Show and tell: In honour of ensembles

Anna Hollingsworth 18 May 2016

World-renowned director and theatre practitioner Konstantin Stanislavsky famously said: “There are no small parts, only small actors.” People often use this to condescend their friends when they get cast as ‘Gang Member’ or ‘Townsperson #3’ in their school productions. Hilarious as this is, I want to talk seriously about the importance and value of the often overlooked performers who make up the indispensable ensembles of so many shows, and why performing in an ensemble is an opportunity as exciting as any other.

The role of the ensemble has developed throughout history, originating from the ancient theatrical function of the Greek chorus. This was a group of tens of performers who would appear on stage to comment on the dramatic action, variously dancing, singing, or speaking. They traditionally served as a visual representation of the intended audience reaction, aiding the public’s contemplation of the story and filling plot holes for anyone who was a bit slow at picking up on tricky narrative twists. However, as dialogue and characterisation of principal characters increased, the Greek chorus diminished in usage and significance. It was only opera in the last few centuries that brought the chorus back into the foreground of theatre – or rather the background. The 20th century saw the chorus turn into emotionless choirs or faceless kick lines in Broadway musicals (brilliantly subverted in A Chorus Line) and obscure physical masses in experimental plays. It must have been difficult for these hardworking actors to believe the uplifting words of Stanislavsky.

But, thankfully, modern playwrights and composers have rediscovered the potential theatrical power of an ensemble and, if used correctly, a chorus can be one of the most effective aspects of a show. Some actors have even managed to make entire careers out of life in the ensemble; an example of this is Lisa Gajda who has famously appeared in the ensemble of 18 Broadway shows, willingly never breaking out to take on a lead role. She is also a six-time winner of the ‘Gypsy Robe’, an honour that Actors’ Equity typically bestows on the ensemble member with the most Broadway credits before opening night. (It is a real robe, bearing an artefact from each Broadway show to have a recent honoree.) In the Cambridge theatre sphere, the Gypsy Robe would undoubtedly go to Olivia Gaunt who has managed to make a name for herself in ADC theatre world, only appearing in ensemble roles until this term, a real example of how you truly can shine from the background.

Just as I wrote in the first column of this series (An ode to supporting characters), I think it is time people stopped seeing ensemble roles as something to be ashamed of; it is a universal truth that when you watch a show, you pick your favourite person from the chorus to fix your eyes on. They stick out to you in the first few numbers and you enjoy following them and rooting for them through the show, making them form an equally important part of your theatre experience as the big roles, either enhancing comic moments, serving an important dramatic function, or just bringing big scenes to life. It is delightful to notice how ensemble characters often have their own background narratives; they sometimes deliver stand-out lines or moments that make you realise that the standard is just as high for them as it is for the principals. As well as this, some of the most famous moments in theatre are famous precisely because they involve the full ensemble on stage: think of the favourites One Day More from Les Misérables and Seasons of Love from RENT. Also, from a performer’s point of view, the most enjoyable moments to perform actually tend to be the big group numbers because there is such a tangible, team-driven energy on stage that ignites something totally different inside you compared to the confidence-boosting but high-pressure feeling of performing alone.

If you take anything away from this, let it be that the narratively insignificant roles can be some of the most challenging to play and that the chorus are a fundamental part of the overall work of art you are watching. They deserve as much of a standing ovation as the stars. And so I’ll end with something Aristotle said in the days of the people who invented the ensemble: "The chorus too should be regarded as one of the actors; it should be an integral part of the whole, and share in the action".