28 May 2018

“Tony Season: Equity Is Fighting For #Everyoneonstage”

By Doug Strassler

[Frequent readers of Rick On Theater will have noticed recently that I’ve reported on a number of plays which I labeled “ensemble productions.”  Ensemble casts and ensemble acting is among the interests I have about performance and acting; I even posted one of my earliest articles on this blog on the subject: “Ensembles,” 9 August 2009.  In that article, I observed: “Those astonishing performances that come out of the ensembles, the startling virtual reality they can create and draw you into, are addictive.  Once you’ve had a taste, you want more of that.”  Recognizing that accomplishment, in a way, could spur more of it on American stages.  The Actors Equity Association, the stage actors’ union, seems inclined that way and is campaigning to initiate an ensemble Tony; below is AEA’s plea for support, originally published in Equity News, the union’s  member magazine (vol. 103, number 2 (Spring 2018).]

“Why isn’t there an ensemble award?”

Harvey Fierstein posed this question while accepting his 2003 Tony Award as Best Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical for Hairspray. And he had a point.

That isn’t the only time a Tony winner has expressed such a sentiment. In 1978, Richard Maltby, Jr., Best Director of a Musical for Ain’t Misbehavin’, similarly extolled the virtues of his show’s ensemble: “Someday I would like the Tony committee to find some way to honor what I consider to be the highest achievement in theatre: the collective effort of an ensemble of actors.”

It is clear that there is a history of widespread support for the performers who comprise the choruses and ensembles of Broadway musicals and plays. Yet so far, they remain the one segment of stage performers to never win a Tony – not because they are not deserving, but because there aren’t categories to recognize them.

Actors’ Equity has taken a bold step to try and rectify that. On April 11, Equity announced the launch of a new campaign called Everyone On Stage, which seeks to create two new categories at the Tony Awards beginning with the 2018-2019 Broadway season: Best Chorus in a Musical or Play and Best Ensemble in a Musical or Play.

With the inclusion of these two categories, all Equity performers who appear on a Broadway stage would finally receive award recognition – appreciation of the valuable contribution they provide that would be visible throughout the entire industry.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that the ensemble is frequently the hardest-working group on the stage,” said Kate Shindle, President of Actors’ Equity. “Today, the Equity members who work in the chorus or ensemble are often expected to do it all: act, sing, dance, even play one or more instruments.”

This push was kicked off when Equity sent an official letter of request to the American Theatre Wing and the Broadway League, the two bodies that produce the Tony Awards. At launch, this campaign included a new website, EveryoneOnStage.com, which includes a look at famous choruses and ensembles of the past, a hypothetical look at what certain productions would have looked like without the contributions of its full chorus and, most importantly, a petition for supporters to sign, committing to their championship of this cause.

“These new Tony Awards Categories can be a win for everyone, from the performers to the producers,” said R. Kim Jordan, 2nd Vice President and Chair of Equity’s Advisory Committee on Chorus Affairs (ACCA). “It's not too soon to start thinking about the next Tony season and how we can ensure that the chorus and ensemble members who are such an important part of bringing a Broadway production to life can be recognized for their invaluable contributions.”

Other bodies have, in fact, honored these talents. The campaign points to a precedent of similarly-minded awards created at other voting bodies in both regional theatre (e.g. Chicago’s Joseph Jefferson Awards, Washington, D.C.’s Helen Hayes Awards) and at SAG-AFTRA, which created ensemble acting awards for film and television at their annual televised awards ceremonies more than two decades ago.

It was while watching a telecast of the SAG Awards that Jordan brainstormed the two new categories. She feels that this recognition is unquestionably deserved for all performers, and that their inclusion also paints a more accurate picture of the team spirit it takes to ensure success onstage.

“While I was watching, I noticed that the award that got the most enthusiasm was the ensemble award,” Jordan said, “and I get it. This is the equivalent of when a sports team wins their conference. On the team that wins, each contributor gets recognized. It’s a ‘you make me better’ thing.”

ACCA was among the first groups to decide that Broadway choruses deserved award recognition; they began handing out their Outstanding Broadway Chorus Award in 2007. This honor is currently the only industry award specifically designed to recognize the contributions of the original chorus of a Broadway musical.

Reaction to this campaign was quick and overwhelmingly positive. “Having proudly spent a large part of my career as a member of the chorus, I support Equity’s effort wholeheartedly,” said Eastern Chorus Councillor Kirsten Wyatt. “We are triple (sometimes quadruple and quintuple) threats, and I think it is recognition that is long overdue.”

