Make the Homework Work for You: Why Role Research is a Gift

This spring I will be playing Young Sala in Arlene Hutton’s Letters to Sala. In addition to much of the play being set in a very specific place and time in history (Nazi labor camps), this
show is also based on a book—a book which recounts the true events in the life of a real woman. Essentially, if I mess this up, I will be taking the well-deserved guilt to my grave.

This is actually the second time I have been professionally cast as a historical figure (previously I played Anne Frank, thus suggesting that my professional type is “depressing as hell”). As I did then, the first thing I am doing this time around is making sure I have read the book. And it has got me to thinking—

Why do we as actors sometimes ignore the gifts we are given? (Go back and read that in a Carrie Bradshaw voice, it’ll make the article sound sexier. Thank you).

In the past I have both known and heard of actors who play roles based on real events, or works of literature, folklore, etc., who eschew the source material in favor of focusing on the script. The logic is sound—why muddle your brain with material that isn’t ultimately the part you have been asked to play? Technically, we are hired to bring the playwright’s or screenwriter’s version of a particular character to life, and if the script is well-written, it stands to reason that all the necessary tools are in that text.

While I see the validity of this argument, I believe we are shortchanging ourselves when we rely on it.

Sure, you don’t have to read anything but the script, but why would you stop there? Why limit yourself if you have, for example, hundreds upon hundreds of pages of additional text providing back story and nuance to the aged wizarding mentor you are portraying? (I’m looking at you, Dumbledore . . . and then I’m looking immediately at my shoes, cowed by your vastly superior experience and professional success. You do you, Gambon. You do you).

I think it is easy to find public preconception of a character intimidating. The idea of being expected to realistically portray a famous figure or beloved icon is a daunting one. But instead of letting the source material overwhelm me, I try to think of it as freeing. It deepens the well. It provides limitless possibility. If you do your homework, the work takes care of itself.

Source material can clarify motivations. It can flesh out scenes that had to be pared down to fit a new medium. It can clue you in to public perception of a story that has lived in the (inter)national consciousness. And ultimately, yes, you will still have to make your own choices. You will still have to marry your version of your character to the version that is crafted in the script in front of you, and the version that lives in your director’s head. But if you come to a project informed to the fullest, then you claim authority. The choice is truly yours.

So join me as I adventure into the wilds of research! Until I am Michael Gambon. Then I shall do as I damn well please.

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Rachel Rachel Frawley is an actor living in Atlanta. She holds a B.F.A. in Theatre from Michigan State University (with cognates in Music and Professional Writing) and is an Apprentice Company graduate from the Atlanta Shakespeare Co. She also works as an education artist for local theatres, which have included the Shakespeare Tavern and Aurora Theatre. For more information, visit her website at www.rachelfrawley.com