The Communicator

The Communicator

The Communicator

The Ensemble Experience

People who were in the ensemble of CETs latest show, “Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812,” reflect on their experiences.
Elijah Makman-Levinson
During a CET rehearsal of the number “A Call to Pierre,” various members in the ensemble, including Maggie Williams, hold up titan tubes. Various people in the ensemble held titan tubes during some numbers in the show, and did basic choreography with them, using the lighting for emphasis. “[Having titan tubes] is a super cool addition to the show,” Williams said.

When everybody thinks about the recent CET (Community Ensemble Theater) production of “Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812,” they immediately think about the stars of the show: Natasha, Pierre, Anatole, etc. But they don’t consider the other people who appear on stage to contribute to this production by singing and dancing: the ensemble.

First off, what is the ensemble? Being a part of the ensemble in “Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812” involves being in a few, typically 6-8, of the musical’s songs. Rather than singing a solo, duet, or trio, as the main characters do, ensemble characters sing in a small group. People in the ensemble also typically move around or dance in the background as they’re singing. Ensemble characters get a great experience being in the musical, without carrying the heavy load of having to memorize songs that they’ll be singing by themselves in front of an audience.

“The Great Comet of 1812” is a musical version of a 70-page excerpt from Leo Tolstoy’s novel “War and Peace.” It takes place in Moscow, Russia, in the early 19th century, and primarily follows the story of two people: Natasha and Pierre. Natasha is engaged to Andre, who is away fighting a war in France, but when she catches the eye of drunken, handsome Anatole, they fall in love. The two of them have a love affair, and then Natasha breaks off her engagement with Andre. As Natasha and Anatole are about to elope, miserable, eccentric Pierre finds out and ruins their plans.

While the actors who play these characters have the primary roles in the musical, the ensemble also has key parts of the story to tell. For example, during the number when Pierre is introduced, the ensemble stands around him and makes remarks about how Pierre is a “merry, feasting crank,” this description being essential to developing the characterization of Pierre. Also, during the number in which Pierre finds out through Marya (Natasha’s Godmother) that Anatole and Natasha had a love affair with each other, numerous people in the ensemble stand around and gossip about the situation, while others carry titan tubes (LED tubes used as lighting) and do choreography with them.

People in the ensemble come to the musical with varied backgrounds in singing, dancing, and CET in general. Some ensemble members participate in other musical theater programs or have been in CETs productions before, so being in the ensemble is a chance for them to build on their prior experiences. Some are entirely new to musical theater, and being in the ensemble is a great chance for them to get immersed in theater. Some people who play a minor role in the production are additionally in a few songs as part of the ensemble.

Freshman Eli Feng frequently does musical theater for YPT. Feng initially got into theater when his dad made him do a theater camp the summer before eighth grade. At camp, he discovered his love of theater, and then joined YPTs production of “Into the Woods.” Feng has also been in YPT’s productions of “Mamma Mia,” “School of Rock,” and is currently in “The Little Mermaid.” After learning that CET was planning on putting on the Great Comet, Feng listened to the entire soundtrack.

“I really enjoyed Natasha and Pierre when I listened to it,” Feng said. “It’s about history and I’m a big history nerd.”

After he discovered how much he loved the show, and due to his prior theater experience, Feng auditioned for cast, and made the ensemble.

“I’ve really enjoyed being in the show,” Feng said. “I think the show is so cool. CET always does the coolest shows from what I’ve seen.”

Feng doesn’t at all feel that being in the ensemble is a boring part to have since it’s not a role that has a name. Rather than treating his ensemble character as someone without any background or personality, Feng developed a whole character and backstory for his role in the ensemble. Feng characterized his role as an older man, wishing for his son to come back from Siberia, where he was collecting taxes from people. Feng used this backstory to shape how he acted in each of the numbers. For example, during the number “Letters,” when everybody in the ensemble writes a letter to somebody, Feng wrote a whole letter to his son.

“All the people in the ensemble are more or less characters in their own right,” Feng said. “I made a character out of my role in the ensemble, just so I could be more expressive with acting choices and that kind of thing.”

Like Feng, sophomore Maggie Williams also frequently does theater for other programs, and she sings in the “Ann Arbor Youth Chorale.” This school year has been Williams’ second time performing in the CET ensemble, as she was in Cabaret prior to this. Williams additionally performed in CET’s play this year and last year. Williams really enjoys being in the ensemble and feels like it’s a great place not only for beginners in singing but also for people like her, who are more experienced singers and who hope to get a lead after singing in an ensemble.

“Being in the ensemble feels like a stepping stone to a bigger role that I want to get someday in the future,” Williams said.

Senior Hyacinth Held has also been in the ensemble for CETs production this semester. However, as opposed to Feng and Williams, who have experience in musical theater through other productions they’ve been in, Held is primarily new to theater. Despite singing in choir throughout elementary and middle school, this has been Held’s first experience singing in a musical. Even though Held had the experience of musical theater as a new activity, Like Feng and Williams, Held has greatly enjoyed being in the ensemble. Being in the ensemble has made Held want to continue to do musical theater in the future, as she wants to do it in college. As a senior who’s really busy with school, Held also appreciates how being in the ensemble isn’t an immense time commitment.

“I like ensemble because you still get the CET experience and you get to sing and everything, but it’s not as stressful [as having a lead] ” Held said. “It can be hard balancing CET and school. But if you’re just in the ensemble, it’s not as much work.”

Junior Bee Whalen was also in CET’s production this semester, playing the role of “Andre.” Whalen was in CET’s musical last year, when he played the role of a sailor, and the year before, in “Pippin,” in which he played Theo. However, Whalen has additionally been in the ensemble for each of these shows, as it is typical when people play minor characters. These performers sing in the ensemble for numbers in which their named character isn’t on stage. So Whalen has had experience playing a named character and being in the ensemble for the same CET show, getting to experience both.

“I really like that sort of type casting that I’ve gotten,” Whalen said. “It’s a nice kind of balance because it gives me time to really embrace a specific character that’s been created, but also to have fun with my own characters [in the ensemble, that is] as well.”

Whalen feels like he doesn’t have a preference for one over the other, as in his opinion, both have their own pros and cons. Even though Whalen enjoys having a solo singing part and the excitement that comes with it, he loves how as an ensemble member, you can connect with your character more by coming up with your own acting choices for that character.

“With chosen characters with names, I definitely feel like there’s more of a set emotion that you’re expected to portray. With Andre, I know Emily [the CET director] was very specific with some of those emotions. Whereas with an ensemble member, you get a lot more flexibility in making choices which I like. You’re not really at risk for throwing off the story too much. You can definitely still throw off the story if you’re too big with your choices, but when you’re given a character role, you’re sort of ruled out for what you can do.”

Whether you’ve already had lots of musical theater experience, or it’s your first time ever singing, being in the ensemble for CET’s musicals is an enriching experience! Being in the ensemble provides you with a great opportunity to develop your own character and is a great way to get experience singing and acting. The ensemble provides you with a forum to develop lots of great skills that might help you to get a bigger role in a future musical.


Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All The Communicator Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *