Acting Is… Stepping Into Someone Else’s Role – 5 Tips

theatre-96714_1920Currently, I’m stepping into a professional first, and understudying for a theatre production. Through the process, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it takes to step into someone else’s artistic shoes. While this one might seem to speak more to the theatre nerds among you, the principles hold true for many situations…especially long running television shows that recast mid-series.

The question is, how do you handle stepping into a role that has already been created for you? Here are some quick tips to get the wheels turning.

  1. Preserve the intent. As ever, the story is the most important thing. When you’re stepping in to a process that was started without you, you have to respect the story that is being told, whether or not it is necessarily the story you would have chosen. Assuming your character’s established backstory, perspective and defining character traits are all part of respecting the narrative and setting yourself up for success.
  2. Consider your scene partners. Listening is going to help you a lot here. You are surrounded by people who know the ropes, so don’t be shy, or let your pride get in the way of utilizing those resources. The sooner you can fall into the rhythm of the show, the sooner you can start freeing up room for your own artistic expression. Focus your energies on supporting those around you—it will be the fastest way to fit in and move forward.
  3. Take direction. Now is not the time to dig your heels in. The director will likely have specific thoughts on where she wants you to take your character, and now is the time to take it all in and try it with an open heart, especially in the beginning. Cultivating an open dialogue is fine, but consider just trying the note first.
  4. Cues and blocking. Especially for theatre shows, these are the essential building blocks that you have to respect. You’ll naturally end up having your own take on the character, but if you’re stepping in, do not mess with the blocking or other actors’ cues, because it will throw them (and the show) off. Your job is to contribute to the production, not hijack it.
  5. Know how to make it your own. All this talk of fitting in and not rocking the boat is not to say that you can’t bring your own artistry to the role. You wouldn’t have been hired if they didn’t want you to contribute something of your own. As long as you’re preserving the skeletal structure of the role, you get to layer in a bit of your own special magic. No one wants a mimic. You’re not expected or desired to be a carbon copy of the role’s originator. Put your heart and soul into it, or it will read as dishonest anyway. And, as always, find the joy in the project—that will be your light in the storm.

The main thing is to own it. Wasting time on being intimidated or apologetic helps no one. Go forth with courage and confidence, and tell the story well. That’s all anyone can ask.

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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

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