Thursday, August 22, 2013

Dare to Cast Your Inner Ensemble

The ensemble cast has become a staple ingredient of some of the best filmed drama, particularly the dramas produced outside the Big Three conventional networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC.

At one time in recent history, an ensemble cast meant a group of actors who worked together, performing a series or season of plays, say an all-Shakespeare cycle such as the comedies.  The ensemble concept could also be a group of actors who went on tour, performing a selected group of plays in various cities over the course of a year.

You were aware of such groups, even attending some of their performances as opportunities arose for you.  But it was not until the advent of the memorable television drama-as-novel, The Wire, that you began to pay closer attention to the implications of an ensemble cast for writers such as yourself, who valued and learned story elements from stage and film.

The Wire is a drama set in Baltimore, MD, that first aired on HBO in 2002, ran its course of story in sixty episodes, the final one providing significant closure in 2008.  Since your original experience with it, you've revisited the series via disc at least three times, once in connection with your proposal to teach a course on its major areas of focus.

There is no hyperbole to your assessment of the extraordinary effect The Wire had on subsequent television drama.  For any number of reasons, some unclear to you, others relating to your attempts to "find" another series with as much power and impact as The Wire, you've tracked down and watched any number of subsequent ventures.  Among these were Breaking Bad, which for a certainty captures some of the dynamic and implications of The Wire, particularly in its taking characters to deeper, more noir-like dimensions.  

The Shield, a splendid ensemble effort, pulled actors Glen Close and Forrest Whittaker into its orbit.  You continue to follow Justified and Longmire, and have put in your time watching Southland, Life,and a recent discovery, NY22, regrettably cancelled after the first season,in spite of some notable writing by its creator, Richard Price, who was a major writing contributor to The Wire.

Such television ventures as these set multiple story lines into motion, cutting away from individuals, pairs, and combinations of characters in the ensemble at moments of rising action, switching to other individuals or groups in collateral situations.  The result is often a brilliant mash-up of soap opera drama, incisive character development, and edgy implications about contemporary social issues.

These and other series like them, say Sons of Anarchy or The Bridge, move beyond textbooks on how to write story; they speak to inspiring approaches to motive, response, goals, and time lines as conveyances for the collateral social, psychological, and political elements that so convincingly breathe dimension into story.

The various ensembles of characters in these dramas interact with one another in plausible, engaging ways, often producing moments of heightened concern, fear, recognition, humor, pathos, and the sometimes absurd or extraordinary reaches of potential within the human condition.

To reach such ensembles of character for works intended for print publication, the writer does well to consider the craft of acting in the first place, in order to see the potential within an individual brought onto the digital equivalent of a page.  The writer draws from personal experience, observation of others, and of course that great undecipherable, the sphere of imagination.

Simply put, you're beginning to take this one step beyond and into the world of the ensemble cast.  The process works like this:

At any given moment, you show up for a given life event, whether the event is something where you are completely alone, such as composing, reading the work of students or clients, or reading for the equivalent of what you call reading for pleasure.

You may also be showing up to host a class, to meet a potential client, to have lunch or dinner with friends, to attend a social gathering, to attend a performance.  Your immediate goal may be to extract such enjoyment as possible out of an event, to discuss plans for some work-related activity, to console or otherwise support a friend, to discover some bit of information.

You may even be going so far as to be seeking the complete adventure of leisure, with no other purpose than "to see what happens."

The fact is, the you who arrives for one or more of such things is an amalgamation of the various yous who inhabit you:  the impatient you, the hungry you, the bored you, the frightened you, the combative you.  Depending on the event, you may arrive in a particular costume of occupation in addition to your outer wardrobe.  You could be the teacher, the editor, the late-middle-aged-man on the flying trapeze.  

You may be at the moment haunted by ghosts of individuals no longer alive or the ghosts of unfinished, unattended purposes, moaning like the ghosts in scary fiction.  You may be haunted by ghosts of unresolved relationships.  You may be sixteen or seventeen, trying to act your present age, but just as well, you might be your present age while trying to project or at least hold some control over the seventeen-year-old who stalks your battlements like the ghost of Hamlet's father, wanting something from him.

An experienced ensemble actor has been all these.  The experienced ensemble actor shows up for work in a play or story, mindful of the role for tonight's performance, trying to assert some kind of direction over the ensemble cast within him, wishing to perform contrary and conflicting roles.

In many ways, you are reminded of Ronald Harwood's estimable play, The Dresser, in which an aging Shakespearean actor's personal assistant, or dresser, attempts to keep the actor's life together.  The play and the film made of it, with Harwood doing the screenplay, is a romp which you vastly admire.  One scene in particular stays with you, in which the actor, somewhat addled with drink, steps out of his dressing room wearing the garb and black-face of Othello, whereupon the dresser reminds him, "No! No!  It's Lear tonight.  We're doing Lear!"

There are other insightful and memorable moments of actor and character revelation, where the actor speaks of being so caught up in a role he's portraying that he can imagine himself as a spectator up in the balcony, watching himself on stage, performing.

Some days, you are aware of the equivalent of showing up as Othello on a Lear or Macbeth day, circumstances which have nothing to do with being drink addled.  Perhaps the glue holding your ensemble together is a concoction of enthusiasm, carino, and the wish to be on stage in any role at all, the page Mountjoy in Henry V, or, for that matter, a pizza delivery guy in any production at all.

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