Updated: May 6, 2020
After so many years directing high school students, I often see the same story repeat itself. Most high school theatre directors encounter the same issues cyclically and watch the choices students make play out like a playlist on repeat. The old adage of “no small parts” is more than just a quote on a poster or a start-of-production lecture we deliver until we are blue in the face. I’d like to focus a little attention on this topic and help students and parents understand what I am, and so many middle and high school directors are, trying to accomplish within our programs.
The ensemble is THE training ground for the performer
For many students, participation in a production’s ensemble is often their first performance opportunity. These students may find themselves working their way into lead roles later in their journey, but those formative years in the ensemble develop techniques that are difficult to replicate elsewhere in a production. Playing as a part of the whole, supporting the piece through music, dance and acting, applying basic staging terminology, understanding levels, experimenting with clustering in groups, using improvisational scene work in a practical way, creating stage business and numerous other tactical skills are developed which help these performers gain critical spacial, body and creative awareness. These techniques are more easily workshopped within the ensemble group setting. The ensemble provides the opportunity for students to take calculated risks and develop confidence within the safety and security of a team. Though there’s always the potential to stand out, working with others to create something bigger than one's self is the goal. I will even go so far as to say, when a student jumps directly into a lead role and has never participated in the ensemble there are genuine gaps in the student’s understanding of an actor’s character development work and the overall theatrical process. That student will have to work even harder to develop the skills they will need to be able to carry future roles.
The ensemble provides more artistic freedom
EVERYONE wants to be a lead. Though the allure of solos, monologues and scenes in small groups onstage as the center of attention has much appeal, with those roles come higher expectations. Not only added pressure and the ability to own the stage, character and moments. Leads usually have their name assigned, lines dictated, relationships clearly stated, and future decided. I am, of course, not knocking being a lead, but, from an artistic standpoint, being a lead is like creating a painting with a specific, limited palette of colors. The playwright has made distinct choices for you. Because so few ensemble members have clearly articulated characters either due to lack of lines, pivotal action or plot-defined character development, actors in the ensemble have the opportunity to truly create their own character within the perfect level of perimeters dictated within most plays. Artistically, ensemble actors have a wider color palette to choose from. Plus, the ensemble actor often gets to do all of that incredible creating for multiple ensemble characters within a single show. As a director, I absolutely love it when my ensemble actors celebrate that. My actor’s creativity can, and should, run wild throughout the rehearsal process, and my most successful ensemble members allow it to do so.
Not just the training ground, it’s also where you stay in shape
Because the ensemble is this unique place where actors experience the afore mentioned artistic liberty and freedom, like a good round of intense circuit training, seasoned actors, AKA “I’m usually the lead” types, who genuinely embrace their ensemble assignments receive a huge creative jolt. There is so much joy in it and, inevitably, they come to realize how much fun, critical and necessary the ensemble journey is that they quickly learn first-hand and fully grasp that “small actors” lecture. In addition, it’s these actors who help lead newer members of the ensemble as exemplars of the exercises mentioned before. There’s nothing more enjoyable than watching seasoned actors play in the ensemble. Their improvised scene work can be mesmerizing.
There’s no shame in it
Name your favorite musical. Now, think of that musical minus an ensemble. Aside from some small cast musicals with NO ensemble, such as Next to Normal or The Last Five Years, your favorite musical minus an ensemble would be lacking many of the things that leave an audience wanting more. Les Miserables, Oklahoma!, Sweeney Todd, The Music Man, Wicked, 42nd Street, Something Rotten!, The Lion King…the list goes on and on. Cut the ensemble and you leave a gaping hole within a show that lost its subplot, epic group numbers, realism…its joy. This art form simply isn’t the same without the ensemble.
Last summer, when we produced Hello, Dolly!, we had a little of that dynamic where the ensemble felt “less than”. Not necessarily because of anything we’d done in the rehearsal process. The ensemble just doesn’t always get a ton of attention when staging a show, especially during a 4 week intensive. The artistic team sensed their lack of energy and commitment and at one of our rehearsals we put only leads onstage and had them perform “Sunday Clothes” without the ensemble. It started out fine, but, of course, ended abysmally. The leads were actually the most upset of the group and shared with the rest of the ensemble actors, “This show isn’t a show without you. We need you”. It didn’t solve everything, but, it definitely helped the ensemble understand how critical their role was, and they began to dig a little deeper and further own their part within the bigger picture.
For parent or student, working past, “I’m just in the ensemble” toward “I’m proud and excited to have a role in the ensemble” is really just a matter of perspective and getting out of any production what you put into it.