An ensemble, especially a strong ensemble, can save a production. I have seen shows where I’ve been more enthralled to watch an ensemble than the principal actors. Not specifically because of the actors, sometimes roles are poorly written or the production isn’t my jam. For instance, a few years ago I saw Peter and the Starcatcher. I could not watch this show because of its story, but I was extremely impressed with the performance of the actors. This works in reverse, as well. I have seen shows where the ensemble were irreverent and frankly distracting.
I always think about my days as a chorus participant where I was taught to blend and balance with my immediate cohorts.
“Balance” refers to the strength in sound of a section […]. Sometimes, more attention is needed to a melody, single note, or moving inner line. “Blend” has two meanings: (1) merging the sounds […] in such a way that they produce a sound more interesting than the sum of their parts, and (2) the combination of sounds from many […] into a single, homogenous sound so that no one player or section dominates.
Balance and blend both depend on careful listening, […]. There is no quick fix to achieving balance and blend.
I want to see strong ensemble members. Persons who visualize their role in a production and able to add to its value via an embodiment of their enjoyment, both for the other actors on stage and for the audience watching. That’s a tricky balance for any one because it’s easy to become overbearing and distracting, (again) both for the other actors and audience.
I’d like to say I know for sure what I’m about to say is accurate but I’ve seen instances where it’s not the case. Confusing? I’ll explain my thoughts first.
I think it’s the role of the director to ask for the world and then request an actor (or group of actors) to pull back from their larger than life (or global) performance back down to the present stage (or a continent, to a country, to a state, etc). And it’s entirely dependent on the productions style. When I think of shows like La Cage Aux Folles, I want larger than life persons, both in cast and crew and would probably very rarely pull them back to reality. But when I think of shows like The Man Who Came to Dinner… it’s a bit more realistically rooted in reality. There’s dreamy people, of course, but they are not living an exuberant life (their lives are quite boring and regular with some irregularities thrown in–do not take this as a review; it’s a good show and I’d do it again a heart beat).
While working on A Charlie Brown Christmas, I was awestruck with how helpful and kindhearted the cast was when it came to scene changes. If you’ve ever been in a show you know how difficult it is to transition a stage from inside to outside and back inside to back outside and finally inside to the final outside scene. It’s torturous. It can also be extremely distracting (i.e. dark work lights and as quietly as possible).
I think people who are capable of doing these things are those that understand the importance of moving quickly, efficiently, quietly, and with purpose. You don’t necessarily need to have tenure to understand and perform correctly, but while that does sometimes work to peoples benefit, it doesn’t actually correlate. In CBC, we actually had a person who had never performed before (and is not interested in doing so again, and you’ll see why below) but knew, instinctively, how to accomplish scene changes. She knew where to be when, what cue to move on, and when cues were off was cognizant enough to wait until they were given.
While this actor does not want to act again, she won’t be leaving theater forever. She enjoyed being a part of ensemble but she found truer enjoyment out of the stage work and volunteered for more and more of it (moving things here, placing items on stage, etc.). We actually had to ‘spread the wealth’ to ensure we weren’t overwhelming her and as a staff agreed that while she went above and beyond, other actors need to strengthen their stage management skills. (It’s paramount to a successful theater life, you’ll see in a future post).
It takes a single actor to change the presence and mechanics of a show. And that’s what I look for in every single ensemble actor that I cast, without these phenomenal individuals, who literally make and break a show, it wouldn’t and couldn’t possibly be a success. I don’t know that I could ever emphasize this concept enough but, to me, it bears repeating and repeating often. ‘Til next time.