On the American television singing contest "The Masked Singer", there is a cast of stagehands who play an essential role. They are silent, anonymous, and wear identical dark suits and sunglasses. The host simply refers to them as "men in black".

They serve three purposes in the context of the show:

  1. Stagehands — holding props and retrieving clues
  2. Ushers — helping the heavily-masked contestants to ascend and descend stairs and find their way backstage safely
  3. Dramatic stand-ins — As the masked contestants recount pivotal moments in their lives, those moments are dramatized in dreamy little vignettes. The masked contestant always plays themself, but the "men in black" act as stand-ins for any supporting characters.

It is the third role which is most intriguing. For example, when the Bee contestant (Gladys Knight) recalled her upbringing in Georgia, the "men in black" acted as stand-ins for the family members and other children at her birthday party. Obviously, it is absurd to have men in suits playing her grandmother, her mother, and children with little party hats on their heads, but we the audience understood that they were meant as placeholders for people who cannot be depicted.

I know this must be a recurring device in the history of theater, but the only similar thing I can identify are the Gravediggers/Clowns in "Hamlet". Is there a more general or formal theatrical term to describe such multifunctional stagehands/stand-ins?


1 Answer 1


The usual English term is supernumerary. From the OED:

Theatre. A person outside a regular acting company who is employed to appear on stage in a non-speaking role; an extra.

“Supernumerary, N., Sense 2.c.” Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford UP, March 2024, https://doi.org/10.1093/OED/1646556056.

An article in Classical Voice North America explains that supernumeraries

help populate crowd scenes and appear as torch-bearers, waiters, servants, assassins, and the like. This season, supernumeraries walk on stilts (Wagner's Die Meistersinger at the San Francisco Opera), rappel down a wall (the world premiere of Jimmy Lopez's Bel Canto at the Lyric Opera of Chicago), and entertain the queen as a fire juggler (Donizetti's Maria Stuarda at the Metropolitan Opera). They are there to help fulfill the director's vision for a production.

Jepson, Barbara. "Extra Special: Evolving Role of Supernumeraries." Classical Voice North America: Journal of the Music Critics Association of North America, 16 December 2015. Originally published in Listen: Life with Music & Culture Fall 2015. Accessed at classicalvoiceamerica.org 7 April 2023.

While the above quote discusses supernumeraries portraying their roles realistically, I have seen the sort of depictions where they're symbolic "placeholders," all identically dressed in non-representational costume, performing whatever silent role is called for as a foil to the principal at any moment in the action.

To illustrate the difference between realistic and symbolic use of supernumeraries: if a major characters is supposed to be killed onstage in a battle, supernumeraries dressed as soldiers might ceremoniously carry off the "body" at the end of the scene. But in the more symbolic depictions, four supernumeraries dressed in white T-shirts and blue jeans might stand in a rectangle around the "corpse," hold up their arms as though carrying a bier, and march off with the "corpse" marching along in the center. (I have seen this, but I cannot recall where. If/when it comes to me, I'll revise the answer to include it.)

A supernumerary can also be tasked with moving props:

My role is of the most minor sort—I'm called a supernumerary, "super" for short. In an opera such as Aida, supers carry big fans and spears. In "my" opera, being produced by Opera Theatre of St. Louis, the role is that of a glorified stagehand. I and the six other supers in this opera move scenery, place props on the stage and remove them, and do a bit of acting here and there.

Duffy, Robert W. "A Blend of East and West." Photos by Scott Dine. St. Louis Post-Dispatch 11 June 1981, p. 58.

Again, this can be done in a realistic or symbolic way. As Gareth Rees notes in a comment to the question, kuroko is the Japanese term for such characters when used conventionally and non-realistically, but AFAIK that word has not yet been naturalized into English.

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