Adventures in the Craft of Acting: Stepping into a pre-played role vs playing one you created

What's it like stepping into another actor's shoes and how can you make the role your own?

By John Currivan

Three times in my career I’ve taken over roles that were originally played by other actors. I’ve understudied for leading roles while playing an ensemble character, I’ve stepped in for minor characters when cast members left a show, and I’ve also stepped into a fairly prominent part while the actor who played it previously moved into a bigger leading role in the same show. Stepping into these roles can feel like we’re on a unicycle, merging into a sprinting pack of Tour de France racers. Everything is rapidly blasting past us as we struggle to keep up.  Then, when I did a musical for the first time I heard a part not described as a role, but a ‘track’. For those who don’t know, a ‘track’ is the literal physical journey an actor makes throughout a show, all entrances and exits, costume changes, set movements, potentially multiple characters and backstage runnings-about. This provides a great metaphor for stepping into pre-made roles. People who originate roles are the ones learning to drive along the track while it is being laid People stepping into those roles are trying to navigate a track that has been created for them, with specific directions, speed limits and stations they’ve got to stop at, all within the bustling railway network that is the full production. So to completely milk the metaphor, allow me to make some small passenger announcements of advice about the twists and turns of these jobs so we don’t derail ourselves and can still reach our ultimate destination.

Actors should be able to watch a show and study the technicalities and blocking without being permanently taking on board all the acting choices of the other person
John Currivan

 Treat it as a normal role

Every actor has their own way of working, preparing or researching  for a role. Whether that’s writing ‘Who-says-what-about-whom?’ lists, actioning a script or locking yourself into a hotel room for a week, you need to start by being comfortable and using your own process. However, if that part is currently being played by someone else then you should leave some gaps and plenty of flexibility to take in ideas that have already been formed and decisions that have already been made. People are often conflicted about whether you should watch other people performing in the same role, and I understand that, however, knowing the show will be part of your job and you will have to watch it eventually anyway. Actors should be able to watch a show and study the technicalities and blocking without being permanently taking on board all the acting choices of the other person. The other actor’s performance is merely a blueprint that we can reference when building our own structures. At the same time actors always try to understand the minds of characters, writers or directors, so understanding another actors decisions, even the ones you don’t like, shouldn’t be too much of a stretch.

 Prepare to make concessions and unexpected decisions

With any other role, you should know what to expect and what will be expected of you. Big West End or Broadway productions tend to be carbon copies of the original, so your options are already very limited. In other, less rigidly defined, productions you may be able to make some changes or reinvent a part, but there will still be small points where what has gone before’ will dictate what you’ve got to do now. That said, you will always bring a unique creativity and energy into any part so always keep your imaginative and creative brain working. You never know when a director might ask for something new and fresh or ask you to improvise. You may suggest something that previous casts hadn’t noticed. At the same time try not to get too frustrated if an idea doesn’t work or is shelved by a director because, ‘That’s not how we did it last time’. This can be tricky, as genuine clashes of ideas and ideals can become bitter subjects to tackle or discuss. Actors are competitors in auditions, fighting for ‘who plays the part better’, but if we’re sharing parts, then we need to view the other creatives and actors as collaborators, who are all working on something bigger than the actor’s ego and bigger than the amount of lines in a role. The show.

 Brace yourself for inevitable comparisons

Working on shared roles means that you will likely encounter feedback, audible or silent, wanted or unwanted, spoken openly or overheard when someone didn’t realise you were in the room. You will be compared to the other actor playing that part, and this can be… challenging. Whether the comparison is in your favour or not, my best suggestion is to be aware that it exists, but unless it’s actually constructive or helpful, then ignore it. It’s on a par with teenage gossip and rumours and just because you hear it doesn’t mean you have to listen. Remember who you actually answer to and whose instructions you need to follow, yourself, the director or assistant director. If you notice something toxic going on, where onstage performers are visibly, obviously, speaking out of turn, ignoring you in scenes or fobbing you off ON-FRICKIN’-STAGE (Oh yes. It happens.) then the whole show is being undermined, and you might need to speak with someone. That being said, if a director wants you to look exactly, act exactly and be exactly like someone else then you’ve got a problem (and a bad director). Have a chat with them or with the assistant director, (or seek the counsel of a close friend) and don’t be afraid to stand your ground and make yourself heard when working out compromises and solutions.

Working on shared roles means that you will likely encounter feedback, audible or silent, wanted or unwanted, spoken openly or overheard
John Currivan

 Come to terms and accept what you’ve got to do

Sometimes when we do these jobs we feel like shouting “I’M AN ACTOR NOT A ROBOT!”. First of all stop hating robots and secondly, remember that our work always involves playing within certain limitations. We didn’t write the script or decide all the stage directions, so pre-existing blocking and dealing with certain character choices is just another rule of the game we’re in. Even with this, we might never feel like the part is actually ours. That we’re just substitutes on a bench. This is a destructive and unhelpful way of thinking that will undermine your performances and give you almost nothing tangible to work with. Our job is not to imitate another actors’ performance, but to inhabit it the same role. To do with the same conviction as a role that we created, and to reveal and discover new details and nuance in the character and the part, potentially exposing completely different elements of the story and bringing an energy and flavour that only we could bring. The part is yours, even if it’s just for one week, even if someone has done 300+ performances and you’ve done 1, even if they dragged you in off the street, slapped a costume on you and threw you onto stage. The moment the curtain pulls back and the lights come up the part is yours. The platform crew are giving the signal, the passengers are on board, you’re in the drivers’ seat, so get on with it and drive the train.

John is an Irish actor living in London. He started his career in Clondalkin Youth Theatre and trained in the Samuel Beckett Centre, Trinity College, Dublin. He has worked and toured with productions internationally, and starred in The Commitments, in the Palace theatre and on The UK and Ireland Tour. He has written scripts for radio, stage and also for comic books.

For John's other great advice on being between acting jobs, take a look here.