To see or not to see? Should Ceal Phelan, playing the role of the insufferably righteous Sister Aloysius in the People's Light & Theatre Company stage version of Doubt, check out Meryl Streep's take on the same character in the recent movie?
Should the two Bens - as lead actors Ben Lipitz and Ben Dibble are being referred to at the Walnut Street Theatre these days - rent the DVDs of the filmed musical and original movie comedy of The Producers?
Like Phelan, each is playing a role made famous by an actor who's put an indelible mark on the characters. Lipitz is the wildly scheming Max Bialystock (Nathan Lane on Broadway and film, Zero Mostel in the original film comedy). Dibble is the hapless accountant Leo Bloom (Matthew Broderick, Gene Wilder).
All three actors say no. "I avoid all other versions," says Phelan, a veteran performer in her 20th year as a company member with People's Light, the professional troupe in Malvern. She's never seen Doubt: A Parable, as the play is formally subtitled. "That's just by chance. I avoided seeing the movie because I am easily led. If I saw Meryl Streep do it, I would have thought, well, that's what I have to do, and I'd do just some pale imitation."
In fact, hers is a much more unswerving Sister Aloysius in the Doubt now playing at People's Light than Streep's in the film by John Patrick Shanley, which also is more nuanced than his pointed play.
Lipitz, who has had a healthy stint on the road playing Pumbaa in the national tour of The Lion King musical, saw The Producers when it first opened with Lane and Broderick on Broadway, and he's seen the original film. But when he was cast in the current Walnut version, "I stopped watching the original film, the musical film, or listening to the score. The original material - I view it as the holy grail of comedy. It really doesn't get much better than Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder, and [writer] Mel Brooks.
"But I went out of my way to avoid it," Lipitz explains. "I didn't want to be influenced by the choices other actors had made."
As for Dibble, whose Producers character becomes the sidekick in a Broadway scheme to appropriate investors' money, he unexpectedly came across the filmed musical which, he says, is not so hot despite role reprisals by Lane and Broderick.
"I had no intention of watching it," Dibble says. "I knew I was going to be doing the show, and I stumbled across the movie on HBO during a Phillies game when I was switching back and forth. I found I was watching them trying to put on a stage show, but on film. The performances were too big, not tempered for film, like clowns gone wrong.
"I became conscious of it, I didn't want to get too much of Matthew Broderick's performance in my mind. It had been long enough since I'd seen it on Broadway - it's one of those shows I had fallen in love with, it's in my DNA. But the cadences of Matthew Broderick's performance weren't ingrained in me."
So for Dibble, it was back to the Phillies, and no more surfing.
The question of whether to check in on someone's performance arises for actors more often than you might think - not just in regional theater, but on megabucks commercial stages, given Broadway's appetite for revivals. And sometimes an actor refers to a performance as part of research for a role.
"Some actors sort of rely on cast albums to learn songs," says Dibble, "particularly if they don't read music. I don't do that - I played musical instruments throughout high school and I've learned to revisit music without the aid of recordings." So much of what you hear on a recording, Dibble says, is a matter of personal interpretation, people tailoring songs to their own particular phrasing.
"It's better to go back to the original material and try to go from Square One."
Which is not to say that actors don't do research, basic reporting that sometimes takes them to the original source material - especially when a stage play has been developed from a film, generally two different creative animals.
"Some actors feel," says Phelan, "that they could really learn from other people's interpretations, and I probably could, too. But I'm just scared of it. I'm scared I would become artificial."
Phelan, in fact, did research for her role as the unyielding Sisters of Charity nun who suspects a priest of an improper relationship with a boy in the school she runs. Plelan went right to the source of the story - to the Sisters of Charity in the Bronx.
She took a field trip with David Bradley, who directs Doubt for People's Light. A nun there named Sister Rita enlightened the two of them, especially about how changes ordered by the Second Vatican Council affected the nuns in the mid-'60s, when the play is set.
For Phelan, who also used information from a book about church hierarchy to understand her character, the Bronx trip was an update to her past; she was educated for a dozen years, while growing up outside Detroit, by the Sisters of Charity.
After that research and with Bradley's direction, she says, she had no reason to peek in on Streep. "If you are just trying to copy, it's not organic. . . . I had an awful lot of guidance from David, "because as an actress I tend to go to the sentimental as my default. I tried to find all the soft parts. He said no, Sister Aloysius shows her love and concern in this very strict, rule-oriented way. It may not look like warmheartedness to us, but that's the way she cares for her little flock."
Bradley himself saw the movie in December, at a point when the cast and designers were chosen, but months before he began to direct. He'd seen the play twice - the touring production starring Cherry Jones in the role she'd played on Broadway, and a production in Indiana.
Doubt's playwright had directed the film, "so I thought seeing the movie would provide some insight into the playwright's take on the story he created," says Bradley, who, as director, is in charge of the way a playwright's piece is told. When a cast member asked Bradley if it she should see the film, he said no.
"I had individual conversations with the cast members to talk about the backstories of their characters," Bradley says. "I told the cast, don't talk to each other about that. The priest has to have his story, Sister Aloysius has to have her story."
And the story is paramount. "Everybody asks the question, 'How can you do what's been done so successfully?' " says Lipitz. "I'm not setting out to do an imitation - I'm setting out to tell a story.
"There's no question, [Mostel's] was a legendary performance. You honor it by trying to capture the spirit and heart of the character and the story . . . with what you bring to the character."
Through June 28 at People's Light & Theatre, 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern. Tickets: $28-$48. 610-644-3500 or www.peopleslight.org.
Through July 12 at the Walnut Street Theatre, Ninth and Walnut. Tickets: $10-$70. 215-574-3550 or www.walnutstreettheatre.org.