I read a book entitled Making It on Broadway: Actors’ Tales of Climbing to the Top about two years ago, and there was one story that stuck with me.
The story was about someone in Les Miserables, in its first go round on Broadway. As I recall, one day their replacement was in and the actor telling the story, got to watch the show. They had worked so hard to create this chorus character, making each moment count, and when he watched the show he realized he was in the dark most of the time he was on stage. It was heartbreaking for him.
When I toured with A Christmas Carol, I had similar experience. There were two casts the year I did the show, and the tradition is you see the other cast perform the show before everyone heads off on tour. As you may recall, I had two lines, but I had also worked hard to make sure my chorus work was specific.
It was a Sunday when we saw the other cast’s show, and when the show started the woman playing the same character I was spent most of her time blocked on the dark edges of the stage. I was heartbroken realizing that my role in the show was purely background. Her subtle presence added to the whole look of the show, but that was about it.
Most of my career up to this point consisted of doing ensemble shows, where everything is pretty equally divided between all cast members. I realized that I was going to have to learn how to take a back seat, or ruin my 5 week experience by letting my ego run wild.
So I made my decision and soon as I got over my pride, I had the best time performing the show. My character was a chestnut vendor as scripted. I changed my business to Tessie’s Nut’s & More. We held daily Chestnut Cart Confessions, which may or may not have been turned into a video. My character became a cockney madam, who sold most of the lovely women of Camden Town into the dark underworld. It was weird comedy improv at it’s finest.
My blocking never changed, so the audience had no idea. The actors with lines weren’t effected, and instead of an ensemble of people mouthing “peas and carrots”, we were interacting within this weird world we had created and it looked real and honest.
This experience really changed my perception of working as an ensemble member, and I would do it again in a heart beat. It was a hard lesson to learn, but I am glad I did.