by Maria EGLer
I love Washington, DC. This hotbed of political action is also home to a thriving and vibrant regional theatre scene. The theatres here are passionate about cultivating and producing new works, presenting shows that make political statements, and breaking barriers with innovative projects such as the Women’s Voices Festival. In short, there is no lack of exciting, and often experimental productions.
Every theatre in town is supported by Theatre Washington, which is an organization whose goal is to represent and help advance the theatre community in DC. Part of their mission is to recognize excellence with their annual Helen Hayes Awards. This past Monday, the nominations were announced, and I had the pleasure of being part of two different ensembles that were recognized: Ragtime at Ford’s Theatre and A Little Night Music at Signature Theatre.
I am immensely proud of these nominations and the work that my fellow actors did, and I am also delighted that the Helen Hayes Awards make it a point to recognize ensembles in general. All too often, the strength and importance of ensembles goes unacknowledged. They are necessary to support the story and convey the mood of the piece. When I see a show, if I am not sure how I feel about something I find myself searching the faces of the supporting cast to figure out where I should land. If an ensemble is bad, they become superfluous. If an ensemble is doing their job, they go almost unnoticed – but their energy is present, and palpable. That energy enhances everything, that energy brings tension, that energy helps to guide the audience along the amazing journey they are about to take.
The two shows that I mentioned earlier are perfect examples, in my mind, of how ensembles can be showcased to enhance a show.
In Ragtime, director Peter Flynn let us know on day one that he truly viewed the show as an ensemble piece and our points of view would be integral to the story telling. For much of the show we were onstage as observers. Peter made sure that we had created a very specific character for each scene who had very specific opinions about every single thing we witnessed, and he was very vigilant about every one of us staying engaged in the story at all times. In a piece that has so many quick mood shifts and moving pieces, he made us an essential part of changing the tone for the audience.
In A Little Night Music, director Eric Schaffer made it quite clear that he loved the Liebeslieders and really thought that they were the connective tissue of the piece. This show was so different as an ensemble member because we really only dealt with each other. We were a sort of Greek chorus who got to voice the inner monologues and desires of our leading characters. He worked hard with us to make sure that while we were commenting on the piece, we were not shouting about it.
In an age of individualism where popular culture seems obsessed with creating and celebrating “stars,” it’s refreshing to know that ensembles are being recognized – and rewarded – by Theatre Washington.