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A World of Two—Is there room for large ensemble theater in the 21st Century?

Every year American Theater Magazine releases a list of the Top 10 Most Produced Plays of the year across the country. In recent years, the trends have been clear—small casts dominate. David Ives’ Venus in Fur topped the 2013-2014 season with a cast of two, best of 2012-2013 was Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People, slightly better with a cast of six, and 2011-2012 saw John Logan’s Red reach the top, again with a cast of two. In fact, in scanning through AT’s top 10 produced list over the past 10 years, at least 80% of the entries have had a cast of 8 or fewer speaking roles. And as theater goers, we perhaps have assimilated to the norm of small casts.

Why is this? It was once thought of as risky to produce plays with anything under 8 characters, let alone the 2-4 character plays that most contemporary works offer. Propose one of our contemporary plays to a producer of 50 years ago, and her or she would ask, “Where is the spectacle? Where are the layers of relationships? How could a small cast possibly keep butts in the seats?”

And yet, small cast plays have proven themselves highly successful to companies and theater goers. For theater companies, it is cheaper to produce a show with only a few actors’ salaries, which also means fewer costumes, and often a story with a single fixed location—ie one set. For the theater goer, some would argue this gives them the opportunity to connect more intimately with characters, be drawn into the action and directly identify with them, rather than witness a pageant of people onstage. Terry Teachout at the Wall Street Journal wrote an article on this very topic back in 2013, going in depth about the history of cast size in American theater with musings on the leanings of contemporary audiences—and although he gives kind kudos to large productions, his favor is clearly for the “taut, concentrated and intimate” feel of smaller casts.

But one can also make the case that there is a certain facet of life that is lost when we only have two actors before us on the stage. We lose that we are part of the greater world. That the struggles of we small individuals do not exist in a void, but are part of a vibrant, interconnected community on this planet—that community which we call humanity.

This focus on the woes of the individual is a reflection of how our society has changed. Through the distant connections made via technology, we have become more specialized, more internal, and more self-focused. Our plays then become narrow, mimicking the concentrated isolation we perceive as our little world. In reality, we need to be reminded that we are more impactful than we realize and the scope of what we can accomplish on stage could be so much bigger.

What would Our Town be without the varied voices of Grove’s Corners? What would Working be without a full cast representing the hundreds of interviews held by Studs Turkle? Or Les Miserables if you couldn’t “hear The People—all those people—sing?” A large cast reminds us that we are not just a small individual but part of a collective—and that there is love and power and support in that. To quote Sondheim, “We are not alone, no one is alone.”

Luckily, not all theaters or playwrights have forgotten the power of a large cast. A movement of ensemble companies and innovative playwrights have begun to bring back the Chorus and the Townspeople. I think of the Flea Theater in NYC, whose staging of These Seven Sicknesses—a modern update of works of Sophocles with a cast of 34—I still consider one of the most beautiful, enrapturing pieces of theater I have seen. I think of Andrew Hinderaker’s Colossal, recently staged at the Mixed Blood Theater here in Minneapolis, a script which asks for a full football team and dance company on stage.

And I think of our own Girl Friday Productions, and feel proud that we are dedicated to bringing to life large-scale ensemble based American classics. We are invested in stories that speak to the individual and the varied voices in society. By bringing to life larger works from the past we offer humanity, relevance and stimulating theatricality for today.

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