As I noted in my blog on auditions, I always say I cast “to ensemble.” That means I cast to get good combinations onstage, not to get a collection of shiny individual actors. One of the categories in the SAG (Screen Actors’ Guild) Awards is “best ensemble,” meaning best cast as a whole, and I think that’s a category that should be included for all awards.
The world of a play is just that: a world. The set is the physical expression of that world; the costumes reveal the time, place, and socioeconomic class of the world; the lights create its day, night, and shifting shadows. The sounds are its sounds, and the actors create its people. Some of those people may be loners or egotists, but the actors mustn’t be. After all, the characters in a play know each other in that world, have relationships, have reactions, have histories separately and together. A good ensemble cast communicates that collective reality to the audience and thereby makes the experience of the play real, credible, substantial.
I do what I can to foster a strong sense of ensemble (French, after all, for “together”) in every cast I work with. We talk together about the play, about the scenes, about the characters, about the relationships, about the emotional and narrative arc. We relax together as ourselves before and after rehearsals when time permits. The more the actors bring to this endeavor, the more interesting the rehearsals are, at least for me, and the more genuine the performance ultimately is.
I have always been fortunate in my casts. Perhaps the fact that I choose serious or otherwise significant plays draws serious and intelligent actors, people who are more interested in the work than in the social life offstage. Not that they’re not “fun” people; but my college theater director, David Brubaker, used to begin the first rehearsal of a play with this: “If you’ve come here to have a good time, please leave now. We won’t have a good time until the second performance. Before that, we work; and if we don’t work, we’ll never have a good time.” This is a good message for college students who aren’t theater majors: don’t horse around. But it’s the truth too, I do believe—except that working hard together on a worthwhile project is its own kind of fun. The process is fun, intellectually, emotionally, artistically, personally. Those are the kinds of actors I get, the ones who value that kind of fun.
I’ve worked with a lot of effective ensembles, but I have to say that the ensemble of The Seafarer is one of the very best. They respect, like, and support one another. They work out ideas together and show them to me. They give my ideas their serious effort. At rehearsals they seem both easy and intense with one another. And they all love this play and its world.
A lot of audience members have spoken with me after the show and specifically mentioned the actors as an ensemble. They’re drawn into the play because the actors so fully inhabit it as the people they embody. They express the characters’ relationships, affections, grudges, dependencies just as fully as they portray them as individuals. They’re alive up there all the time, expressing with subtle glances as well as larger gestures the characters’ inner lives, inner narratives, bonds. I’m crazy about them.
I hope everyone in the world sees this show. I think it’s very good. The script is strong; the story is compelling and real; the craftsmanship in the lighting, set, costumes, props, and backstage management is smooth, and so good it seems to just be.
And the ensemble, superb.
This is theater.