“For generations, members of the Chorus have been the unsung heroes of Broadway’s musical legacy,” said Joanne Borts, Eastern Principal Councillor. “Can you imagine West Side Story, Oklahoma! or Fiddler on the Roof without the singers and dancers of the chorus? Or modern-day musicals like Kinky Boots and Hamilton without the women and men who help to tell these vibrant stories? It’s impossible – these performers are truly the backbone of the American musical: the people who make theatrical magic happen.”

Jenn Colella, a member in the Eastern Region, echoes that sentiment completely. Colella is currently in the breakout feel-good musical Come From Away on Broadway, and was the one member of the cast to receive a Tony nomination, as Best Featured Actress. Still, “It would have been so incredible to have shared that nomination with my family at Come From Away last season!” she said. “I am wholeheartedly in support of the Tony Awards honoring the chorus and the full ensemble of Broadway shows. I truly hope that this comes to fruition.”

Eastern Principal Councillor Stephen Bogardus certainly knows a thing or two about awards selection. He has been a Tony Award voter as well as a nominator, and understands that certain principal roles lend themselves to nominations. “There are certain arcs, certain things people are asked to do, that you say, ‘That’s a Tony kind of role,’” he said.

He even played one of those roles himself, garnering a 1995 Best Featured Actor in a Play nomination for the Terrence McNally hit Love! Valour! Compassion! He was one of three actors nominated for a play that consisted of seven actors, all of whom played substantial, demanding roles that interfaced with one another.

“I think everyone in that show would have been very honored to be recognized as an ensemble,” he said. “When you’re in a show you’re not there to get a Tony nomination; that’s the icing on the cake if you get that recognition. Look at all the August Wilson plays – the fabric of a play is that it’s an ensemble piece. Everyone makes the piece what it is.”

Eastern Chorus Councillor Jonathan Brody also believes that these categories will echo the sentiment of many in the community. “I've so often heard people say, ‘What a strong ensemble a show has’ or ‘The chorus works harder than the leads!’” he said. “There are well-known and respected performers working on Broadway who have made careers going from one chorus to another, never getting mentioned in reviews or getting the recognition of their more featured peers. They contribute so much to a show's success and often its development, it’s high time they are recognized for this.”

Among the other instant proponents of the Everyone On Stage campaign is Andy Karl, who began his career as a chorus member (he even lists his ACCA Award in his bio!) before transitioning into the role of Tony-nominated principal actor (Groundhog Day, On the Twentieth Century, Rocky).

“I’m very much in support of chorus and ensemble recognition,” he said. “I’ve had good fortune in the theatre over the years, and it has always been obvious that a great ensemble deserves special credit, never more so then when I was a principal in a show.

“The ensemble gives an incredible amount of effort to tell the story, and in Groundhog Day especially the ensemble had to produce as much storytelling as I had in the ‘lead’ role. Personally, every role I’ve ever had, either ensemble or principal, I’ve been asked to create, practice, nuance and energize my performance to make the production its best. Ensembles absolutely deserve recognition for their incredible efforts.”

According to Lindiwe Dlamini, an original chorus member of Sarafina! and the last original chorus member still performing in The Lion King on Broadway, this kind of appreciation is a long time in coming: “I’ve always felt that chorus people are not often recognized, but they do a lot of the work. They’re just as important to the show. We say in The Lion King, ‘the chorus members are the true principals of the show – we are in it from the beginning to the end;’ more than the actual principals, some of whom are only onstage for fifteen minutes! We also understudy the principal roles.”

Chorus and ensemble members clearly do a significant amount more than just fill the background of a scene. The manner in which chorus and ensemble members weave together the fabric of a narrative requires much technical aplomb. “They are the hardest-working people on Broadway,” Bogardus said. “They’re there in the background, and when they have finished a dance, they do all the work in transitioning to the next scene, and they do it with panache, with élan, enhancing the whole scene.”

These categories could also serve to demystify the notion that chorus parts are only a stepping-stone to principal roles and eventual fame. As both Brody and Dlamini referenced, it would be incorrect to assume that chorus or ensemble roles are a temporary career step on the way to principal roles or greater fame. Many performers are proud to carve out a lifelong career in such roles, which provide stability, the opportunity to employ the skills they have honed over a lifetime and the ability to surround themselves with similarly-minded professionals.

“Some of the most important and wonderful performances I have seen onstage have come from chorus members, including those who constantly understudy stars who play leading roles,” Equity Business Representative Corey Jenkins said. “They are extraordinary performers who make their lives and careers out of chorus work. They are the stabilizers onstage across the entire company.”

“Without the ensemble,” Dlamini said, “I don’t think The Lion King would be what it is. There are many people who have been with the company for a long time. They have made being in the chorus their career. I am actually surprised a decision to recognize the chorus hasn’t been made before.”

Jennifer Cody, Eastern Chorus Councillor, has appeared in the ensemble of such Broadway shows as Urinetown, The Pajama Game, Taboo and Shrek the Musical. Like Dlamini, she knows firsthand what it feels like for a hit show to be celebrated and for nonprincipal performers to feel overlooked.

