When I entered the wonderful world of community theater, I was initially happy with my being cast in the ensemble of shows. I was happy to be cast as anything considering I was in my 30’s with little to no formal training in dancing, singing or acting. I was the opposite of a triple threat.
Then I had my first lead as Elvira in Blithe Spirit. I quickly followed that up with the role of Martha in The Secret Garden. I loved having lines to memorize, blocking to learn, solos to sing. I felt I was being challenged, learning, creating. It was amazing. I jolted back to reality when I was cast in the ensemble for my next show that year- one without even a single solo speaking line. How could this be? I was a lead, not part of the ensemble. I begrudgingly accepted the role (more because I had been laid off earlier that year and needed SOMETHING to do between sending out resumes) but muttered to myself it would be the last ensemble role for me. 2+ years later and I’m thrilled, PROUD to say it’s been all ensemble roles since then. Because I’ve learned to love the ensemble. And here’s why:
Time to do other things
No I don’t mean scroll Facebook. Let’s be honest in community theater, actors rarely ever only act. As a member of the ensemble you may find yourself with time on your hands. Embrace it. Use it. Help with make-up for other folks, take charge of props, costumes, help move sets around. Use your time “off” to make the production better for everyone. And I bet you’ll have more fun too.
Less stress, more fun
One of my roles left about an hour and a half in the middle of the production “free”. Every night during tech and at each performance a massive card game took place. I won’t name the card game but I will say it’s a card game for horrible people and leave it at that. People came in and out as their roles allowed; we chatted, laughed (quietly of course) and bonded with each other in a way that has happened with very few other shows.
Leads are great but as a lead you are only that person. As a member of the ensemble there’s sometimes no limit to how many characters you’ll play in a given show. With each new character is the chance to imagine a backstory, utilize different costumes, hair styles, and make-up to allow that character to shine for however brief the moment is. In one show I had 9 costume changes, some of which included hair styles with one change, including hair, occurred in less than 45 seconds. (Kelli O’Hara may have learned her quick change from me- that’s all I’m saying.) In another show I was pulled out of the large ensemble into the smaller dance ensemble adding another layer to my role. Which was incredible, although I could have done without learning a new dance during tech week.
One of my most recent roles was Rose in Steppin’ Out. It’s one of those rare, true ensemble shows with a couple of standout parts and Rose isn’t one of them. I accepted the role for the chance to perform with friends (a perfectly valid reason) and sulked in the corner because I thought I was better than that role. A couple weeks into rehearsals, watching my best friend act her butt off so effortlessly it’s like she wasn’t acting at all, it hit me. I have the chance to learn. In a role with fewer lines, and one whole scene off, I can really watch my fellow actors and gain so much from them. I studied their faces, listened to their vocal inflections as they tried different ways of delivering lines. Watched how they moved, thought, breathed as their characters. I made myself a better actress by being in the ensemble.
When a director asks me what role I want, I’m not telling them “ensemble please!” But I do check off that box that asks whether I will accept an ensemble role. Because being in the ensemble is better, tougher and more fun than you may realize!