As the theatre community finds itself in the middle of Awards Season, The Ensemblist is often asked about the possibility of a Tony Award for Best Ensemble. So we wanted to hear from ensemblists about what Tony Award for ensembles would mean to THEM. Next up, podcast guest and Hamilton original cast member Betsy Struxness.
In Praise of the Ensemble
By Betsy Struxness
"When Mo approached me about writing a blog on what it would mean to have a "Best Ensemble" Award for the Tonys, I immediately welled up ... at the THOUGHT that this could ever happen. After umpteen years of rejection, minor injuries, rehearsal in a studio, GALLONS of sweat, blood, broken bones, elbows to the head, rehearsal onstage, blisters, wig preps, pushing through sickness, hair pins in my scalp, rehearsal for swings and understudies, dog walkers, missing family gatherings, TV appearances, applause, rehearsal for TV appearances, condescension, notes, wasted time, dreams coming true, becoming jaded ... oh, and did I mention rehearsal for some such or another between shows, before shows, after shows, during shows, you name it? Somehow, someway, I still hold out hope. I still hope after all these years that someone will get it. Someone will understand how HARD it is to be in the ensemble and think we could be acknowledged for it with a Tony category. But what I've learned, what I've been shown over and over again is that ultimately no one cares ... yet. So let's make them. Let's make them understand what it is we ensemblists do."
"Because I want to celebrate the ridiculously talented, underappreciated, strong, educated, overtrained, overworked, beautiful human beings of the ensemble. It is time for us to be seen for our full value and worth."
"Gone are the days of the dancing ensemble, the singing ensemble, and the principals like Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera, where the principals were the only triple threats. Gone are the days of massive full automation scenic spectacle (sort of), and a new era of seamless transitions of twirling sets steered by dancers in heels and skimpy costumes. Gone are the days of traditional musical numbers requiring nothing more than a smile and a ball change, and here to stay (please, Lord) are we asked to sing complex music while dancing on different rhythms and having a clear point of view about the artwork we are in. And honestly, for all of this, we are so grateful."
"We've been given more responsibility than ever before, and WE. ARE. NAILING. IT. The ensemble of Hamilton, who are everyone and every prop and every set piece, as well as Greek Chorus, pop star, and backup dancer for every genre of music out there. The ensemble of An American In Paris, who were also everyone while in pointe shoes, moving a set piece made for a 200-lb. man in a pair of heels backwards, lifting women over their heads while singing like the trained tenor in the spotlight who never has to lift more than a cup. The ensemble of Groundhog Day, who make costume change after costume change while dancing on five turntables and singing all the Tim Minchin-y lyrics you can hope for, after having funny acting moment after funny acting moment after funny acting moment, while being thrown on for the lead before opening. The ensemble of On The Town, giving you glorious technical dancing for THE GODS while singing some pretty classical musical theater and pulling the BEST kind of focus as the pretty drunk chick who makes everyone laugh. Or the "Beale Streeters" of the ensemble of Memphis, throwing women over their heads only to catch them and place them as gently as possible into a full split while singing rock and roll, changing into wool jacket after wool jacket, and being the girl in the bar no one can take their eyes off of because she's so committed to the dance step and her partner ... a cigarette having belted out all the notes possible the night before as Felicia. Or the ensemble of The Lion King placing their bodies into puppets to give us a glimpse of Africa while giving us the most heavenly vocals to let us hear the beauty of Africa while being injured. Or the ensemble of Motown, who were asked to be legend upon legend upon legend. These are a few examples of what is asked of the ensemble."
"We are the ones doing it all. Singing, dancing, acting, being the set, the props, bringing on costumes, rehearsing, also being principals, knowing 13 different tracks, screlting while upside down in a lift in a corset and another corset and a skirt, underdressing two costumes after a big dance number, being three people in one show (not three different characters, although we do that too, but like three tracks rolled into one ... that shit sucks), going on for all our swing tracks in one week AND the two principal tracks we cover, putting new people into the show ... between shows on a Saturday because someone got injured at the matinee, soaking in Epsom salts baths or ice baths to prevent injury, going to acupuncture once a week to prevent injury, going to PT twice a week so we can rehab a minor injury while still doing all eight shows a week, finding time for class all of them (voice, acting, dance, because like I said before, we do it all). There's still so much I'm missing by stopping here, but I think you're starting to get my point."
"When in the rehearsal process for a new show, ensemble members are usually called in more than the principals. We have to work together as a unit, sing together as a unit, and dance together as a unit. We don't get the luxury (usually) of being called in later to rehearse the few songs we sing alone, or have a long lunch break as they work on a scene we aren't involved in. We are either singing for seven hours, dancing for seven hours, a combination of the two or being called out of rehearsal to run to a costume fitting to come back to rehearsal and cram all the info we missed, unless of course we're scheduled before or after an 8-hour rehearsal day for a costume fitting."
"While actually in the run of the show, ensemble members usually rehearse 1-2 days a week between 4-12 hours a week, all while doing eight shows a week. Those are the times when we are putting new members into the show (when principals aren't usually called) or doing understudy rehearsal (when principals most definitely are not called) or doing a vocal brush-up (when principals aren't called) or a dance clean-up (when principals aren't called). You get the picture."
"I'm not here to disparage principals and their obviously VITAL role (pun intended) in Broadway shows. Trust ... that is where I am aiming to be as well. I would just like the theater community as a whole to start seeing the true worth and value of the ensemble. Understand that what's being asked of us now isn't the same as what was asked in the past. Understand that if we're making a suggestion for a change in our costume, it's to make it easier for us to do eight shows a week, 52 weeks a year. Understand that if we say no to a lift or a certain dance move, it is most likely for that same reason. We welcome a higher level of responsibility, but we also need the respect level to rise the same amount, because you're asking us all to be of the caliber of your principals while treating us like we're a dime a dozen, easily replaceable by the next person who walks into the audition room. That is very seldom the case, as with your principals. Clearly we're replaceable, otherwise there would be no long-running Broadway shows, but the more that's asked of us, the harder it is to find us. Back to the subject at hand."
"A Tony Award. The pinnacle, most would say, of theatrical awards. The GREATEST of outside validation and acknowledgement. Yet we all know there's some politics to it as well. Which is fine, but if you're gonna celebrate the different categories of artists originating Broadway shows, why not Best Wig/Hair Design, Best Make-up Design, and dare we say it ... Best Ensemble? At least Best Sound Design is coming back after a brief hiatus. Anyone hired to originate new work and put their art on the Broadway stage should have a category and be acknowledged as a piece of the artistic puzzle."
"The ensemble is where I have LIVED on Broadway. It has made my childhood dreams come true and then some. While I've been in Tony-winning shows, I've never actually felt like I won or was part of the win. It has been the most fulfilling work of my life so far. But as I've gained more experience and risen through the ranks, I haven't been able to help but learn a few things along the way. One of the greatest lessons I've learned about myself is that I love a challenge. So far, the ensemble has always provided that, but after Hamilton, ensemble work no longer feels like the challenge it once was, because Hamilton was hands down THE HARDEST gig I've ever had, and I felt like I conquered it. I got to be the ultimate ensemble artist. But now, I want new challenges. I want to feel the weight of a show on my back that is mine to carry. I want to be the comic relief. I want to be the ingenue. I want to be the sidekick. I want to do new work. I want to see what my take would be on old work. Basically, I want it all. No matter where my career takes me, I will always love the ensemble. I will always advocate for the ensemble. I will always watch the ensemble. And I will damn sure ALWAYS root for them to get a Tony Award. The ensemble works too hard to go unrewarded, unawarded or underacknowledged any longer."