Making a Character in Two Seconds or Less
How the Big Fish ensemble makes us remember small roles
Everyone in the Big Fish ensemble plays a million characters, give or take.
Based on Daniel Wallace’s novel and Tim Burton’s subsequent film, the show follows Edward Bloom (Nobert Leo Butz), an Alabama legend who turns his life into an epic story. Instead of just falling in love, he says he learned about romance from a mermaid. Instead of making friends with an oddball up the street, he insists he took a road trip with a giant. His boundless gift for fantasy touches everything in his path.
In creating Big Fish the musical, which is now on Broadway at the Neil Simon Theatre, the artistic team understandably transforms Edward’s tales into lavish production numbers. Director-choreographer Susan Stroman, along with composer Andrew Lippa and librettist John August, delivers showstoppers in a haunted swamp, a lavish circus, and a field that magically explodes with daffodils. And that’s just in the first act.
However, those numbers wouldn’t be half as dazzling without the ensemble, who zip between costumes and dance styles with dazzling speed. A woman who’s playing a trapeze artist one minute might be a college student the next, and a man who’s playing an enchanted tree might be operating a giant elephant puppet just a few scenes later.
What does a chorus member have to do to transform all these small roles into a coherent performance?
“Because we don’t speak lines, it’s very important for the ensemble to be even more specific with who our characters are in a specific scene,” says Angie Schworer, a veteran of seven Broadway choruses who earned the Gypsy Robe for this production. She adds that Stroman—or “Stro,” as everyone calls her—looks for clear character choices in every scene, from every performer: “If Stro needs to pull you back or if she needs to change something, great. But it’s always better not to be in a gray area.”
That spirit has been part of the show since the beginning. “When we first started this process, we all had to come in and tell ‘big fish’ stories to everybody, and Stro asked that we know who all these characters are,” says ensemble member Bryn Dowling. “What are their names? Where do they come from? It helps me as an actress in everything I do on stage—how I sing a song, how I dance.”
In one scene, Dowling plays a campfire—yes, an actual campfire—who dances around a group of boy scouts. “What Stro had given me was that this fire might have been one of the crazy stories [Edward] had told his son,” she says. “She wanted it sassy, but fun and playful, like maybe it came out of nowhere, then it moved and sparked and had a life of its own.”
Sarrah Strimel, meanwhile, plays the mermaid who teaches Edward about love. The mermaid never speaks, and we only see the top half of Strimel’s body when she emerges from the orchestra pit, yet she’s still a significant character, popping up at several emotional moments. “As a dancer, I don’t have my body to tell the story,” Strimel says. “I don’t have my voice. I pop up for a few seconds at a time, and I have those few seconds to fully convey what’s happening.”
Her strategy involves choosing a clear mood for the mermaid’s entrances. “There are certain nights when I come up that I choose different tactics that the mermaid might have. And I know it might sound silly, like I’m doing some heavy drama, but it really is something that matters. Every night, [I ask myself], ‘How does she feel now when she pops up?’ Sometimes she’s really excited, and sometimes, she might be a little more pensive about her situation.”
The alternative to making these choices would be just hitting the physical marks without deciding what they mean. “You could do it like that and just raise your arm up,” Strimel says. “But then how would you craft a character that feels essential to the story?”
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor
Photo by Paul Kolnik