What are Ensemble Casts?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ensemble casts are casts in which a number of characters are given equal status, rather than giving one performer star status, while the others act as supporting characters. In such a cast, a group of characters becomes important to viewers and listeners, giving the creators of the production a chance to play around with the characters and the story much more. These casts are especially common in the television industry, with shows like Lost, Arrested Development, Bones, Heroes, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer using the ensemble cast as a tool to create extremely complex and heavily layered stories.

Ensemble casts may be used in opera and other theater performances as well.
Ensemble casts may be used in opera and other theater performances as well.

One of the major advantages to using ensemble casts in television is that it allows the writers to create episodes which are centered around individual characters, using these episodes to develop the characters while also driving the plot forward. Lost, for example, famously uses this technique in combination with flash-forwards and flash-backs to provide more context for the incredibly complex Lost mythology, allowing viewers to get close to a wide assortment of characters.

Using ensemble casts in television shows allows writers to create episodes centered around individual characters.
Using ensemble casts in television shows allows writers to create episodes centered around individual characters.

In television, ensemble casts can save shows from becoming boring or repetitive. When a show focuses on a single star, viewers can start to get restless, and it can be hard to break out of a formulaic episode pattern. With this type of cast, the show tends to be much richer, with complex layers. For example, characters can be given opposing motivations, with centric episodes giving viewers an opportunity to sympathize with both sides.

By having an assortment of characters to focus on, ensemble casts can make a film more dynamic.
By having an assortment of characters to focus on, ensemble casts can make a film more dynamic.

Films may also use ensemble casts, which sometimes take the form of all-star casts, in which every member of the cast is a recognized star. Such casts can also add more depth to films; in the 2004 movie Crash, for example, a story is told from multiple perspectives, as viewers travel from one principal performer to another. Ensemble casts can make a film more dynamic, by providing an assortment of characters to focus on and emphasize with. Ensembles are also common in musicals, and they may be used in opera and other performances as well.

For producers, an ensemble cast can be a challenge as well as a pleasure to work with. Creating an ensemble generally drives the expense of a production up considerably, as stars who share billing expect roughly equal salaries and perks on the set. In television, where cast members can demand substantial sums for each episode, an ensemble cast can cause the cost of production to become stratospheric, and this becomes an even larger issue when big-name stars are involved.

Live theater performances may have a large ensemble cast.
Live theater performances may have a large ensemble cast.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


As a theatre director, I find that producing shows with an ensemble cast is a great way to get more people involved in your theatre and make everyone feel valued.

There are so many theatres that focus on their ‘stars’ and leave the common cast person (who actually often makes a show) kicked to the curb.

I have always been a director who sought to make each and every cast member feel equally important. After all, to direct a truly good show, cohesiveness must be achieved.

That cohesiveness is so much more easily found when using the show with a written in ensemble cast. Everyone feels an equal part of the performance, and no one is left feeling less than the rest.

Of course, in your typical ensemble cast, you also must have a good deal of talent, ability and dedication from each performer.


Whenever I think of a great ensemble cast, I actually think of the musical “Rent.” Oh – I saw this show right after it came out on Broadway, and I was absolutely blown away by it.

I’ve seen it several times since then, both in New York and at different traveling Broadway performances.

Each character has their own unique story to tell, and no one seems to be more important than anyone else. It is amazing to me that it initially was thought to be a lost cause!

The playwright actually had a very hard time selling it to begin with. Once he finally did, I believe I’m correct in saying that he passed away from AIDS just before it’s Broadway debut.

How sad! This is one show with an ensemble cast that has a beautiful message!


Buffy The Vampire Slayer had an excellent ensemble cast; the work of Joss Whedon often does, including his other shows, like Firefly. It adds so much to have several strong characters, I think. Shows about just one ordinary person can get boring.

I also have liked a lot of comedies with ensembles, like Seinfeld in the 1990s and, more recently, How I Met Your Mother.


While it was a play by Tony Kushner first, I think that Angels in America, the version done by HBO a few years ago, is a great example of an ensemble cast. A lot of other plays are great, including other Kushner pieces and many of Tom Stoppard's works, like Arcadia.


Magnolia is one of my favorite films to feature an ensemble cast. I think it is also one of the most successful at navigating all the star power on screen.

The film has so many big names from Tom Cruise to William H Macy to John C Riely amongst many others. All of them are just a part of the story, no one dominates or rises to the top of the marquee. And the movie is brilliant. It never fails to get me chocked up and I have seen it probably a dozen times.


The films of Robert Altman are known for having great ensemble casts. Many of them feature groups of the most famous actors of the day. Often times one or two of these actors could carry a film on their own but they have elected to set their star power aside and act as characters in dramas where many characters play an important role.

I think my favorite of his films and one of the finest examples of how he was able to manage an ensemble cast is the film Short Cuts. It came out in the early 90s and is based on several short stories by one of my favorite writers, Raymond Carver. It has lots of famous names, too many to mention here, and all of them play a small role in a much larger interlocking story. It is a great and often times overlooked films and a fine example of actors working together to accomplish something greater than their own fame.

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