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 are...um, "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,