Smashing Stereotypes – Marissa Saroca to play The Arbiter in CHESS THE MUSICAL

With a Triple J Unearthed bio which reads: ‘Shorter than Alicia Keys. Adele with attitude. Beyoncé but chilled. Sass, soul, and a voice to eat you up’, Marissa Saroca is a force to be reckoned with.

Marissa Saroca

An accomplished singer, musician, songwriter, actor and vocal coach, with extensive live and studio experience locally and internationally, Marissa has released two original albums, was on the first season of The Voice of the Philippines, and has a Bachelor of Communication with a major in sound and media production.

She’s delighted to report her next major role involves smashing down gender and race stereotypes all while having a monumental performance experience.

Marissa will star as “The Arbiter” in the upcoming mega production of Chess: The Musical at the Civic Theatre in Newcastle from 26 February.

The Arbiter in Chess is President of the International Chess Federation and the tournament’s referee. It comes as no surprise the role is traditionally played by a male. In fact, this is the first Australian production to feature a woman in the role.

“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,” said Marissa.

“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. Mine is the first voice to be heard on stage. As the narrator, I control the story and it is a monumental story to control. In that opening scene, I have to set up the whole world we are about to be immersed in, there is no room for me to be anything but powerful and purposeful when setting the tone for this powerhouse production.

“It’s brilliant that I was heard by my peers, that Dan and Daniel listened and acted and together we are making a valid and important point about traditional casting.”

Chess: The Musical was originally set to open on Friday 27 March 2020 – exactly two weeks after that fateful Friday the 13th when the first lockdown announcements were made. Given the starring role of Anatoly in Chess was being played by David Harris, who was due to step onto a plane from New York that weekend, the producers had no choice but to announce the show’s postponement – boldly declaring it would be: ‘Check, not checkmate!’.

Marissa said it was the first of many cancellations and postponements, completely upending the year of performance she had planned.

Left with no choice but to take stock and, once restrictions started to lift, put herself ‘back out there’, Marissa resigned herself to an unknown period devoid of performance opportunities.

Fortunately, the downtime didn’t last and in late 2020, the dream news was delivered – she had secured her first professional role in a Sydney production. Not just any show but the smash hit RENT, which would go on to play a sell-out season at the Sydney Opera House throughout January this year.

As is so often the case, the 2020 postponement of Chess was a blessing in disguise. Marissa said it gave her time to grow exponentially as a performer in a relatively short space of time.

“I’m eternally grateful for that space in which I was able to undertake so much intensive training, improve my performance and my stage presence,” said Marissa.

“It’s given me even more belief in my ability to take on such a strong role as The Arbiter. I can trust in myself and make it my own.

“With so few examples of the role being played by a female, there aren’t many recordings for me to refer to, so it’s meant I’ve really had to step up and define the character myself. Under the expert guidance of our director Erin James and musical director Dan Wilson (who had to rewrite the charts), it’s a challenge I’ve relished.

“I hope directors and producers who see this performance take note of how easy it is to break out of the predictable and challenge their entrenched binary casting practices,” added Marissa.

Marissa Saroca (she/her) started her career as a professional singer and musician whilst training at the Newcastle Conservatorium of Music. She has an extensive recording, coaching, and live performance career nationally and internationally. An in-demand session singer, as an independent artist Marissa, has released two albums of original music – Cheaper Than Therapy (2008) and Boys Write Love Songs Too (2012). Marissa’s work in musical theatre began in her hometown of Newcastle, Australia, with lead roles as ‘Maureen’ in RENT and ‘Gabriella’ in High School Musical. She played ‘Queen Kānekapōlei’ in the new work in development Between Worlds, presented at ATYP. Her first play was for Knock & Run Theatre’s Ajax in Iraq in 2018. In 2013, Marissa moved to the Philippines when she successfully auditioned to participate in the blind auditions for The Voice of the Philippines. She was chosen by Lea Salonga for Team Lea and post-competition performed in featured ensemble roles in Ghost and Shrek in Manila (ATEG). Earlier this year, Marissa was featured in the Ensemble of RENT at the Sydney Opera House, and is currently in pre-production for her third original album. Marissa is the proud daughter of a Filipino immigrant and is excited for a future of more diverse representation and accessibility within the industry. She is an active member of Musicians Australia (MEAA). Marissa honours Awabakal and Worimi Land where she was born, grew up on, and is currently living. Always Was, Always Will Be.

