Since the earliest days of theater as an art form, ensemble members have helped to immerse the audience in the world of the show, creating the platform for the story to unfold. Their role, however, has changed through the ages: from the Greek chorus to the professional dancers of early Broadway, all the way to today's ensemble members, consummate performers often described as "triple threats" for their impressive singing, acting, and dancing abilities. Unlike a principal actor, a contemporary ensemble member might play a different character in every scene, rapidly switching between costumes and identities to embody the unnamed world of the play. For this reason, an ensemble member's part in the show is often referred to as his or her "track," a term which encompasses all the characters, lines, blocking, dance choreography, prop placements, and backstage traffic that the ensemblist must memorize and execute.
There are multiple special positions of note within theatrical ensembles, including dance captains, understudies, and swings. Dance captains are the keepers of the show's choreography; they bring replacement actors up to speed, lead routine dance rehearsals after the show opens, and document the show's blocking and choreography in a book known as the "show bible." Understudies are well known even outside of the theater industry: in addition to their ensemble track, they learn one of the principal roles so as to be prepared to fill in at a moment's notice. Much less well known is the swing, a dedicated understudy for the show's entire ensemble. Unlike dance captains and understudies, swings do not have roles of their own; instead, they learn every male or female ensemble track and take over for whoever's missing that night. It's a challenging position reserved for versatile performers with excellent memory and the ability to compartmentalize.
Dance is a primary skill for most ensemblists, who typically begin by learning ballet as a base before progressing into other styles including jazz, hip hop, modern, tap, and ballroom. Musical theater choreography, which has become a style all its own, must also be learned, starting with old movie musicals and recordings of classic performances. To cultivate their singing talents, ensemble performers take voice lessons, develop their own warm-up routines, and prepare a diverse selection of material to showcase their range in auditions. Particularly important qualities are vocal confidence and the ability to express character through one's singing and dancing.
Ensemble Member (Musical Theater and Opera) at a Glance
Ensemble members come from a wide range of backgrounds—but what almost all have in common is a love of theater from an early age. Although some may primarily identify as dancers and others as singers or actors, only those with a multidisciplinarian skill set are eligible for the most common Broadway ensemble jobs. While non-singing ensemble parts exist, they are rare, as producers tend to prefer the increased understudying flexibility provided by an ensemble member who can sing. Ensemble members might go on to become successful principal actors in the musical and opera worlds, find work as backup dancers for touring artists, or transition into non-performing careers like choreographer, drama teacher, dance teacher, or movement coach.
Finding work as an ensemble member is all about mastering the art of the audition, wherein ensemblists must demonstrate their abilities to quickly learn and beautifully execute choreography, to sing and harmonize effectively across a range of genres, to embody different characters with their voice and movement, and to take direction. Ensemble members who can do all of that won't struggle to find work.
While building audition skills, there are a number of things aspiring ensemble members can do to improve their chances of getting gigs—paying close attention to audition postings across a wide range of platforms, for one. Additionally, one might create a portfolio or website with videos to showcase one's work, build a detailed theatrical resumé, and get headshots and full-body photographs taken. As anywhere in the theater industry, networking is absolutely vital; some Broadway ensemblists even recommend finding a dance teacher who works as a Broadway choreographer in order to make an additional connection.
- Singing (in many musical styles)
- Learning choreography
- Memorizing lines and blocking
- Physical fitness
- Reading music notation
- Experience with theater
- Opera repertoire
- Foreign languages (French, German, Italian)
The best ensemble members live for the stage, and love nothing more than to embody characters, tell stories, and create worlds. Excellent dance and singing technique are just prerequisites—it's the ceaseless passion for all facets of theatrical performance that makes a true ensemblist. Additionally, ensemble members should strive to be exceptional collaborators, humble and good at taking direction from music directors and dance captains, with whom they work closely.
Ensemble members work an intense schedule, including daily rehearsals from afternoon to evening while the show is in production, and up to 8 shows per week once it's running. The two two-show days each week are particularly exhausting, while Monday is the hallowed day off when most theaters go dark. Outside of work, ensemble dancers must work out to stay in excellent shape, take classes to learn new techniques and improve the old, and monitor their health and diet. There's also the option to go on the road with a touring production. While the schedule is exhausting, as a steady and secure gig in the largely freelance field of theater, being an ensemble member on a Broadway production can't be beat. In addition, many ensemblists praise the career for the variety and diversity of opportunities it provides—in other words, the job is rarely boring.