to be open to the audience. So perhaps some Ensembles can be formed ‘on demand’, if the artistic or philosophical impulse is clear, and has the potential to resonate, or to rally members to action.

Loren describes her experience both of her training with Lecoq in Paris and her time with Eugenio Barba in Denmark with OdinTeatret, possibly the remaining Uber-Ensemble of these times, in Europe, anyway. Fascinating stuff. Even at stories of the potential for bad behaviour, exploitation or insularity, drawn breaths and mischievous grins betray a frisson of excitement within the group. All the more so at accounts of waking up early every day to attend the mandatory training sessions. Or of KneeHigh’s recurrent practice of training on the beach. Or of the self-imposed isolation of many of the Ensembles of the past: all seem to reinforce this nagging feeling, not just of nostalgia, but of passion and desire.

Modern funding models seem designed almost to preclude holding a company together for any period of time beyond the Single Project. Rod noted how this was not inevitably the case for Dance: cash strapped as things are, it seems accepted and self-evident that a dance company stays together longer, but that actors can come and go much more flexibly without damage to the work. Recent attempts at the Liverpool Everyman to create and sustain an Ensemble ended sadly in defeat. Was this because the proposal was too ambitious? The ambition itself too dreamy-eyed? Had it been sustained, and built its own brand, might the company have also built an audience? Is this the ACE’s fault? Did its funding regime demand a business model that didn’t fit the dream? Or was the problem closer to home? A temporary Ensemble brought together at the Leeds Playhouse with a cast of actors on 10-month contracts exposed its own fault-lines toward the end of the period, with some actors saying they couldn’t wait for ‘it’ to be over – were they bored, irritated with one another, feeling trapped, rather than liberated by the security of a fixed term engagement? It was mentioned, to rueful smiles, that the easiest way to make an actor complain has always been to give them a job.

Back twenty years or so, hosted by Equity and the Director’s Guild, I remember Michael Boyd talking about the struggles to build an Ensemble at the RSC, and of the inherently difficult model of apprentice actors seeing star names being offered the lead roles: their year-long contracts seemed not to encourage aspiration within the company and therefore gave them little reason to stay.

Clearly, from Stratford to Leeds or Liverpool, employment contracts alone do not an Ensemble make.

Companies that were mentioned along the way this morning: Northern Stage, and Alan Lidyard, Goat Theatre, Scarlet Theatre, KneeHigh, Gecko, Middle-Child, Company of Wolves, Told by an Idiot, Complicité…

We tried to get back to identifying the qualities which might be anticipated in an Ensemble: longevity, mutuality and support, sometimes even to the extent of co-housing; a shared vision, whether based in practice, in politics, or in philosophy, or some combination of any of these.

Democracy did not seem to be an inevitable feature, but there seems to be little appetite for an Ensemble organised around ego and especially not the ego of the group leader. Fairness, transparency and opportunity seem crucial. Anything with no room for individual agency, or which seemed too close to the autocratic, seemed not to qualify.

On the other hand, the acceptance of discipline, of a framework which demands more than is comfortable, are important, so that the members’ own egos are not to rule. An Ensemble seemed to us only to be healthy if it is able to offer and take critique, both internally and from outside, and willing to invite outside input without threat to its own identity.

Openness, courage, a safe-space within which to take risks; the group-owned right to fail, to forgive, to try again. Pina Bausch, like many other great artists, is remembered for sticking to her right to say, “I haven’t got the answer, I only know we’re not there yet.”

These qualities, one is reminded, are also the hallmarks of any healthy rehearsal process, and we remembered that in longer rehearsal periods, even for the Single Project, there is room to play without having to produce, and to experiment without having to justify apparent perambulations. Thus it can be, that in one-off companies a sense of an emerging Ensemble can be very strong, if the nurture of the artistic vision and of the group endeavour is favourably invested.

We imagined the tremendous value of time: where we often talk in our world about being (kept) cash-poor, the impact of that always seems to be a paucity of time. In an Ensemble, there is time, regular, social, educational time; time enough for ritual, for development, for the building of shared languages, shared skills, ongoing training.

The tempo-rhythm of a permanent company (by permanent, we might mean anything which outlives one production) might tend to be slower, more able to reflect and redo. Conversely, because of an accrued sense of history, an intimate knowledge of each other’s work and temperament can make Ensembles incredibly agile, giving them a shorthand and quick access to instinctual decision-making and artistic choices.

We felt that the cogency, coherence and excellence which an Ensemble might build were important: the testing and finessing of methodologies over time, the settling in of a mentality, not just of a structure. Some issues might simply disappear, such as the time it takes for an actor to settle the anxieties that always come with joining a new company.

All these might be considered an artistic case for the Ensemble. We felt there was also an economic case; with time comes the development of a brand, the building of a loyal audience, the ability to be quick in rehearsal, but also to hold more than one production in the collective body of the Ensemble and to sustain a repertoire. But these considerations did not seem to provide the excitement of those other themes. In the end, as we all seemed to agree, the togetherness was all. Perhaps we could change our vocabulary: instead of an Ensemble, we might speak of a Togetherness of Actors, or a Theatre of Togetherness.