From the dream team who brought you 2019’s smash hit Mamma Mia!, The Very Popular Theatre Company returns to Newcastle’s Civic Theatre with their epic production of CHESS: The Musical.

Written in 1984 by ABBA songwriters, Benny and Björn, and world-renowned lyricist, Sir Tim Rice, CHESS tells a story of love and political intrigue, set against the background of the Cold War.

Starring musical theatre powerhouses Silvie Paladino and David Harris, the production was originally intended to open on 27 March last year – exactly two weeks after that fateful Friday the 13th, when the first lockdown was announced. Rapid fire negotiations with cast and crew took place before the declaration was made later that day, that it would be “check, not checkmate” for the show.

Once restrictions eased, producers negotiated with Harris, Paladino and the stellar support cast and new dates were set.

This will be Rutherford-born and raised, David Harris’s first major production in Newcastle, since leaving to make his mark on the global stage. David spent 2020 in lockdown in New York, returning to Australia in December and completing quarantine on Boxing Day. He is loving the freedom afforded by a relatively Covid-free Australia and is relishing being united with his family. David’s two sisters are also featuring in the production (one in the ensemble, the other in the choir) and his parents are delighted at the prospect of seeing their three children on stage together for the first time.

Alongside David Harris and Silvie Paladino is a principal cast of five leading lights of local theatre – Marty Worrall, Marissa Saroca, Rob McDougall, Amy Vee and Christopher Allan. They, in turn, are supported by an ensemble of 16 actors/vocalists and ten dancers.

The monumental production will be directed by Erin James, who has starred in multiple Australian and international productions, as well as directing shows on the national stage. Erin was the mastermind behind TVPTC’s Mamma Mia! and is, once again, collaborating with musical director extraordinaire, Dan Wilson. Dan’s 33-piece orchestra will be on the stage along with a 70-strong choir!

Dan said it was a phenomenal opportunity for the local performers to watch Silvie and David in action and learn from these highly experienced professional performers.

“Erin and I are pinching ourselves that we get to work with uber-talented professionals of this calibre and present a show of this scale at the Civic Theatre,” said Dan.

“The Chess soundtrack is phenomenal and includes the international hit singles ‘I Know Him So Well’ and ‘One Night In Bangkok’, and other well-known songs such as ‘Anthem’, ‘Someone Else’s Story’, ‘Heaven Help my Heart’ and ‘Pity The Child’. The cast is made up of absolute powerhouse voices who are bringing these huge numbers to life. We guarantee it will be a show to be remember.”.

CHESS The Musical

Civic Theatre Newcastle

Friday 26 February at 8pm, Saturday 27 February at 2pm and 8pm, Sunday 28 February at 3pm

Bookings through Civic Theatre Ticket Office: Ph: 4929 1977

Gabi Bergman

Gabi Bergman is a Melbourne-based performer and educator, and is the current Deputy Editor-in-Chief of She holds a Double Arts degree in Theatre Studies and Film/Screen Studies and a Master of Teaching (Secondary Education). Gabi has always been an avid lover of theatre, specifically musicals, and spends way too much money than she’d like to admit on tickets. Her most prized possession is her crate of theatre programs.

Gabi Bergman

One thought on “Smashing Stereotypes – Marissa Saroca to play The Arbiter in CHESS THE MUSICAL

  • This is fantastic to hear but it’s actually not the first time the role has been played by a woman in a professional Australian production. The production back in the mid -nineties at the Princess theatre in Melbourne starring Barbara Dickson and Darryl Braithwaite had a female understudy as the Arbiter and she performed the role a number of times. Just a fun fact!


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