Being the first actor to embody a role is not something that a stage actor often gets to do. Most of the time, you’re performing text that has already been done many times before. I’ve had the privilege of originating a role a few times so far in my career. Most recently, I was at the 2023 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The Edinburgh Fringe is held in August every year, and offers one of the most exciting, exhilarating, and inspiring moments in your professional career. The city is buzzing with thousands of artists, all sharing their wonderful, wild, and weird art. This year, I spent my Fringe originating the character of Aphrodite in Woven, a new musical.
“Seven women attend a wake where they discover that their lives are mysteriously intertwined. Now, they must untangle the threads. Inspired by a classic tale, Woven tells the story of women coming together as the truth comes to light. Inspired by Homer’s The Odyssey, Woven tells the story of women coming together as the truth comes to light.”Nine Muses Theatre Company
Each time I’ve been given the opportunity to originate a role, it’s been an incredibly rewarding experience and this time was no different. So, let’s drive in and explore the process!
Originating a Role: It’s All New!
A lot of times with pre-existing material (especially in musical theatre), the blocking, intention of the lines, or musical riffs are already set in stone. As an actor, that gives you a map of exactly how to deliver the content. With new materials, the map is thrown out the window! Since this is the first time the material has ever been presented, you are given more freedom to provide input during the creative process. Everyone is working together to find the most interesting way to present these characters on stage. And at this point, no one knows your character better than you.
In my experience, educational theatre programs don’t tend to focus on performing original content, which means lots of actors won’t experience originating a role until they are out of training. If you’re approaching originating a role for the first time, it can feel scary! There won’t be any cast recordings or “slime tutorials” to watch for inspiration. So, if you’re getting ready to originate a role for the first time, what do you need to do?
Preparation is Key
The steps for preparing to originate a role are the same as what you would do for a role that already has been done before. If the writers of the show have written anything else, it’s a great idea to familiarize yourself with that material. It’ll give you a good idea about the style of their writing and perhaps a reference of the style of the new work.
If the character is based on a historical figure or other source material, give that a deep dive too! Many new shows take their inspiration from existing novels, fairy tales, mythology, politics etc, all of which are great places to start. In Woven, all the characters were based off of women from The Odyssey, so I did a lot of research into Greek mythology when preparing for the role of Aphrodite. Our story was set in the present day, so I used my character research to understand how to modernize Aphrodite into a woman from the 21st century.
Everyone will have their own process for preparing a role. Some people prefer to do more physical work than research. Getting into the body of the character can be an excellent way to really understand the character you’re portraying. If you’re looking for some guidance on finding your character body, check out this video from the National Theatre below!
Come with Questions
With new material, you are bound to have loads of questions after you’ve become familiar with your character and the script. Be prepared to enter the rehearsal room with those questions! In rehearsal, you’ll be able to explore character relationships, levels of status, and all that juicy stuff. Find time to chat with your fellow actors and creative team about the questions you have. If something in the script doesn’t make sense to you, don’t be afraid to speak up! Be curious and dig into the world of your character. The more familiarity you have with the character, the more freedom you will have to play.
Trust Your Instincts
When you’re working with existing material, there is a safety net of past performances you can reference and rely on. New material can feel scary because there’s nothing to reference, but I think that’s what’s most exciting about it! You have endless choices to explore and aren’t bound by the choices others have made before you. You have to trust yourself and your instincts. Make as many bold offers that you can and work with the creative team to figure out what is the most effective. You’ve got this!
When originating a role, it’s a lot of the same steps that you would take when preparing for a role from pre-existing material. The biggest piece of advice I can give is to take a deep breath and jump in! It’s such an exciting and rewarding process to lift a character off the page for the first time. You’ve been trusted with this role for a reason, so go wild and shine!
If you’re intrigued by the artistic process involved in creating a new musical, find out more in our interview with writing team Patrick Burns and Kathleen Coombs.