Playing Against Type

October 14, 2010

Broadway veteran Lisa Gajda describes herself as “athletic, with a straight body and a strong way of dancing.” That “tomboy” image could have typecast her for life—and yet her career has transcended type. Her Broadway debut may have been in the rough-and-tumble Tommy, but she traded sneakers for high heels for her next show, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Since then, she’s danced in a crazily diverse group of shows: Fosse, Movin’ Out, Urban Cowboy, Spamalot, The Times They Are A-Changin’, Cry-Baby and Pal Joey. Now she’s tackling Broadway’s Elf, which opens November 10.

How has Gajda pulled off such a varied resumé? “My theory was—and still is—to go for everything,” she says. “Eventually, people get to know you and like you and want to work with you, and see you in various ways. I may be the short girl on the end in the ‘pretty girl’ shows, but I’m still in the show!”

In musical theater and ballet alike, casting can be as much about who fits the part physically as it is about talent—but that doesn’t mean you have to be stuck doing one kind of role forever. Here are four general “types” you might fit into, plus tips to help you get outside your box.

The Ingénue

Dance Spirit
Girly and sweet, with solid technique

Nellie in South Pacific, Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty

Becoming a “leading lady” is a great achievement, but doing only smiley, wistful roles can get repetitive. What if you want to do something that’s not quite so…pretty?

To start the transition, ask your director if you can try out ingénue roles that take a turn for the dramatic—think Juliet, or Maria from West Side Story. You’ll expand your range within your comfort zone, rather than jumping immediately into new territory. To fully break out of your ingénue bubble, you’ll need to show choreographers and casting directors that you’re versatile and can embody different characters. Consider acting lessons or private coaching to get a leg up on the competition.

“I often dance the ‘cutesy’ roles,” says Pennsylvania Ballet principal Martha Chamberlain. But last season, she was given the opportunity to dance the Cowgirl in Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo—definitely not a “girly-girl” part. What was the key to Chamberlain’s transformation? Changing her physicality beyond the choreography: “I figured out how to move like a boy!”

The Siren

Sultry and edgy, often tall, with long legs and curves

Velma in Chicago, the Siren in George Balanchine’s Prodigal Son

“If you’ve done lots of Fosse, and now you want to be seen as sweet and bright-eyed and innocent, you’re going to have to dress differently and have a different energy in the studio,” says Nikole Vallins of Broadway casting agency Binder Casting.

Put away your fishnets and red lipstick and try a softer, more feminine look: curls in your hair, ruffles on your skirt, pastel colors. Assess your non-dance presence, including how you walk and stand. If you don’t want to automatically be seen as the “sexy one,” avoid strutting into a casting call with hips swaying. When Gajda is auditioning for more feminine roles, “I take the edges off everything, from makeup to clothing colors to how I move, so that I’m rounder and gentler,” she says. “I shape my movement and think ‘soft.’ ”

 The Villain

A powerful onstage presence with serious acting chops

Carabosse in The Sleeping Beauty, Ursula in The Little Mermaid

Playing the villain can be loads of fun, but it can also mean you aren’t doing much technical dancing. In ballet, that type of casting has historical roots: “Traditionally, you started to get cast in villain roles as you got older and weren’t able to do much dancing,” explains Michael Pink, artistic director of Milwaukee Ballet.

If you find yourself playing lots of roles that involve more acting than dance, look to the studio first. Is there something in your technique that needs work? Ask for help and tackle the problem. Chances are, if you’re being featured in villain roles, you’ve already got the acting range needed to carry other types of lead roles. At your next audition, be ready to prove you’ve got the technical skills, as well.

The Jester/Sidekick

A ham-it-up performer, often with acrobatic skills

Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Elle’s friend Paulette in Legally Blonde: The Musical

You may be the dance class clown, but that doesn’t mean you always want to be the jester onstage, too. Though you’ve probably got the scene-stealing tricks—pirouettes, jumps, acrobatics—down flat, it takes a well-rounded dancer to carry a show as a lead. Demonstrate that you can handle serious dramatic roles by focusing on the subtler qualities of movement and your personality in class. Think about varying the dynamics of your dancing rather than going full-throttle all the time.

Of course, if you’re a guy, there may be circumstances beyond your control: “There’s a preconceived idea that short guys can’t be romantic leads,” Pink says. “They’re cast in jester roles, where they swirl around the stage at high speeds.” Shorter men also need a shorter girl for pas de deux. To compensate, Pink suggests honing your partnering skills if your goal is to tackle any of ballet’s many princes, since a good partner is a good partner, no matter his height. “Small guys can’t just focus on the fireworks,” he says.

Remember that being typecast isn’t career-ending—you’re still onstage, doing what you love. Focus on making whatever role you’re given your own. People are three-dimensional—a jester can experience moments of great tragedy, as Mercutio does in Romeo and Juliet, while an ingénue may have a hidden siren side, as Sandy shows in Grease. “You can show a different personality in a traditional role,” says Chamberlain. “Try as you’re working not to allow the ‘type’ to take over in your head.”

Three Ways to Get That Part

Work hard.
“Never skip class, mark or show negative body language,” says Michael Pink, artistic director of Milwaukee Ballet. He also recommends asking to observe rehearsals for parts you’d eventually like to do: “Show that you’re willing to put in the time without the carrot being dangled. That puts you in the front of a director’s mind.”

Do your research.
“Know who you’re auditioning for,” says Nikole Vallins of Binder Casting. Study the casting patterns of your director or choreographer. “Some creative teams are completely set on the way it’s ‘supposed to be,’ [while others have] more flexibility.”

Know yourself.
“Instead of wanting to be someone you’re not, own who you are,” Vallins says. “That can actually help you land other types of roles, because you’re confident in what you do best. People respond to confidence.”