What is ensemble acting? Is it different from any other kind of acting? “Ensemble acting happens when the play is more important than any one of the actors,” claims Glenn Close, who was part of the much-praised ensemble in last year’s film The Big Chill, and who considers her Tony-winning, above-the-title role in The Real Thing on Broadway just as significant an ensemble effort. “Ensemble acting doesn’t necessarily mean equality of roles,” she insists. “It means listening and thinking. But you can’t have good ensemble acting without the kind of writing that brings it out in the actors.”
Close was joined on a Drama Desk luncheon panel April 26 in New York by a lineup of actors with equally seasoned opinions on the subject: Mary Alice, Tanya Berezin, Ruth Maleczech, Geraldine Page, Robert Prosky and Chip Zien.
“Inter-reaction is what it’s about,” asserted Page. “Even star vehicles now try to get actors who really know how to react—today’s audiences want that.”
“Having stars in plays doesn’t preclude ensemble acting,” agreed Berezin, who was a founder of Circle Repertory Company and has been a company member since 1969. “An ensemble doesn’t mean a lot of actors nobody ever heard of.”
“Of course any play is an ensemble event,” generalized Alice, recalling the days when group classes and a stable company helped put the “ensemble” in Negro Ensemble Company.
“A good play with a good cast will have ensemble acting,” conceded Zien, who was part of the singing quintet in William Finn’s demanding March of the Falsettos two seasons ago at New York’s Playwrights Horizons. “But the real ensemble concept, which takes years of training and development, is rare. Most actors in America are jobbed in—it’s the luck of the draw.”
“Working together with the same actors for nine years doesn’t guarantee you’ll become an ensemble,” countered Prosky, who was himself a company member at Arena Stage in Washington for 23 years. Prosky is currently contributing to the stunning ensemble effect of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross in the Goodman Theatre production which transferred from Chicago to Broadway. “With a continuum of creative activity, mutual respect and commitment to other people, it can happen,” Prosky concluded.
“Brecht had the best idea of what ensemble acting should be,” believes Maleczech, whose work with Mabou Mines has been cited as a model of theatrical collaboration. “He got people committed to him, then used his own reputation to make them ‘stars’ based on their association with him. Passion is the tie that locks people into the ensemble,” she went on, “passion for a person, or for a given play or for an idea. That feeling is very hard to get in this country.”
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