Edward Ferrars (also played by actor Joe Wegner), from left, Lucy Steele (actor Hanako Walrath) and Elinor Dashwood (actor Maggie Kettering) share a tense exchange in the same Great Lakes Theater production of “Sense and Sensibility.” Photo / Roger Mastroianni

By Courtney Byrnes

One goal of an actor is to put on a convincing performance to make the audience believe they truly are their character. This task becomes even more challenging when a play with a dozen characters has about half as many actors who then take on multiple roles.

Nevertheless, those in the theater world – like the cast and crew at Great Lakes Theater in downtown Cleveland – have shown time and time again they are up for the challenge. In fact, they often revel in it.

Photo / Jenny Graham

“It’s a creative endeavor that a lot of creative folks – which I am lucky enough to be surrounded by all the time – will lean into,” Sara Bruner, producing artistic director designate at Great Lakes Theater, tells Canvas. “And it just becomes a really fun puzzle for us all to solve.”

Take the company’s spring 2023 production of “Sense and Sensibility” at the Hanna Theatre at Playhouse Square, for example. This comedic theatrical adaptation of the classic Jane Austen novel presented nine actors with the daunting task of filling out the over 20-character cast list. As co-director with Jaclyn Miller, this show also presented a memorable problem-solving moment for Bruner.

“We reached the moment in that show where (actor) Joe (Wegner) had to switch between Edward Ferrars and Mrs. Jennings,” she says. “… We were just like, ‘Wow, how do we solve this?’ I mean, they’re both on stage, they’re talking to one another.”

Choosing to lean into the comedic style of the show, the solution they came up with was to have Wegner transform from one character to the other on stage before the audience by stepping behind the dress of Mrs. Jennings or back into the suit of Edward Ferrars.

“We had a ton of fun executing it and audiences enjoyed it a lot,” Bruner says. “… The problem actually became the fun part because we didn’t give up on it.”

In addition to “Sense and Sensibility,” Great Lakes Theater also put its actors to the test in its latest season with “Dracula: The Bloody Truth,” where four actors played a minimum of six characters each. 

This small-cast production style at the company, and in the theater world more broadly, is nothing new. While Bruner says she is unaware of the full history behind the style, she imagines it came from “a financially-based model” ­as a way for theater companies to tell stories even when hiring 20 actors to fill all the roles is not in the budget.

“It came out of problem solving in our business,” she says, “which creative problem solving is literally all we do all day.”

At Great Lakes Theater, producing artistic director Charles Fee was first drawn to this style with “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged),” with a three-person cast performing all of Shakespeare’s work in a two-hour show, Bruner explains. The beloved performance first took the stage at Great Lakes Theater in 2004, and again in the 2010-2011 season.

“It was something that our actors loved working on, it was something that Charlie was particularly great at directing and it was something that our audiences really, really responded to,” Bruner says. “And once we learned those three things: if your creative teams love it, if your artists love it and your audiences are like, ‘Yes!’, then that is something that you want to repeat and dive more into. So, that was the first and we continue to seek out those kinds of scripts.”

Mrs. Jennings (played by actor Joe Wegner), right, shares a laugh with Colonel Brandon (actor Nick Steen) in the Great Lakes Theater production of “Sense and Sensibility” at the Hanna Theatre in Playhouse Square. Photo / Roger Mastroianni

Cast of Characters

As a director receiving a script made for a small cast, Bruner says it often comes with “suggested doublings,” or ideas for which characters can be played by the same actor. But, the production can make its own creative decisions as well.

When approaching a script where an actor will need to master two or more very distinct characters, she says she looks to cast an actor for their “anchor character.” This is the role they take on for the largest part of the production, while the other roles are their “additive characters.”

With about 25 years of professional acting experience under her belt, Bruner can put herself in her actors’ shoes to cast them in roles that not only fit them well but keep them interested and sometimes provide a good challenge to help them grow.

“I stood in rehearsals and on stage as an actor for thousands and thousands of hours,” she says. “And I always try to keep an awareness of what the actors’ point of view is – how you keep them hungry, how you keep them interested, how you keep them utilized and what is exciting to them.”

