Lean Ensemble Theater

An Innovative Newcomer Goes for the Drama

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By Diane McMahon

The lights go down. The play begins. The drama unfolds. You notice you’ve leaned forward in your seat, alert and engaged. The people around you are hushed and intent. This is the live performance experience the new Lean Ensemble Theater is bringing to the Lowcountry.

On May 14, the Lean Ensemble Theater will open its doors for their first production—God of Carnage—at the Main Street Theatre.  A synopsis of the play:

“Two boys fight in the 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.”

God of Carnage, originally written in French by playwright Reza Yasmina, had its Broadway debut in 2009.  The original cast included Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden.  I had a chance to see a production at the Marin County Theatre in California in 2010 and it remains one of the most powerful performances I’ve seen.

I met with Creative Director, Blake White and later with cast member Jenny Zmarzley and her daughter Mariel, who has an internship with Lean Ensemble for the summer.  The theater has a number of foundational principles; an essential one is contained in the word “ensemble.” Everything and everybody works in equal capacity; all members are part of an entity that is taken together so that each part is considered only in relation to and support of the whole.

Blake and Jenny cover a temperature range from cool to blazing as they warm up to the topic of the Lean Ensemble Theater.  Last April Blake brought a number of actor friends to his house for an informal reading of God of Carnage. In one unimaginably short year that initial reading and brainstorm resulted in this May’s production of God of Carnage and the birth of a new, innovative theater group. Their goals and intent are encapsulated in the description used in their promotional materials:

Passionate. Thought provoking. Lean Ensemble Theater celebrates the vibrancy of live performance by inviting the audience to lean forward, learn, and look at the world in a different way. Lean Ensemble will leave you talking and thinking about what you’ve seen and heard long after you’ve left the theater. Talkbacks and other interactive events will offer the opportunity to exchange ideas and share comments and experiences with the company and audience.

The funding to make a first production possible was raised through a “founders ticket campaign.” No contributor was asked for more than $100. Blake emphasizes the cooperative mission of everyone involved. “There is no big money person or organization behind this. From the beginning, our goal has been complete financial transparency. Our biggest encouragement was the really amazing response from the arts community and those individuals here in the Lowcountry who avidly support the arts."

Blake is a talented actor and director—performing in both capacities at the South Carolina Repertory Company, which closed May 2014.  He insists his role in Lean Ensemble Theater is no more or less important than any other member in the company.  He was born in Pineville, La., and was a theater major at Hanover College. He says, “I knew I wanted to act since third grade; I was 34 before I really knew I could do it.” Blake and his wife, Peggy Treker White, met as actors in a production and later moved to Hilton Head.

Blake determinedly steered the focus from himself. He directed me to longtime friend and fellow actor, Jenny Zmarzly, one of the cast members in God of Carnage, and her daughter Mariel, who will be attending Anderson University in the fall as a musical theater major.

Jenny grew up performing, but in her freshman college year she got scared contemplating a “starving actor’s” life. She took a 20-year hiatus from acting to become a teacher. Fast forward to her life as a wife, mother of young children, living in Baltimore City.  She went to audition for a production of Steel Magnolias and was cast in the demanding role of M’Lynn, Shelby’s mother. Mariel, a little girl at the time remembers being in the audience for a rehearsal and seeing her mother cry over Shelby’s death. “I was so shocked and upset to see her cry.  She had to explain it was “acting” and show me that Shelby could get up and was still alive.

With the support of her husband and children, Jenny resumed an acting career. The family relocated to Hilton Head, where Jenny has performed at Hilton Head’s Arts Center of Coastal Carolina, Main Street Theatre and South Carolina Repertory Company through the years. Mariel’s two younger brothers have also been involved in theater. Her older brother, now in college, serves with his Dad as an appreciative audience.

Jenny and Blake share a fervent excitement that they try to contain while talking about the Lean Ensemble.  Jenny says, “The day we first read the script we were all excited. No one imagined we’d have an actual production a year later. We’re all thrilled and optimistic; we just don’t want to jinx ourselves.”  When Jenny first considered the word “Lean” her concept was it meant a conscientious effort to get to the essence of what they were trying to do. No waste. Things would be efficient and essential. She likes that the word carries a double meaning: lean, as in nothing in excess; and lean, as in sitting forward in rapt attention and engagement.   

This is an invitation for you and your friends to share an electrifying theater experience and engage in a thought-pounding discussion afterwards with the remarkable cast and creative director. Come welcome the Lean Ensemble Theater!

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May 14 - May 17  •  8:00 pm
Cost: $35; students and military $15
Main Street Theater
3000 Main Street, Hilton Head, SC 29926
For more information: 843-689-6246; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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