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 other actors about what Tony Award for ensembles would mean to THEM. Today, we hear from friend of the podcast Joseph Fierberg.
"I wear the title of ensemblist as a badge of honor. And, unfortunately, it feels like only those who are, or have been, in the ensemble understand the ensemblist experience."
"Full disclosure: I have not (yet) performed in a Broadway ensemble, but like my girl Violet says, I'm 'on my way.' Nevertheless, I have ample experience, having performed in various ensembles in tours and regional productions across the country."
"The Ensemblist very graciously approached me about writing a post about what it would mean if there were a Tony Award for 'Best Ensemble' on Broadway, and while contemplating the idea, I couldn't help but feel a sense of pride. For the American Theatre Wing, the Broadway League, and the Broadway community to recognize the tireless work of the ensemble in several Broadway shows (considering there would be multiple nominees) and then award one ensemble in particular, would be unbelievably validating."
"As an ensemblist myself, and -- let's be real -- as an actor in general, I think many of us constantly seek validation whether we like to admit it or not. As much as the Tony Awards have become quite political in their selection of shows they choose to nominate, feature, and promote, there is also an element to the awards that offers due recognition to individuals who have created or produced truly extraordinary work."
"Betsy Struxness made an excellent point in her recent blog post when she wrote, "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." I agree. When the playwright, book writer, composer, orchestrator, lighting, set, costume, and (soon to be, again, thank goodness) sound designer, director, choreographer, principal actor, featured actor, and, yes, the producer are given a category in which to be nominated (my condolences to the Broadway conductors and musical directors who had an award until it was discontinued in 1964) it begs the question: How is there not a category that recognizes the ensemblists whose work is also on that Broadway stage?"
"Actors Equity Association awards one Broadway ensemble each season through the ACCA Award for Outstanding Broadway Chorus. The award, founded in 2006, honors the 'distinctive talents and contributions made by the original chorus members of a Broadway musical' and is typically presented after the Tonys at an AEA National Council meeting."
"It wasn't until I was standing outside of one of the studios at the Audition Center in the Equity Building that I discovered the award even existed. There, across from Studio A, is a wall of posters from each show whose ensemble was recognized."
"And, to me, that is the issue at hand. Recognition."
"I think there is an important distinction that AEA makes in reference to the recipients of the award as 'outstanding ensemble' rather than 'best ensemble.'"
"I don't know if I believe the American Theatre Wing and the Broadway League will establish a 'Best Ensemble' award (and, if so, will they create two? One for musicals and one for plays?). But if any such award were to come about, I feel 'Outstanding Broadway Chorus' or 'Exceptional Achievement in a Broadway Chorus' (as artists would need to be under an Equity chorus contract) might be a fairer title. Regardless of the name, I do believe that the recognition of these vital performers is absolutely integral to the creation and, therefore, success of any Broadway show."
"As an ensemblist, former swing, and former dance captain, I have fully experienced the rigorous schedule an ensemble member undergoes. I understand the complexity of learning a track, or an entire ensemble of tracks, the meticulous nature of the work, the specificity, the commitment. The discipline one must possess to be a good ensemblist is not just rare, it is required."
"So how can work that is so essential to the sustainment of a show be overlooked by the highest regarded award in our sector of the industry? I think the answer lies in the idea that people don't necessarily know how to objectively rate or rank an ensemble."
"Look no further than the Tony Award for sound design."
"In 2014, the claim was made that many on the nominating committee did not know how to judge sound design so rather than receiving further guidelines and education regarding sound design, the decision was made to eliminate the two categories (one for plays and one for musicals) altogether. However, according to a Playbill article, "the decision came with the proviso that the Tony committee holds the right to determine a Special Tony Award for certain productions that have excelled in this particular design realm.'"
"If the goal is to instate a Tony Award for ensemble work, perhaps the most reasonable request is better education of what an ensemble does. Not just the singing or the dancing or the lines peppered throughout larger book scenes, but I'm talking levels deeper. The creation of a character, a point of view, intention, and the role each ensemblist plays in serving the story. The ensemble is essential in realizing the world of the play. Just like a principal actor, an ensemblist must embody the same level of technique, finesse, and nuance. The ensemble and each of its members are as important to the storytelling as the other actors on stage. Because if they weren't, why are they there?"
"And ensemble members (and the consequent collective ensemble) are as singular as principals. For those who think any track in an ensemble is replaceable, consider whether an ensemble nominated for a hypothetical Tony Award would still receive the nomination if different artists inhabited those tracks. Finding actors with equivalent skill sets who can fit into a costume is one thing, but recreating chemistry is another. And, that chemistry vaults that ensemble to a status deserving of recognition. Ensemblists can be replaceable, but they're not replicable."
"There is no doubt the versatility and uniqueness of an ensemble are unparalleled. I will always champion the work of my fellow ensemblists as well as the work of each artist who contributes to the creation of any piece of theatre. I don't know if there will ever be a Tony Award for an ensemble. For now, I'm grateful that AEA still recognizes the ensemble through the ACCA award. I think it's my favorite award of the season because it shows me and demonstrates to the rest of the community that it is worth acknowledging the work, the art of the ensemble. It gives our craft more value. And in a business where ensemblists constantly feel dispensable, the recognition provides some comfort that we are not being taken for granted."