by Mo Brady and Alessia Salimbene
The current Lincoln Center Theater revival of My Fair Lady is a lush production, in part due to an ensemble of 22 onstage performers portraying the breadth and depth of London society. From upper-class elites to commonplace barflies, the ensemble expertly portrays the scope of English society due to heir nuanced performances. Working closely with director Bartlett Sher, who has helped them to delve into research and characters, each ensemble actor has undergone a personal process to crafting their different characters.
Rebecca Eichenberger plays four characters as a member of the show’s ensemble. Although not all of them are named in the script, she has given each of her roles a personality. Among the non-speaking roles she has created include a cavalcade of fantastically named characters, including Doodles Montgomery, Doris Delancy, and Becky Boxington.
In addition to playing Mrs. Eynsford-Hill, JoAnna Rhinehart chose to name her characters Ramona Odera, Queen Nefertiti of Mali and Setiva Lee Andersen. In order to make these varied characters specific, JoAnna worked with Liz Smith at The Juilliard School for dialect coaching. She also worked on the physicality of each role, specifically the characters’ posture: “The women are pulled up and smaller contained steps for high status, wider stance and longer steps for lower status. The pace of the movement had to be specific to the individuals.”
An ensemble is just that, a group of people working together to create something greater. When it comes to creating such specific moments for their characters, ensemble members must also create specific moments between each other on stage. Rhinehart achieved this, “by being open to ‘living in the moment’ of the scene. The actors that I come in contact with on stage, are willing to improvise with me within the parameters set by our director.”
In addition to guidance from Sher, a professor from the University of Maryland spoke to the cast about Edwardian and Victorian England. In exploring the difference in the classes, they learned what life was like for a high society socialite versus a cockney flower seller.
In addition to the structured research built into the cast's rehearsal, many of the cast members did their own exploration of the show's setting. “To enrich and build the lives of my characters, I read the book 'Black Edwardians: Black People in Britain 1901-1914' by Jeffrey Green," noted Rhinehart. "To further grasp the essence of the extreme environmental elements affecting the sociological class distinctions, I watched the Netflix series The Frankenstein Chronicles."
Eichenberger’s featured role in the script is the high-status Lady Boxington in the Ascot Gavotte. While much of her performance was influence by research, she has also used her own creativity to flesh out the role. “Lady Boxington is so rich she’s bored with everything but she doesn’t dare go outside the rules of her social class," says Eichenberger. "She goes from one social engagement to another and one set of jewels to another. It’s all terribly boring.”
Just like Rhinehart, Eichenberger touched on the importance of specificity, “An ensemble member has to find moments of specificity. Moments that make you tick and keep your show alive.” She also talked about other cast members who pushed her characters to provide more specificity to different scenes throughout the show. “I love bickering about the opera with Liz McCartney in the opening and sipping tea with Matt Wall. These are two pros that are so good at what they do.”
In addition to bringing a greater sense of realism, this willingness to play onstage keeps the ensemble engaged and in good spirits. "There are many secrets in Ascot," reveals Eichenberger. "Everyone has their own story and relationships with each other. Mine is I am trying to get my husband to slip the butler money to spike my tea. When my husband fails, then I flirt with the butler.
An incredible amount of research and hard work went into every ensemble members characters and backgrounds. Rhinehart says, “An ensemble member has to find moments of specificity. Moments that make you tick and keep your show alive.” And each member of this ensemble did just that in the Broadway cast of My Fair Lady creating new, specific moments for each character they play.