Lean Ensemble performance group transforms stage performance into group conversation

Two boys fight on a playground. Two teeth get knocked out. Four parents meet to settle the matter peaceably, but negotiations deteriorate as they plunge into a minefield of parenting issues and skirmishes between the sexes that veer from the comical to unsettling truths.
“It’s funny how sometimes adults tend to behave more immaturely than their children,” said Lean Ensemble Theater artistic director Blake White of the premise behind the new theater company’s premiere production, “God of Carnage.” debuting Thursday, May 14 at Hilton Head Island’s Main Street Theater. But you won’t see a fight on stage when the play debuts May 14 at Hilton Head Island’s Main Street Theatre. “No children were harmed in the production of this play,” said White, but he promises that the ensuing summit of “grownups” intended to resolve the issue will have you laughing, thinking and talking.

Lean Ensemble’s mission is the pursuit of those moments when you find yourself so engrossed in what’s happening on stage that you unconsciously lean forward as if to understand it better, and then you notice that others around you are doing the same thing. It’s a collective experience that transforms a stage performance into a group conversation.

“Those true moments of humanity that don’t happen all that often anymore because of these things that constantly distract us,” White said, pointing to his smartphone. “Everybody’s connected with other human beings in the room.”

Lean Ensemble takes that concept a step further with talkbacks following each performance, when audience members have the opportunity to interact with cast and crew members — and each other — sharing thoughts and takeaways. “I’m certain that at least one time during the talkbacks somebody will say something about it that I’ve never thought about,” White said, “and I’ll have been thinking about this play for a year by that time.”

White sees Lean Ensemble’s genre as a different “brand” of theater for Lowcountry audiences. “All of the arts organizations here are so great and wonderful,” he said. “We’re not looking to compete with anybody. We’re looking to add to the pie.”

Beyond “God of Carnage,” Lean Ensemble plans to feature Pulitzer-, Tony- and Olivier-award winning dramas and comedies as well as new takes on American classics and Shakespearean works.

Originally written by French playwright Yasmina Reza and set in Paris, Lean Ensemble’s production of “God of Carnage” is based on Christopher Hampton’s English translation and takes place in Cobble Hill, a Brooklyn neighborhood. “ ‘God of Carnage’ is a perfect example of the kind of work that we want to do,” White said. “It’s got prestige in that its history in New York and London is very strong.”

Cast members Nick Newell, Peggy Trecker White, Jeffrey Watkins and Jenny Zmarzly are all Actor’s Equity Association members who have a broad range of local, regional, national and international stage credits, including various on- and off-Broadway productions and work with the South Carolina Repertory Company, Moscow Art Theatre, Interlochen Shakespeare Festival, Arts Center of Coastal Carolina, May River Theatre and American Repertory Theatre, just to name a few. “We chose ‘God of Carnage’ because it won a Tony Award in 2009 and it’s perfectly castable using all local people,” White said. Well, almost. Except for Newell, an assistant professor of theater at Georgia Southern University who lives in Statesboro, Georgia, all cast members are Lowcountry locals.

White says it’s not for him to say what audiences will take away from “God of Carnage,” which is kind of the point. A Lean Ensemble production’s intent is to bring the content of the script into focus for the audience. Rather than spellbind audiences with elaborate sets and big productions, Lean Ensemble invites audiences to lean in and become part of the conversation, then continue thinking and talking about what they’ve seen long after they’ve left the theater.“We want the only distraction in the theater to be, ‘I can’t wait to get in my car and talk to my friends about what we’ve seen,’” White said.

“God of Carnage” runs May 14- 17 at Main Street Theatre, 3000 Main Street, Hilton Head Island. Tickets are on sale now and can be purchased by calling the Main Street Theatre at 843-689-6246.