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Angela Mitchell

Losing the 'Ensemble Drama'

By April 14, 2012

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Over at the East Bay Express, Rachel Swan wonders if today's tough economic times are forcing theatre companies to stage small to save money. She wonders if this thriftiness is affecting the artistic achievement, and my answer is -- it absolutely is.

As Swan's article emphasizes, a lean economy is leading theatrical companies, rather understandably toward staging lean, small productions -- often on spare, simple sets, and with small casts of just three or four. As donations and grants began to dry up, the economic downturn also placed increased emphasis on ticket sales -- and pressure on artistic directors to choose seasons that are audience-friendly and more likely to offer mass appeal. This means that edgier works are less likely to be performed or explored, and (interestingly enough) that classic dramas like Death of a Salesman or classic Shakespearean tragedies such as Hamlet are also on a downturn because of the typical ensemble size involved. Sure, Salesman is on Broadway again, with Philip Seymour Hoffman in the title role and heading a cast of about a dozen players. But how many regional theatres are doing the show right now?

This, of course, perpetuates the cycle: Theatres won't stage larger plays, so playwrights, as Mark Jackson, a San Francisco playwright, notes to Swan in the article, are also following the trend and writing smaller plays, leaving behind ensemble works because they're not practical, sellable, or as likely to be staged right now. (It's a different story with musicals, where a large cast in a consistently popular show can be more reliably offset by solid ticket sales.)

Can works for smaller casts be exciting and visceral theatre? Of course they can. But the loss of larger ensemble works removes a special kind of exploration as well -- the richness that can come from a diverse cast of characters, motives, and interactions. Larger ensemble works like Wilder's immortal Our Town (memorably revived Off-Broadway in 2009 at the Barrow Street Theatre in a production directed by David Cromer) can powerfully reflect back to us not just ourselves, but our very societies. They can powerfully provide us with the "big picture" of who we are in a way that goes beyond ourselves, to, well, our towns, our cities, our countries. But they are, dramatically at the moment at least, a vanishing breed.

Image copyright Flickr user Phillip Ingham

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