“You create this new show and are such a part of developing it as an ensemble member, and all this hoopla happens,” she said, “but only the principals of the show are celebrated – they’re given gifts, they’re taken to dinner and we go, ‘We did this too!’”

Cody also points out that due to the changing economics of Broadway, choruses and ensembles have gotten smaller – making each member on a production that much more valuable. “We are now elite,” she said. “Where there were once twenty people on a show, now maybe there are eight. And we have to sing and dance and play multiple roles within a show and understudy roles too. The ensemble members take on so much more of a load than they ever have before.”

It frequently falls on the members of a chorus or ensemble to physically guide the audience’s view. They serve as a spotlight, the stage equivalent of a zoom lens, focusing attention in the direction of a certain principal or set piece and away from something else. Their ability to literally help set the stage makes it all the more bittersweet that they go unrecognized at Tony time.

“Look at the history of choreographers,” said Bogardus. “These people told stories with their dancers and they told amazing stories with their ensemble. Choreographers are recognized for their work, but what about the actor-dancers who provide the extraordinary palette and bring the picture to life with their collective individuality? It’s long overdue that they have an award that recognizes their extraordinary contribution to making a successful show.”

Perhaps the greatest value in Tony Awards for chorus and ensemble might be their literal payoff, serving as a way for producers to market their shows.

Brody agrees: “Having this recognition from the Tony Awards would certainly add cache to a show and add to the nominations and awards counts that help advertise and sell a show,” he said. “It would also help burnish the careers of countless performers.”

Such a win, of course, is also great for the individual. “Producers often undervalue the Equity chorus member,” said Ben Liebert, Eastern Chorus Councillor. “Maybe this will wake them up. If the Tonys care about the chorus, then the audience will care about the chorus, and the producers have to care about the chorus. That changes the bargaining game and could put real money in our pockets.”

The message is loud and clear: the time is now to sing a different tune at the Tony Awards – for those who comprise the backbone of a show to get some face time.

*  *  *  *

Other Equity members have also sung the praises of #EveryoneOnStage. This is what they have had to say!

ARIANE DOLAN [Midwest: Young Frankenstein, Sunset Boulevard, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Spamalot, Funny Girl, Oklahoma!, Brigadoon, The Producers, It’s A Bird, It’s A Plane, It’s Superman, Crazy For You, Cats, The Tempest, West Side Story]

“The chorus and ensemble are the most versatile, hardest working actors, and are responsible for making a show fly. Recognition for them by the Tony committee is long overdue.”

FRANCIS JUE [Broadway: Pacific Overtures, Thoroughly Modern Millie, M. Butterfly; Off-Broadway: The World of Extreme Happiness, Kung Fu, Love’s Labor’s Lost, Coraline, Yellow Face, The Winter’s Tale, Hamlet, Dream True: My Life with Vernon Dixon, Pericles, Timon of Athens, King Lear, A Language of Their Own, The Tragedy of Richard II, Pacific Overtures]

“It’s time to honor the chorus with a Tony Award, to acknowledge their impact on their shows and the art form.”

SAYCON SENGBLOH [Broadway: Eclipsed, Holler If Ya Hear Me, Motown The Musical, Fela!, Hair, The Color Purple, Wicked, Aida; OB: The Red Letter Plays: In the Blood, Eclipsed, Hurt Village, Hair]

“I absolutely believe in a Tony Award for the ensemble! I was thrilled to receive my first Tony award nomination for Eclipsed — being a part of such a strong Broadway ensemble was one of the highlights of my career.”

JENNIFER SMITH [Broadway: Anastasia, Tuck Everlasting, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder, Nice Work If You Can Get It, A Tale of Two Cities, The Drowsy Chaperone, The Producers, High Society, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Once Upon a Mattress, Victor / Victoria, She Loves Me, The Secret Garden, A Change in the Heir, La Cage aux Folles; OB: White Lies, One Two Three Four Five]

“It’s beyond time that choruses and ensembles be recognized for their amazing contributions. Let's do this!”

Please let us know your thoughts about this campaign at EveryoneOnStage@actorsequity.org!

[Doug Strassler writes about the entertainment industry.  During one year, Strassler saw almost 300 plays, 200 movies, and over 100 different TV shows.  He’s the editor at OffOffOnline.com and of the New York IT Awards newsletter, and was editor-at-large at Show Business magazine.  His writing can also be found in New York Press, Back Stage, Our Town Downtown, and West Side Spirit, and on Broadway Direct, TheaterMania, TailSlate, and The Critical Condition.  In 2010, Strassler served on the special nominating committee for the Drama Desk.]

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