Theatre is back – and so is Chess.
After a year in lockdown, many were drawn to old hobbies. Puzzles, board games, and the lovable chess set. Coupled with the release of The Queen’s Gambit, our appetite for chess merely grew as the weeks went on. So what better time to bring back the iconic 80s classic, Chess The Musical?
The Very Popular Theatre Company’s season, helmed by Director Erin James and Music Director Dan Wilson, was originally set to open in March 2020. However, due to the COVID imposed closures, they were forced to postpone. Now, the show is back, starring a powerhouse cast including David Harris and Silvie Paladino.
Marissa Saroca is taking on the role of The Arbiter in the upcoming season of Chess. A pseudo-narrator, The Arbiter referees the chess matches that unfold during the show. The role was written for a male performer, but alongside the VPTC team, Marissa will be subverting this – performing the role not only as a woman, but a woman of colour. After the discussions of 2020 surrounding representation in mainstream music theatre, this seems like the perfect opportunity to shake things up, flipping a role in the male-dominated show and turning it into an empowering representation for many.
Marissa is an accomplished singer, musician, songwriter, actor and vocal coach, with extensive live and studio experience locally and internationally. She has released two original albums, has a Bachelor of Communication (majoring in Sound and Media Production), and was on the first season of The Voice of the Philippines. Most recently, she starred in the smash-hit season of RENT (Sugary Rum Productions).
With the show set to open this week at Newcastle’s Civic Theatre, we had a chat with Marissa about her relationship with the show and how she’s changing the game with her gender-bent interpretation of the iconic role.
What is the most exciting part about being in Chess?
M: One of the most exciting things about CHESS Newcastle is that we can finally perform it after being postponed due to COVID in 2020! I’m excited to work with David Harris and Silvie Paladino, as well as our Director Erin James and MD Daniel Wilson (again). I’m also excited that after conversations with Dan Wilson and producer Daniel Stoddart about a general lack of strong, unproblematic female characters in musicals being produced here (and elsewhere in Australia), they decided to make The Arbiter a female character, and that as a Woman of Colour I also get to be part of that representation and visibility.
The role of the Arbiter is traditionally played by a male performer – how have you played with gender and representation in your performance?
M: I think the mere fact that I am who I am, that I look how I look is ‘enough’. Standing there being The Arbiter, a leader and someone respected and in charge, in itself is a declaration and statement, and doesn’t necessarily need playing with outside of that fact. I think that with a show that is somewhat misogynistic towards the two lead female characters, and reduces them to pawns and at the mercy of the men (as many musicals do) it brings more balance to those scenes and interactions between the women. Hopefully we can also demonstrate to other theatre makers that it’s not that difficult to make conscious and exciting casting choices that better reflect the world we are in now, and the communities that we live in. I came straight into rehearsals from a season in the ensemble of RENT at the Sydney Opera House through January this year, so have seen first hand what a cast made up of so many BIPOC and CALD performers means to us as a cast, and also to audiences who see themselves reflected in us.
Do you have a favourite moment or song in the show?
M: As someone who only knew the ‘bangers’ from the soundtrack, it has been so incredible to watch the lesser-known songs in rehearsals and what all of the performers bring to them. I love watching other actors work and also our MD Dan Wilson is so knowledgeable and nerdy about CHESS that it’s a delight to see this play out for him, too. I can’t wait to see the full orchestra, and choir on stage alongside us cast, and really see it all blossom into something magical.
Why is the story of Chess still so relevant in 2021?
M: We’ve been reintroduced to the intrigue and happenings around international chess via The Queen’s Gambit, so it’s a topic and interest in its history that has been sparked in people. The music is incredible and challenging and such a pleasure to sing and is perfect for an audience that loves an epic event. The nature of relationships between the men and women and those around racist stereotyping, are indeed problematic and of the time (but also this time) – I hope that audiences can see the problematic nature of them and take that action to continue to hold those with privilege more accountable. In my opinion, having ‘The Arbiter’ as a Woman of Colour helps to shift the world of the show to make it more relevant today.
If you could be any chess piece, which would you be and why?
M: I played a lot of chess when I was a kid, and I always had a soft spot for the pawns. I totally vibe with that ever-striving ‘I think I can, I think I can’ energy. Not to mention the sneaky trade if you get to the opponents side!
CHESS The Musical opens at the Civic Theatre Newcastle on Friday 26 February.
Tickets are available at civictheatrenewcastle.com.au