by Marialena Rago
Ensemble members are an essential part of Broadway shows, but they do not get the recognition they deserve. Currently, there is no major award for ensemble members. Actors' Equity Association is fighting to change that.
Early last month, Actors' Equity Association, the labor union representing American actors and stage managers in the theatre, created a petition and campaign called “Everyone On Stage." This campaign is to create two new Tony Awards for the 2019 ceremony; Best Chorus in a Musical or Play and Best Ensemble in a Musical or Play. For ensemble members, this award is more than an accolade, it makes them feel that they matter. “Both of these awards would mean that though the leads are at the forefront of the production, as they should be, the work and dedication of the ensemble is seen and appreciated. Not just by the audience members, but also by our peers and ‘powers that be,'” says Frozen ensemble member Tracee Beazer Barrett.
Barrett has been an ensemble member in Memphis, Something Rotten!, Hairspray, and many more Broadway shows. “Being part of an ensemble can be inspiring, grueling, fulfilling, thankless, creative, life-changing and much more,” she says. “I've been in a true ensemble piece where everyone, including the ensemble, were made to feel like they were an integral part of the story and I've been in others where you were made to feel like expensively dressed scenery. Whichever it may be, we are still so very important to the look, feel, energy, integrity of the show. And that is something I am always proud of.”
Many audience members might not know the tiring schedule that ensemble members have to endure. Not only do they know their ensemble part, but many of them also have understudy roles. This means that they have to know their part in the chorus and also be prepared to step in for a lead. “There is a misconception that we are in the ensemble because we are the least talented. Often times it’s the exact opposite. We're just as talented. We have to do everything the principles do PLUS also dance or have a special skill. Say all of the principals were out of the show the same day, if you think about it, between the ensemble and the amazing swings, we could still put on a fierce skit. However, I don't think the same could be said if most of your ensemble were out. We are doing the brunt of the jumping around onstage and running around backstage, whilst belting our faces off. All of that after having been at understudy rehearsal all day.”
This isn’t the first change Equity has made this year. In April, the association announced that they will be changing the time-honored “Gypsy Robe Ceremony” name. When the ceremony started, gypsy was a term that actors were called because they wandered from one Broadway chorus to another, always on the move. Traditionally, it is a racial slur directed to a person of Romani heritage. “I think they're making the changes now because they're not deaf to the cries for sensitivity, equality, inclusion and change. With the current climate in this country- where people and organizations are being called to task for their practices of inequalities and biases - Equity knows they have to be a part of the solution.”
At the moment, there is no word on whether the new awards will be implemented at the 2019 Tony Awards, but Barrett says there is more talk of it now than ever. As for if/when the award is created, Barrett hopes that audiences recognize the “superheroes otherwise known as the ensemble” and that the legacy of the award “would help ensemble members have a bigger sense of pride in the role they play in a production's success. That every choice they make on that stage counts, is seen and might even get them a Tony.”