- To access all of your local news, visit newcastleherald.com.au directly. Our home page is updated with the latest headlines from across the region and the nation.
- You can even stay up to date by clicking here and signing up for free to our newsletters.
- If you value local journalism, support us by subscribing here
- To download the Newcastle Herald app, click here
Marissa Saroca has barely had time to catch her breath since starring in a sell-out season of Rent at the Sydney Opera House last month.
The talented singer, musician, songwriter, actor and vocal coach raced home to Newcastle and hit the ground running to prepare for a genre-defying role in Chess: The Musical.
Saroca, you see, is the first woman to play the role of The Arbiter in an Australian production of Chess. The Arbiter is president of the International Chess Federation and the tournament's referee, and has traditionally been portrayed as - and played by - a man.
"I've had lots of conversations with Dan Wilson [musical director] and Daniel Stoddart [producer] in recent years about how problematic the theatre industry can be in relation to the number of strong, inspiring roles for females," she tells Weekender.
"I believe we can and must do better. At a time when we're striving to change gender binary societal norms, it's fundamentally wrong to continually see stereotypical roles on stage.
"I was delighted when Erin James [director] and Dan Wilson offered me the role of The Arbiter. A woman of colour taking on such a powerful role is everything. It's brilliant that we are making a valid and important point about traditional casting."
Chess: The Musical was originally set to open at Newcastle's Civic Theatre in March 2020, just two weeks after the first COVID-19 lockdown announcements were made. Given that the starring role of Anatoly in Chess was being played by David Harris, who was supposed to step onto a plane from New York that very weekend, the producers had no choice but to postpone the show.
It was the first of many cancellations and postponements for Saroca, like so many others in the entertainment industry.
"Everything got cancelled at once. It was a dark day," she says.
It all changed when Saroca scored her first professional musical theatre role in Rent. The success of the show, combined with the time 2020 allowed her to "undertake intensive training, improve my performance and my stage presence", has boosted her self-confidence immeasurably.
"It's given me even more belief in my ability to take on such a strong role as The Arbiter," she says. "I can trust in myself and make it my own. With so few examples of the role being played by a female, it's meant I've really had to step up and define the character myself."
Saroca started her career as a professional singer and musician while training at the Newcastle Conservatorium of Music. She is a familiar face on Newcastle's live music scene and both a session singer and an independent artist, having released albums Cheaper Than Therapy in 2008 and Boys Write Love Songs Too in 2012.
In 2013 she successfully auditioned to participate in the blind auditions for The Voice of the Philippines.
Saroca is a woman with a big voice, a big laugh, and a big heart. She is not afraid to speak her mind when it comes to challenging the so-called "gatekeepers" of the musical theatre industry.
She credits a debate last year about the apparent lack of diversity in Australian musical theatre, prompted by the announcement of 30 finalists in the $50,000 Rob Guest Endowment scholarship, with having "really opened" her eyes.
"I realised the level of racism that I had experienced in the industry growing up, all the gatekeeping that exists due to race, gender and body conformity, things like that," she explains.
"Performing in Rent and going to acting classes in Sydney - and being told I can do this - I now know I do have a future in professional musical theatre in this country that, literally four months ago, I did not think I had.
"I endured a succession of knockbacks and the feeling of not belonging and not being worthy of those stages. Now I have realised that is clearly untrue."
Saroca is keen to continue her fight for greater inclusivity and diversity in the musical theatre world, starting with The Arbiter in Chess. She is challenging directors and producers "to break out of the predictable and entrenched binary casting practices".
"Being a woman and a woman of colour, me just being in that role makes a difference," she says.
"I know how important representation is. Lack of representation, especially in theatre, has been my experience.
"Ideally, I would love to get to a point where you don't notice at all that a cast is diverse, where you don't notice that it just represents society.
"Until we can see all of us represented on the stage in some way it's just not good enough. It's lazy."
As our chat concludes, Saroca admits with a giggle that she is "still coming down from the high" of Rent at the Opera House. And rightly so.
"It was incredible but it was also very hard, not only the demands of the show itself but also being in a COVID bubble so that we could keep the show safe," she says.
"Now I've got a bunch of auditions for different things and it's really exciting.
"Doors are being opened to me."
Chess: The Musical, Civic Theatre Newcastle, February 26 at 8pm, February 27 at 2pm and 8pm, February 28 at 3pm. Tickets are on sale now.
IN THE NEWS: