I never thought about having a “process” when it comes to developing a role.
But since I started having breakfast once a month with my friend Ande (who is a musical director and pit player) and talking about our mutual theater experiences, she has convinced me that I do, indeed, have a process.
Being a pit musician, means that you get to watch a performance, over and over, and see how it develops.
My “process” is starting with what’s on the page.
Understanding what is on the page is important. If there is a word in there you are unfamiliar with – look it up – even if you’re not the person saying it.
Read the whole script, so you can get a feel for the other characters and how you fit into their world view.
If the show is based on a historical period – you can do some reading to see what was going on in the world at that time – what would have affected your character and those around him/her.
If the role is historical (i.e., I played Ben Franklin in 1776) – read about that person.
My personal feelings on that, however, is only read up to the point in the person’s life that the show depicts – because your character isn’t going to know what happens later in life.
If the character is fictional – create your own backstory.
Anything referenced in lyrics and lines that relate to your character should be explored.
For example, in A New Brain, Gordon (the main character) says, “My sister is a receptionist.”
WTF – there is a sister?
Why isn’t she there?
Where is she?
I played the Mom – so even though I was not part of that scene – I needed to create a whole backstory of my daughter and why she wasn’t there with her dying brother.
Feel free to talk with other cast members about their characters, so you can understand their character’s backstory – and how it affects your character. But remember, you don’t have to incorporate their opinions/feelings about their character or how their character thinks about your character. Just like in real life, what somebody else thinks about you may or may not have anything to do with your own reality.
There is a director who, during the first three days of rehearsal, has the whole cast sit down and read through of the show – going through the script line-by-line – asking questions the whole time about the intent, motivation, and backstory of the characters.
I LOVE this.
And be flexible about your backstory.
If it no longer feels true to your character – rework it.
When I played Frl. Schneider in Cabaret – I started off with one idea of how my character felt about Frl. Kost (the prostitute) and ended up totally flipping it.
I like when a director asks me about what something means or why am I doing something – because I have my internal intent but I have no idea if that is coming across in my performance.
I’m just not good at picturing what I’m doing, and rely on my director to let me know if something is coming across wrong.
Musically (because almost all my work is in musical comedy), I start with the basics.
Learn the fucking music.
And here’s where I repeat – LEARN TO READ MUSIC.
You will save everyone so much time; and it isn’t that hard – truly. It’ll take you maybe a week to learn what you need.
Once I have the notes and rhythm, I start working with phrasing.
The phrasing is partly musical and partly acting. Your vocal / musical director will want certain phrases hung together – not broken up with breathes. You need to plan the breathing – AND WRITE IT DOWN!
Just like everything else in theater – write your instructions / directions into your music and script. We all think we’ll remember, and then it almost never happens. Just write it down.
One vocal/musical director had me speak the lyrics, which always feels weird and makes me feel foolish, – but it works. Read it like poetry, read it like prose.
It helps me find the ebb and flow in the lyrics.
I have a bad habit of just singing everything at one level – LOUD.
I got a big voice, and I was always encouraged to blow everyone away with it.
Well, now we all have body mics and it’s not only not necessary, it can be fucking annoying.
Music is meant to go somewhere; it moves; it builds; and you need to learn how to express that movement – even when standing still.
So think about the lyrics. A lot.
If words are important enough to be set to music, they are – important.
So take all of that, plus memorization, so it flows trippingly from the tongue and so you PICK UP YOUR CUES (nothing slows down a show more than not picking up your cue – want a dramatic pause – put it in your line – not before or after it – that way the audience isn’t worried that someone forgot their line and can relax and enjoy the performance).
Add blocking and choreography (all of which you have to finesse to fit your character).
And there you have it!
And this is why I get so angry when people think how easy performing is – that anyone can do it.
Fuck you, it’s a ton of work – and you don’t want any of that work to show on stage.
Theater is fun, but it’s definitely NOT easy.