– It seems no production opens without longtime arts buff David Tannous sitting front row center. As the recipient of DC Theatre Scene’s 2011 Gary Lee Maker Award for Outstanding Audience Member, Tannous has brought boundless enthusiasm and a smart analytical eye to Washington shows for decades. On the eve of this year’s awards, DC Theatre Scene spoke with Tannous about his responses to 2011 musical theatre in the DC area. What follows is our distillation of his thoughts, culled from extensive conversation. Read his overview of the 2011 musicals here. –
I am sorry to say that I didn’t get to see A Year With Frog and Toad. So keep that in mind. I don’t leave them out for any other reason than the fact that I didn’t get up to Adventure Theatre for that one. Foolishly, it turns out!
With regard to ensemble, a very particular point was made with POP! and with Hairspray. In both cases, the ensemble was used as more than just a crowd — they were all very clear characters. In these two shows especially, the play would not be a play without this pattern of multiple supporting characters coming into focus for moments that affect the plot, then receding again.
That’s exactly how Andy Warhol ran the Factory in real life, with himself as a sort of dark star at the center of the universe. A great deal of thoughts clearly went into how to provide for a rich population of actors. And in fact, POP! had two layers of ensemble. The characters with lines and character names were drawing energy from a second, outer group of non-speaking ensemble actors that appeared in various ways. It was crucial for Studio to have this secondary ensemble — they put pressure on the spoken-line characters, who in turn played off Tom Story as Andy Warhol. That impressed me tremendously. I also found it smart how they used the ensemble specifically for that space. The audience came in through the back way — an unused stairwell, on a route that Studio patrons never see.
It felt off-balance. But that was always Warhol’s way with people. We were, in a way, uptown visitors to his nitty-gritty art space. The audience was part of it and not part of it. There was a strong feeling that this big group of people would continue in its rhythm even after we left.
What Tom did in the role of Andy — and did brilliantly — was to hold up a mirror to use. Or, you might call it a face of blankness. Back then, everyone wanted to be his favorite. But Warhol thrived on the feeling of people petitioning for his attention, and the only way to keep that feeling going is to never give anyone what they’re asking for. So, the bustling two-tiered ensemble in POP! served the main point of the play. That was very impressive.
In the case of Hairspray, again the ensemble was integral. The whole theme of that story is the struggle of how to ride, or control, changing crowd attitudes. The play is all about a society that showcases a single perception of what is accepted, inside of which exist a few people with enough energy and desire for change to beat the odds and come out on top. But it’s only possible when characters like Tracy and Edna can convince themselves that they have something worth offering. They don’t have to accept what the community has decided about their level of worth. So, the feeling of ensemble is crucial because it illustrates how crowd dynamics can be shifted.
And in this production, the ensemble really transformed from beginning to end. Each ensemble member had real individuality — specific body language, attitude, range of expression, even details in costuming. I never felt that I was looking at a mob scene full of interchangeable people.
Liberty Smith and The Sound of Music had, in a sense, more conventional ensembles, but in each case they were very effective. Liberty Smith, in particular, had an enormous ensemble. But it’s also an enormous stage at Ford’s — I think more enormous than people realize — so it was great to see so many people appearing, receding, and reappearing later on. Liberty Smith is the most episodic and cinematic production of the group. I saw it several times, and at moments it felt like a biography movie from the 1930s. Where, for example, you’d see a superimposed image of pages falling from a calendar to show that time is passing. So stylistically it was a complicated dance, and I admired that the ensemble did everything they needed to do to keep the show going.
The Sound of Music had a smaller ensemble, and a more traditional presentation, but in this case too I got the sense that every single supporting role had its own life. The ensemble gave a sense of richness to the piece. They figured out how to make a limited number of actors and actresses feel like a whole community.