I just want to be a part of great stories, whether I’m part of an amazing ensemble cast or I’m leading it or the antagonist or whatever.
— Zoe Saldana
As performers, we’re always aiming for the top: the plum role, the title character, the star billing. But very few shows are written with multiple starring roles. More often than not, you will “end up” in the ensemble. But what does that even mean? The official description of ensemble is “a group of supporting entertainers, as actors, dancers, and singers, in a theatrical production.” The literal French translation of ensemble is “together” and I really think that is the bread and butter of the ensemble. Together, the ensemble works to create a full, rich show with lots of layers and personalities!
Many young actors get cast in a show and get excited, but then see that their casting is something like, “Townsperson 5/Ensemble.” They then look in their script, see that “Townsperson 5” has two lines, and get discouraged. But you need to look beyond the two lines listed there. Who knows what else you’re going to get to do? Perhaps you’ll be in a bunch of huge, full-cast show-stopping dance numbers. Perhaps the director is going to add you to a bunch of scenes to fill out the look of the stage. Perhaps you’ll get to interact with the audience… who knows? I strongly encourage all actors to trust their director and trust the process, and see what happens in rehearsal!
So here are three of my personal reasons as to why I think being in the ensemble is awesome:
You want an acting challenge? You got it!
So, let’s say you are playing “Townsperson 5.” You are responsible for creating that entire character from scratch. Maybe “Townsperson 5” is Henry Templeton, a 15-year-old aspiring poet from Essex. Or maybe “Townsperson 5” is Her Majesty Kate Chattersley, a princess in disguise as a beggar named Brunhilda. Or maybe “Townsperson 5” is Mrs. Kensington, an old lady with nineteen grandchildren and thirty-seven cats. Whatever you decide… it’s up to you to convey that part throughout the whole show. Why is your character there at that exact moment? What does your character want? What was he/she doing just before he/she entered, and what is he/she going to do when the scene ends?
I like being the lead but I like being in an ensemble. There are different challenges and dilemmas with both… When you’re in an ensemble, you have to convey the entire character in a limited number of scenes.
— Carla Gugino
Multiple characters and costumes in one show? Awesome!
Now, what if you’re playing “Townsperson 5/Lady-In-Waiting 3/Orphan 6”? You’ve got it — three characters to figure out!
In OKTC’s production of Disney’s The Little Mermaid Jr., the ensemble actors played sailors, fish, chefs, merpeople, princesses, Ursula’s tentacles… often in the same scene! They’d play one part, run off stage, change costumes, and come back on stage as a completely different character!
You get to be part of a great team.
When you’re a lead, you have to do all the work yourself — there’s nobody there to bail you out. As part of the ensemble, you have a great group to work with. You can help each other with your choreography and harmonies, and hang out together backstage (if there’s time between your costume changes!). You get time to bond with other cast members and become great friends.
I took this question to Facebook, and got some incredible responses from many of my fellow theatre peers! So don’t just take it from me… read on to find out why they think being in the ensemble is awesome!
“You actually get time to bond with other cast people! And dancing or doing a scene with multiple people is better by yourself or with like 2 other people!”
“Building something larger than yourself. That choreography would be average if just one person participated, but when there’s 20 of you it’s truly special.”
“1) Creating your own moments outside of the script – I find that when you’re interacting with an ensemble you really get to play with the little things more than when you’re tied to your lines. 2) Group song/dance – When you sing a couple of solo numbers then sit in the back for the rest of the song, you don’t get to have that “everyone breaks into song” fun that you can when it’s a bunch of chorus people. Ditto dancing. 3) Relaxing and soaking it in – If you’re on stage all the time, you’re actively rehearsing the whole time during a rehearsal. If you’re in a smaller part, you get to love the whole show, not just the role.”
“I’ve done solo shows and massive ensembles. Professional and amateur. The best part of ensemble work is having everyone in sync. Everyone on stage in the moment and working their butts off to entertain a crowd and create experiences for an audience. As a performer, I get to observe the many different styles of my fellow actors and learn from them as hopefully they have something to learn from me.”
“Ensembles have more freedom regarding their character. Leads have to interpret their characters from the script, Ensembles have more freedom to create their own character.”
“The great thing about ensemble pieces is that everyone thinks its ‘their show’ … treated equal and your character is integral to the plot as the next guy.”
“You get to create your own stage business. You decide who your character is and the purpose behind each moment. You learn how to shine without overpowering. The best part in my opinion is realizing how much the little things count. The show needs a ensemble to create power and realism and energy.”
“You get to play a whole bunch of different characters rather than just one or a few and you get to meet and connect with a lot more of your cast-mates who aren’t in the exclusive “Lead Role Club”.”
“Through my experience, if the ensemble is filled with awesome people, I’ll have a sweet time forming new friendships, having great/positive memories, and making connections that last.”
“You don’t have as much to worry about and you can enjoy time with the cast and crew more and its 100x less stressful.”
“Multiple costume changes and you get to hang out backstage with the awesome volunteers/crew!”
And if you still need convincing, check out thoughts from the professional production of Mary Poppins at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre in Australia: Mary Poppins: View from the Ensemble.
So spill: do you think being in the ensemble is awesome? Why or why not?
Share your experiences and thoughts in the comments!
Special thanks to Mel Becke, Carrie Cooper, Beth de Souza, Brenden Dixon, Harry Edison, Nicholas Harrison, Ben McVittie, Jason Pickar, Jack Phoenix, Garrett Rodman, and Sarah Widmeyer for their contributions!
Photo Credits: Dana Couvillon & Malcolm Miller
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