In plays about plays, you really see ensembles at work
In some of the classic plays and musicals of the American theatre, much of the action takes place backstage. Just as novelists love depicting writers, playwrights love depicting performers—it’s a tradition that goes back in English at least far as Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And watching plays about plays gives us some insight into the value that ensembles bring to a tightly written dramatic production.
In plays like Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, which premiered on Broadway in 1983 and returned in 2001 and 2015, the entire action takes place in a theater, on the stage and backstage, mostly during rehearsals that go comically wrong. The characters in Noises Off are performing a play-within-a-play—an ensemble farce—in which everyone has an important role. But in the play we’re seeing, in both the front-of-house and backstage action, each member of the company is equally important, and arguably the play wouldn’t work at all if you took any of them away.
This is just as true of musicals depicting performers or whose action takes place on stage. The obvious example is A Chorus Line, in which all the performers are chorus hopefuls at an audition, but there are many more shows about performance—like Dreamgirls—where the magic is in how the performers come together, both while they’re “performing” and while they’re just interacting “offstage.”
Even if shows like these have prominent principal roles, they often still depend on strong supporting ensembles, without which they wouldn’t be nearly as powerful. Did you see Diane Paulus’ 2015 Broadway revival of Pippin—a show that depends on the conceit of a traveling performance troupe? Paulus cast actual professional circus performers in her ensemble, to create a sense of never-ending motion and action on stage. But you don’t have to go that far; in virtually every show about performers, the action and interaction of the ensemble is what drives the energy on stage.
Photo: Backstage at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, 2018.