A Director’s Fangirling Over Actor’s without Character Names
I’m gearing up to direct another show and you know what? I am stupid in love with the ensemble! It isn’t cast yet, so I don’t mean the individual members. I am obsessed with this next show’s opportunity for a group of actors to work together in aiming for a unified effect in which each performer makes an essential contribution on behalf of the play. Every strike of inspiration, every idea that gets me geeking out, every conceptual piece of this theatrical puzzle that scintillates my creative brain is deeply, inextricably connected to the ensemble.
As I look over the work I’ve done in approximately the past year, I have worked with fantastic ensembles. “The Pirates of Penzance,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Much Ado About Nothing,” and “All Shook Up” all seem like star power productions relying on the top-billed principals to pull the show along. Don’t get me wrong–the leads in these shows have been everything they needed to be. But it’s been the ensembles that have carried the show from one star-power moment to another. “Penzance” isn’t only arias. Without the neighborhood characters, the paperboy, the doctor or the nurse, “Streetcar” wouldn’t be a literary masterpiece. “Much Ado” has iconic side characters and an ensemble who’s presence in the pivotal wedding shame scene are essential to making that scene work. And Chad in “All Shook Up” can’t have an effect on the whole town unless the whole town gets effected. I have been so pleased with the ensemble work in each of these productions. But this next show…I get tingles just thinking about what we are going to get up to.
One of the most helpful things I’ve learned in regards to ensemble work is Anne Bogart’s Viewpoints of awareness. Improvisational training in the Viewpoints help an actor use his or her body in time and space to create meaning. The Viewpoints of Space include: shape, gesture, spatial relationship, architecture, and topography. The Viewpoints of Time include: tempo, duration, kinesthetic response, and repetition. An ensemble actor, trained in the Viewpoints can express an infinite array of relationships, conditions, emotions, themes, contrasts, ideas, abstractions and qualities without ever uttering a line of dialogue. This actor is worth his or her weight in gold.
An excellent ensemble actor is easy to block. With an understanding of the stage picture, script analysis, focus and energy, he or she will make organic choices that support the story. An excellent ensemble actor stays fresh in a scene, giving instead of taking and listening constantly. This actor may have to move sets, make inconvenient property storage choices, change wardrobe an annoying number of times, and flip through half the program to find their headshot and bio. But if you can act without dialogue, if you can contribute meaningfully to the performance without a character name, if you can tell the story without getting hung up on recognition, perks or conveniences, then you are the best kind of actor. And you are the actor I want to work with again and again.
And that’s why I’m so excited about my next show. “Peter and the Starcatcher” shows off it’s ensemble. It depends deeply on it’s ensemble. My Starcatcher ensemble is going to get an experiential education in the Viewpoints I paid University tuition to receive. They are going to get stage time in droves. And more than any of the other shows I’ve done in the past year, they are going to carry a show, from star-power moment to moment. I already love them. Whoever they are going to be.