As The saying goes, membership has its privileges. But ownership does too. Just ask Eileen Morris, artistic director of The Ensemble Theatre.
“Ownership is freedom,” she says emphatically.
And freedom, of course, brings with it a broader array of choices, artistic or otherwise.
That’s part of what’s behind the newly created National Association of Black Theatre Building Owners (NABTBO), of which The Ensemble is a founding member. Announced earlier this month, the partnership was established by seven African American theater companies across the country to help build an infrastructure to support the Black theatrical community nationwide.
The oldest and largest professional Black theater in the Southwest, The Ensemble was first established in 1976 and has owned its theater and operations space on Main Street since the group held its mortgage burning ceremony in 2004. This milestone has allowed the company to call its own shots on programming, build more elaborate sets, and host events for audiences and donors in its own space. And not on someone else’s clock.
“No one says we have to be out at a certain time or can only rehearse at a certain time,” says Morris.
The brainchild of Chuck Smith, award-winning resident director of both Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe in Sarasota, Florida, NABTBO will better allow members to share resources, best practices, and overall ideas. Other members in the new alliance include Arena Players in Baltimore, ETA in Chicago, Hattiloo Theater in Memphis, Tennessee, and National Black Theatre in New York City.
Being able to pool resources with colleagues who share the same mission of creating spaces where Black voices take center stage is invaluable for both companies and audiences alike, Morris says.
“We’re a little bit like the Green Book of theaters. There are theatergoers around the country who want to see the kind of work we do. Being members of this organization means that we can share our seasons and marketing with our fellow NABTBO members, and new audiences can find us.”
Not only is Morris looking forward to future collaborations, but she’s also excited about the potential for actors from other companies to work with The Ensemble and for The Ensemble’s fan-favorites to work outside the city in return. She also hopes the alliance inspires other Black theater building owners.
“I love that this is yet another way to pull people together,” she says. “It helps keep our legacy of telling stories of the African American experience alive.”