How to research for a role

The absolute first thing I believe you should look into when researching a role should always be the script you are working on. This is the most important asset you have in preparing for a performance, and any subsequent research, no matter how in depth or thorough you go, should always back up the information you find in the script you are given. However, below are some ideas and places you can go to that may support that work.

The last play I did that required heavy research was a based-on-a-true-story play set in the New York theatre world in the 1930’s, and featured Orson Welles as a character, among others. So getting information about that period wasn’t too difficult, but in terms of my character - Marc Blitzstein - a composer, there wasn’t anywhere near as much information as with Welles. I did, as a first step though, check whether there were any books that may feature him online, and there was a big biography, which was ordered at once. As the characters in the play all knew each other, I, as well as everyone else, all checked each others books to see if there was any additional information on our characters, or what their character thought about our character, which can provide illuminating insight.

I also went online to find some pictures of the era, and in particular a photo of the theatre our characters were working at. Photos may be found on Wikipedia, a Google pictures specific search, or a broader search of New York theatres (or of course whatever your research is based on), and despite maybe having to trawl through a lot more images, seeing these additional photos can also throw up unexpected information and inspiration, as well as deepening a sense of the era of the characters and how they might have lived.

A vital resource, if you can get there, is the British Library, and I believe should always be considered for researching a role or text. Not only do they have more or less every book ever published - so if you can’t get a copy of it in the shops you will be able to get it there – but they also have newspapers going back to since newspapers were first printed, speeches by famous people, music, and other recordings too. I was lucky to be able to find an LP which featured my character talking about the events depicted in the play, as well as other parts of his life too. And of course I got to hear his voice as well, one of the most valuable things to hear for an actor playing a real life character. The British Library catalogue is searchable online, but you do have to be a member (very easy to join up) to search it, and to view material from there.

Check out Youtube as well, as videos about your character or the time and place of the play might be featured, and also consider going to the BFI if you can, if you think some aspects around the story of the play might have been documented on film, for example checking out working class life in 1950’s/1960’s England if you are cast in A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney.

If you aren’t able to get to London, try your local central city library for any information that can be gain through books, recordings, newspapers, etc, or failing that your local library as well. If something is still not available at first sight, talk to the people at the desk and they will be able to help you locate material, and if not, order it from another library so you can see it; for free of course. But be prepared to put the hours in, and don’t just take a first glance and give up if nothing is there.

The internet is also of course a great resource, and you know the websites and search terms to go to, so I won’t highlight them here. But again, really keep looking deeper and broader until you feel you may have exhausted all the information you can get, as on some websites you might find links to other websites that can be more specific to your work, which may contain photos, articles, contemporary accounts, paintings, anything really. If something is interesting enough to write about in a play, then it may be interesting enough to chronicle on a website.

The last point sums up my general feelings on research as well, which is stick at it, and with anything you find, really work away until you feel you’ve got all the appropriate information you can get that may help you. If you are listening to a recording of a voice to get an accent, don’t just listen to it a few times, but put it on your phone and listen to it every waking hour you have. If you are reading a biography about your character, read the whole book and not just up until the event in their life the play/film may be about. You know when you have to do more or you think you have a broad enough range of material and information, so either keep going, or stop and use it as you can (you can do too much research and neglect the actual performance), working on the script from there, hand in hand with all the extra knowledge you now have.