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Friday, July 2, 2010

"How free are you to interpret the role of Elphaba?"

I recently received a letter asking me to explain the process of creating the role of Elphaba. To what extent was I free to interpret, it inquired, and to what extent was I supposed to "stay within the lines"?

This struck me as a great question. While my knowledge is circumscribed to my singular experience embodying the lean-green Elphaba Thropp, my process of learning the part is something which I'm pretty sure occurs within most long-running shows for which there are actors who come in as replacements and/or understudies.

Basically, this means I'm going to speak with authority on a subject of which I have limited knowledge. Because I'm a BLOGGER, damnit, and that's what BLOGGERS DO! YEAH, BLOG KEG STAND!

So, the short answer is: creating a role that's already been, well, created (sometimes many times over) is a give and take. There are fundamental "givens" -- incontrovertible facts of the story and of the original production that cannot change -- and there, "takens" -- places where you can find room for more creative interpretation.

As an actor (and not just one who joins a cast as a replacement) it is your sworn duty to stay faithful to the script and make choices that support the story as its written. This is your job, boiled down to the essentials. Tricky extra bonus task: if you are not a member of the original cast, there is an added layer of "givens" -- which is to stay, choices that were made in the original staging of WICKED (through the collaboration of its original creative team and its original actors) that have -- through the months or years -- been maintained and upheld. These givens, like the script and story, are non-negotiable.

(Whoa, can we take a second to acknowledge how I'm totally on a double-hyphen punctation mark joyride? It's outrageous -- and I'm not going to stop.)

Anyway, my early Elphaba rehearsals involved my writing down and walking through a basic blocking skeleton. This blocking skeleton came from the original staging of WICKED. I found my way through a series of beats and acted out the physical movements that accompanied them. It was then up to me to find a way to make these physical movements grounded in my own sense of reality. From there, the character began to grow.

So those are the blocking "givens," but what about the less-aptly-named "takens"? As a replacement cast member, you can, as I said, find little moments of "freedom" or "playtime" in the space between the "givens." For example, a blocking direction might be something like, "turn away and cross to six right*," but it's up to you to figure out the "action" or "intention" of the moment -- which is manifested in, say, how you carry yourself, or how you choose to inflect the accompanying dialogue.

Are you with me? Too much actor-ly speak going on? Hang on, let me just put on my turtleneck and adjust my beret real quick before I continue.

(*Oh, and about that Cartesian blocking terminology, "six right": there's a number line across the front of the stage that serves as a guide for the actors. This way we keep the stage pictures clean and consistent.)

Before I conclude this abstruseness fest, I should address briefly the question of vocal freedom, or, more pointedly: "Elphaba riffing." I often get asked why I choose to do the riffs (or alternate melodies) I do, and the answer is threefold: 1) I do what my music director says sounds best in my voice, 2) I do what I am capable of singing at that particular performance, 3) I do what I'm allowed to do. Number 3 is furreal: there are certain riffs that the creative team deems wack because they compromise the truthfulness of the storytelling. And this is not the creative team's way of being tyrannical or stifling: it's merely their way of ensuring that actresses stay faithful to the original score and the original story.

In a word, when it comes to riffing, the rule is: diff'rent strokes for diff'rent folks, but the story ain't no jokes. (See how I added that last part? It rhymes. I told you I'm an artist, this beret is not just for show.)

And that, my friends, concludes one of the longest and most convoluted blog posts ever. Well, except if you are still considering vintage Unnaturally Green: posts like this or this or, yikes, this.

I'm going to go to bed, whereupon I will weigh the likelihood that the loud noises I am hearing are early Fourth of July fireworks and not gang crossfire.

Ah, sweet repose,


  1. Cartesian blocking terminology is a new one for me-thanks for the free stage lesson!

    One of the biggest variations Ive seen among the six Elphies ive watched are interpretations of Elphie personality and emotions in act one from more innocent/softer/sweet/happy to more bitter/sarcastic/wounded versions

    ...and nothing is more interesting than watching each of you go "mad" in your own way during NGD...

    Who have you seen perform as Elphaba live, and do you look at youtube videos of other Elphabas???

    keep up the great blogs!


  2. Ooo, this was my question, thanks so much for answering it! People often ask me how I can see the same show so many times, and they're surprised when I tell them that seeing different actresses really makes a huge difference.

    Your use of the phrase "deems wack" regarding the riffs made me laugh, very nicely put!

  3. Yes, it's wrong and bad that I am fixated on what you called the "double dash" -- I would call it a double hyphen -- and its use. Usually, the double hyphen stands in for an em dash (an open em dash, in this case, since there is space on either side of the dash) for a keyboarder who doesn't have access to the special character needed to create an em dash.

    I could happily expound further on what I know about dashes and their ilk, but what I really came to say is that I love the way you give us a look at the technicalities of performance. Keep up the cool point of view!

  4. Once again Felicia you and this blog rock! Love to read Wicked details you share with us. I have encouraged a tour member or two to write a book about their life on the road with Wicked without knowing if they could actually write. You are an incredible writer, so why don't you readjust your beret once more and compile all your shiz stories for a book. I mean come on,,a pop up book could sell to Wicked fans,,imagine what you could do. "My Wicked Life" "Wicked Shiz" "Going Green".
    Think about it,,and you can thank me at your book signing. :)

  5. Ooh a fascinating read :)
    Just a question though, what's an example of a Wicked 'taken'?

  6. Thanks for the great insight there, all though I really didn't follow it too well. Hahaha Oh well, still love your blogs. Thanks again for the letter and picture yesterday. :) Hopefully my good luck spree continues for you when I go again in August and September. :) :) :)

  7. @Proofwell You are so right about the double dash / em dash. Thanks for being my volunteer editor! I corrected that part in the blog.

    And thanks, everybody, for the comments so far!

  8. Felicia, I absolutely love your blog. As a fellow English major, your diction and rhetoric (and wit!) make me giggle with glee every time I read one of your posts. You are a FANTASTIC writer and blogger. Thank you so much for sharing all of the information with us that you do. It's so cool to hear about the ins and outs of the show.

    I was wondering if you'd mind sharing - What are some riffs that have been "deemed whack"?

    Thanks so much!!

  9. Cartesian blocking terminology makes me think of chess, which makes me think of Chess, which makes me think of Julia Murney (best Anthem ever sung), which makes me think of the best night I ever spent in musical theater. I love the 6 Degrees of Separation in the theater. THNX for the memories.

  10. This post has actually made me wonder... how do you, personally, choose to interpret the character? It'd be interesting to hear what your view of Elphaba is! (unless you've already answered that and I'm just unobservant?)

  11. abstruseness? I was comprehending everything without difficulty until you used a word that means difficult to comprehend (Mirriam Webster-Online. Sorry -- Online). And I'm not trying to be recondite.