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BWW Blog: Originating a Role

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BWW Blog: Originating a Role

Educational theatre programs, at least in my experience, tend to focus on performing more well-known works rather than original content. It makes sense from an educational standpoint because we need to learn about theatre history and prepare for the ever-popular revivals. As a particularly passionate geek of any and all Musical Theatre, I was more than ok with this. Who was I to complain, being cast in the same roles so many of my idols had played before? Playing Mrs. Dolly Gallagher Levi was just one step closer to being the next Carol Channing, Barbra Streisand, Bette Middler, or Bernadette Peters. However, no role challenged me as much as an artist or showed me the power of performance more than when I got to originate a role.

Shared Space, written and directed by the absolutely phenomenal Caleen Sinnette Jennings, was originally performed at AU in 1998 and again in 2008, before our production in the fall of 2019. The first two iterations were entitled Shared Space, Common Room, while ours was simply Shared Space. 1998 and 2008's production had two acts, one taking place in 1968, the other in modern times. All three iterations focused on a group of college students living in an off-campus house, and how the times influenced their lives. Our production stayed in 1968.

We got cast at the end of April, the semester before the show was set to perform. However, our casting process was different than usual. Rather than having initial auditions, callbacks, and being notified what role we were playing, we had initial auditions and then received a list of the names of the cast members with no roles attached. At the first rehearsal, we did a read-through where we were assigned "random" roles. After that first read-through and a quick ten, Caleen announced that this was our show.

My character, Nancy Sykes, first appeared in this latest draft. Only known as Sykes for the majority of the play, she's a "Pregnant Townie who cleans the house and has a husband serving in Vietnam. Being tutored by Lisa" (a dance major who lives in the house, played by the extremely talented Maggie Rocha, as seen above).

Sykes was the most terrifying and thrilling role I've ever played. My previous resume was almost entirely sweet old ladies and divas. Nancy Sykes, however, is brutally honest, often ending her harsh monologues with her catchphrase "You Know?". She is powerful and strong, working full time cleaning houses to support herself and her unborn child while her husband's fighting in Vietnam, and she still finds time to earn her education. I was strictly forbidden from wearing any makeup, and my hair was pulled back into a bun. I wore loafers, tan slacks, a baggy white button-down covering a comically large pregnancy belly (who we lovingly referred to as Buddy), and a blue apron. Performing in a black box theatre, I started the show center stage, not more than three feet apart from the front row, sweeping and monologuing. No makeup, no big hair, and nowhere to hide from the audience. It was the most vulnerable I've ever felt onstage.

Originating the role meant that I didn't have anyone else's performance to compare to. There was no cast recording or bootleg I could watch. My character work, line readings, even my body language had to be original. Rather than my usual fare of the corset-wearing elegant lady or take-up-the-whole-stage-and-work-it diva, I had to get down on the ground and scrub while endowing and protecting the precious cargo strapped to my stomach. I decided that Syke's gruff exterior was a facade, to hide her terror and vulnerability. Yes, she may call out everyone in the house for their mistakes and privilege, but in the end, she is a terrified wife and soon to be mother, working for people who are doing what she wishes she could.

In the end, I would not be the actress that I am today without my experience in Shared Space and the phenomenal cast and crew, but most importantly, the superb guidance, direction, and words of Caleen Sinette Jennings. Her direction, writing, and overall support is what brought Sykes to life, and I could not be more thankful for that experience.

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From This Author Student Blogger: Emma Rose Dorsch