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Monday, October 28, 2013

Thoughts on Building a Character



Whether you are cast in a community theatre production or a multi-million dollar movie, building a character is an actor's job. Sounds simple, right? Well, in my experience as an actor, director, and playwright, I have found that building a character that is unique in its own ways can be a very big challenge. Below are some of my thoughts on what an actor can do as “homework” to start giving their characters a life of their own, thereby facilitating a richer experience not only for the audience, but for themselves as well.

  • Read the script. And then re-read it. As you do, pay close attention to how your character helps tell the overall story. What is your role in getting the overall picture across?
  • What does your character want? It is important as an actor to ask yourself what your character's objectives are. Most likely, they have a grand objective for the show, but they also have objectives for every scene they are in (sometimes even from moment to moment). Really think about what your character wants whenever they are onstage--- after all, why else would they be there.
  • How do you get what you want? Your character's ACTIONS informs how your character is played. Actions are what a character does to get what they want. For example, does your character flirt, deceive, or threaten to get what they want? Or do they coax, plead, or promise to get what they want? There are many, many verbs to create many, many actions. And have fun figuring it out! Play!
  • Create an Autobiography! This can be a wonderful exercise to be creative about your character. Write out your character's life story. It needn't be an epic, but give them a back story: where are they from, what were there parents like, what major events have shaped who they are within the world of the play? Write this story in first person, i.e., “I was born in the Bedford Falls hospital at...” etc. For those with larger roles, there may be a lot of clues in the script. For those who have less clues in the script, here's a chance to create a great identity for your character. Every “townsperson” is more than just a “townsperson”! They are a human being! Give them a story that influences their reactions every time they're on stage. Give them a name, and give them a purpose! Have fun and be creative, but be sure to stay within the “world” of the play and within the playwright's intentions (for example, in “It's a Wonderful Life”, it probably wouldn't be wise to give your character a backstory that includes being a super villain on a distant planet who fell to Earth on a meteorite).
  • The movie poster: This is an exercise I use with my casts a great deal to help the process of creating a physicality for their character. Imagine that your character, no matter how big or small it might be in the play, as the star of their own movie about them. What do they look like on the movie poster? Do they stand tall, chest out, shoulders back? Do they hunch? Do their eyes shift to the sides, or look straight on? Are they smiling? Are they angry? Really close your eyes and picture this movie poster, and then begin to bring the physicality in your body. Mimic the posture, and see if it feels right. In time, try walking about and seeing how the character's posture translates into a walk. What feels right? What part of the body leads your character? Where is your energy located? Imagine what your character looks like, and remember: they don't have to look like YOU. Eventually, you will have to try to look like THEM.
  • Voice: What does your character sound like? Look for hints in the script. Do they speak haltingly? (“I'd like...a...uh... glass of...water?”). Figure out a cadence that seems right to you.
  • Relationships: How does your character feel about everyone they interact with? Many may find clues in the script, but if there are no clues to be found, then determine on your own. In “It's a Wonderful Life” especially, it is important that everyone have thoughts about others in the town. It is a small town story, with small town gossip. Everyone knows everyone. You all will have opinions on Mr. Potter for example. You may have gossiped about who Violet is dating now.

All of this character building work is vital when building working inner lives and motivations for every character on stage. This is what makes a production tight and believable. The more you know your individual character, the more you are doing your part to help tell the story of the play.

And when you know your character, you can let go and really begin LOOKING and LISTENING and REACTING to your scene partners.

Thank you for reading this post.  In case you can't tell,   I am in the midst of directing a production of "It's a Wonderful Life".  Yay!

Until next time, please remember--- theater is a sport.


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