Once the cast is set and rehearsal begins, there are many moving parts to consider before the final production. A director is often juggling aiding actors through character development, working with the costume designer and wardrobe team on quick changes, and keeping in mind how the end product will look to the audience.

“When you’re director, your job is to show up every day with a beginner’s mind and forget all of the work that you have about the play,” she says. “Forget everything you know about what you have said in the rehearsal room that you’re trying to do, and say, ‘OK, I’m going to put myself in the mind of an audience member who hasn’t seen the show a thousand times.’”

When it comes to actors inhabiting each role, Bruner says it is important for characters to be distinguishable even before the costumes come into play to cue the audiences to who the actor is playing at any given moment. She uses the example, “I think this character is leading with their hip when they walk. So, how about for character two, why don’t you lean forward and lead with your head a little bit more and see how do they live in your body physically?” she coaches the actors. “And then the second question is always going to be vocally – what do they sound like? What’s the differentiation with how they sound? 

“And then the third thing, and probably the most important thing, is how do they relate to the people around them?”

For example, an actor like Wegner playing a leading love interest like Ferrars and a comedic-relief character like Mrs. Jennings in “Sense and Sensibility” will behave, sound and interact very differently with the other actors and characters depending on which role he is presenting.

From the perspective of an actor, Bruner recalls touring with Shakespeare shows and playing both Juliet and Mercutio in a production of “Romeo and Juliet,” requiring her always to be ready to jump back out on stage to continue the story, while also developing the story arc of each character.

“I found it exhilarating because it’s easier to get caught up in the event of the evening as an artist when you have that much to do throughout the arc of the evening,” she says.

Patsy Cline (actor Christina Rose Hall), left, and Louise Seger (actor Harmony France) sing together in the Great Lakes Theater production of “Always … Patsy Cline” at the Hanna Theatre. Photo / Roger Mastroianni

Behind the Scenes

Once an actor effectively becomes each character, the final signifier of a character change is the costume. And since transitions between characters can happen within minutes, the wardrobe team plays a significant role in small-cast shows.

“As you can imagine, as much life as there is on stage, there’s even more life going on backstage, particularly in a small-cast show,” Bruner says.

During rehearsals, the wardrobe team creates costumes with all the bells and whistles – or in this theater’s case, all the zippers and magnets – to allow actors to step off stage as character A and come right back on as character B.

“We want it to look really, really good, but it has to be able to get taken off of someone and they have to be able to get into their other costume every single time, no matter what, in less than a minute,” she says.

Quick changes need to be practiced and rehearsed as the show and costumes are coming together so any problems can be solved before the audience fills the theater. And while seemingly complex to put together, small-cast shows operate under the same timeline as any other show, she adds.

Although much goes into a small-cast production and those involved certainly take their roles seriously, Bruner says it is often a style reserved for comedies, allowing everyone to “lean into the madcap quality.”

“Small-cast shows are comedies, so you can often have fun with the quick changes and you look for different creative ways to highlight the comedy of one person playing multiple people,” she says.

Upcoming Season

Great Lakes Theater wrapped up its 2023-2024 season with “Always … Patsy Cline” on stage at the Hanna Theatre, which ended in May. And, there will be more opportunities to catch a small-cast style production in the company’s upcoming 2024-2025 season.

Bruner says “Peter and the Starcatcher,” taking the stage Feb. 7, 2025 through March 2, 2025, is “one of these shows.” 

“It is a multicharacter, super imaginative, hypertheatrical play with music that is the prequel to Peter Pan,” she says. 

Showcasing a variety of production styles, the 2024-2025 season has more to offer as it kicks off Sept. 27 with “Into the Woods” through Nov. 10, followed by “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” from Oct. 4 through Oct. 27, the annual “A Christmas Carol” from Nov. 23 through Dec. 22, “Twelfth Night” from March 21, 2025 through April 6, 2025 and closing with “Noises Off” from April 25, 2025 through May 18, 2025.

For more information and tickets, visit greatlakestheater.org.