Everything Old Is New Again

by Lisa Mulcahy
Krista Apple (standing) playing Gertrude, with Zainab Jah as Hamlet in the Wilma Theatre’s 2015 production of Hamlet.
Krista Apple (standing) playing Gertrude, with Zainab Jah as Hamlet in the Wilma Theatre’s 2015 production of Hamlet.

Great advice to help actors make their own mark on a well-known character

Revivals are more plentiful than ever these days—this season alone, reboots of Falsettos, Miss Saigon and M. Butterfly are about to fill houses all over Broadway. For an actor, putting an original spin on a well-known character in a play revival can be an incredibly daunting challenge. If the character is very well-known—say, Romeo, in your theater company’s umpteenth retelling of the Bard’s tale—you may feel that successfully revamping something so familiar, and in many cases traditionally played in a certain vein, is next to impossible. If the play being revived isn’t exactly a household name, yet still quite revered—say you’ve been cast in a regional production of Next to Normal—your issue may be how to interpret a character uniquely while still retaining some influence from the work of a few actors who have played the role before you (whom you’ve watched with great interest on YouTube, no doubt). Whatever the situation, here are some tools actors can use to feel confident, capable and clear about how to approach the work within the context of the show’s new version! 

Tackling The Text 

When it comes to approaching the script of a revival, a wise actor obviously respects the fact that, first and foremost, this source material is the backbone of his or her character development. Yet you shouldn’t be afraid to explore and trust your instincts when figuring out how to emotionally and physically interpret known text. “My process has really evolved to a point where I honor my truth in approaching a role,” says Krista Apple, a Barrymore Award recipient known for her distinguished performances in regional revivals of Hamlet, Macbeth and Proof, and assistant professor of acting at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. “Of course, as an actor you must respect and utilize the text, but the fact is, any assumptions we have going into the process of working on a script are just that—assumptions. When I look at a text, then begin to rehearse it to find my point of view on the character, it’s a balance between the ideas, ‘What am I willing to fight for?’, and ‘Why do you need to fight for it?’ The choices I will ultimately make in terms of interpreting a known text will always be influenced by the room I’m in and the people I’m with, but I have the confidence to articulate and trust my ideas and impressions.” Starting from this point of strength will eliminate the intimidation may actors feel about “following” other skilled performers in a role; by validating your own abilities, you make the part your own from Day One.

Krista Apple
Krista Apple
You’ll also need to start from scratch when it comes to the nuts and bolts process of story and character analysis. No matter how familiar you think you might be with a classic play and your role in it, you need to start with fresh eyes. “The where and the why of a specific period the text is set in is very important,” stresses Ted Bardy, a renowned acting teacher in New York City who is an expert in the Meisner technique. “Details such as how to sit and how to carry yourself will be informed by different time periods, of course. Yet I think it’s also very key to remember that even if you’re changing the vision of a play—say, by taking a classic play from the past and updating it to today—as an actor, your super-objective, the spine of your work, will always come down to asking, ‘What is this play really about? What is the goal of the person I’m playing?’ First you understand those concepts and the major premise of the material you’re taking on; then you refine your character.” 

If the updated version of your character is going to be radically different than it has previously been conceived, concentrate on perfecting those changes, as though you’re creating a brand new character. “If your character is going to be at a completely new age in the play, for example, just work on a character breakdown the same way you would for any character from the beginning,” says Bardy. “Ask yourself who you are as a character, and build your work from that basic point.”

Collaboration Is Key

Working with your director to discover new aspects of the character to make your own, and to feel comfortable incorporating the influence of actors who’ve walked in the character’s shoes before you, is imperative. “You’ve got to bring your chips to the table, but you always must trust your director,” says Bardy. “You and your director sink or swim together. Always keep in mind that your job is to tell the story; if the updated version of a play is not the customary vision audiences have come to expect, you must tell the story the way your director is telling you to. However, if you’re working with a good director, he or she will always want you to present your own thoughts and ideas when it comes to interpreting a character, and to use your imagination to bring originality to a familiar role.”

It’s crucial to sit down with your director and ask him or her exactly what elements he or she wants you to include from the “traditional” way your character has been seen. At the same time, feel free to discuss your personal observations and intentions for the part, and bring the research you’ve done in order to show your director how you’ve developed a progressive concept for the character. Most directors will be delighted to hear your take, and work with it. 

“When I played Gertrude in Hamlet, I was so fortunate to have Blanka Azizka, founding artistic director of the Wilma Theater, as my director,” says Apple. “Blanka and I developed such a level of trust and shorthand throughout the process of working together. I respect her vision so much—we align in terms of so many ideas. Both of us were so easily able to incorporate the other person’s perspective. I bring my full self to the rehearsal process, and claim my right to be in the room; Blanka thinks that kind of collaboration is a great thing.”

Also, resist the urge to monitor yourself as you work. This can be tempting when it comes to making sure you aren’t copying, say, Patti Lupone’s mannerisms when playing Evita. “Rather than think about how previous versions of a role have been done, or ‘should’ be done, you need to understand that the way you personally should play this part is by simply committing to the character’s actions,” says Bardy. “That’s how you’ll develop your own take on the role—organically, through the particular way you carry out the character’s actions, as well as through the character’s emotional life. Always remember, we live out a version of ourselves as actors every time we take on a role.” By focusing on the mechanics of your character’s physicality and emotional circumstances as you uniquely can, you’ll infuse the role with your own essence effortlessly.

Interpretation vs. Impersonation

Admit it; you’ve already scoured YouTube for every possible performance of your role. It’s very understandable to want to check how your role’s been precisely played before—but if you have, forget everything you’ve seen.

Ted Bardy teaching
Ted Bardy teaching
“If you’re going to do a new version of a very well-known play, it’s best not to look at previous performances of your role,” advises Bardy. “Why taint your performance, even unconsciously, by picking up any details from another actor? Say you’re about to play Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire; the risk, I think, of studying Marlon Brando’s portrayal of the character in the film version is that it will make you too cautious in your head, trying to both live up to and not imitate this great performance. The only time I’d say it’s OK to look at previous portrayals of a character would be if your director wants you watch something an actor did so you can do the complete opposite of it!”

Instead, try something new for you—a way of speaking, a habitual gesture, a small detail that helps you lock into the role and make it feel like it’s never been done before. Be brave enough to turn conventional wisdom on its head, as Apple often does when weaving her version of a role. “It’s not my job to buy into every idea I’m presented with, or accept these ideas,” explains Apple. “At the same time, I’m totally willing and able to see the other side when it comes to interpreting my character.”

In the end, know that your new take on a known character will be completely subjective—there are no wrong answers. “Really great art is not going to be liked by everybody, which is fine,” Bardy sums up. “The point is, please yourself—but don’t be selfish, be collaborative. Focus on the basics of building your character, and trust that by doing these things, your original viewpoint on the role will make an impact.”

The result: an interpretation that respects the past and breaks new ground at the same time—in other words, work you’ll be immensely proud of!