How many of you remember taking a literature class in high school or college? You were probably asked to analyze the plot, explore the characters’ journeys, map their “arc” of development. You most likely would need to include themes, symbolism and metaphors. The relationships between the hero and those who affect his/her life are all a part of the author’s message. If you had to write an essay for your class you would need to include all those things.
In the acting profession, actors should (at least briefly) do this every time they have a new script or sides to work on. You need to know the message of the piece and your character’s part in delivering it. You need to notice how your character changes in the course of the story and how he or she changes others.
In fact, you need to know your character well enough to think, speak and move like him or her. The essential details that are not included in the script, you need to create so you can have a complete picture. As your character, you need to know where you came from and where you intend to go. You need to know how you feel about every other character and how you are triggered by what they do.
Each actor is very much a part of the creative process. When an actor wins an Oscar or Tony Award, you often hear people say, “He made such interesting choices!”. Even though the writer gives you the framework for your character, there are many aspects of portraying him/her that you alone can decide. This is what makes for a unique portrayal. And the choices you make (even though no one may ever know the details you hold in your mind) should be interesting – both for you and the audience.
When you first get handed written copy, read the material given to you, carefully and thoroughly. Make sure you understand it completely. If there are words you are not familiar with, look them up. If something doesn’t make sense to you, ask someone for help. When you think you grasp every word, you can begin to ask yourself the following questions:
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1. Who am I?
The answer to this question must be much more in-depth than a character description you might receive in an audition breakdown. You need to know your character inside and out. There are all kinds of clues hidden in the script itself. Notice how your character reacts to the events in the play. Are they easily discouraged or always ready for anything? Are they confident or shy? What do they love or hate? Do they have a good sense of humor or not so much? Do people like them or try to avoid them. Are they kind or selfish? What do they believe in? What would be their philosophy of life? And then WHY? Your character is the way he/she is for a reason…a good reason. They feel justified in doing whatever they do, so never judge them. You must take on their point of view.
There is so much to learn if you look closely and dig deeply… you must be a detective, like Sherlock Holmes. You’ve got to solve the mystery so you can begin to think, talk and respond, exactly as your character would. Your character will resemble you physically. But how are they different than you personality wise? Why? Were your backgrounds different…parents, education, living conditions? Do they walk differently…speak with a regional accent? How are you the same?
If your character does something you think you would never do, you need to figure out a reason you would do it – under different circumstances. What would it take? You want to be able to walk in your character’s shoes…inhabit their skin, but you must find him or her within you…amidst the many aspects of your own personality – both in who you have been, and who you could be if the situation were different. Who you are now, who you have been in the past and what you imagine you could be, is what you have to work within creating a character.
All of this information will factor into how your character thinks and responds to people and circumstances within the story. The more you know…the more you can relate to the character’s point of view, the better you will be able to allow him/her to live within you. It might help to write a short bio and description of your character.
2. Who am I talking to?
If you are working from a script, you’ll know the character’s name, but what is your relationship with that person? Do you have a similar relationship in real life? Remember that every person you know brings out something different in you. Be specific when choosing who you might cast (in your mind) as that other person, from the people in your own life.
Though you will do your best to embody the thoughts and desires of your character, your own life’s experiences and relationships are your best resource to draw from. Imagining you are speaking to someone you actually know will help you to portray a believable relationship between your character and the person they are speaking to.
Suppose you are doing a monologue and you are speaking into the camera or doing a soliloquy….you still should choose a person from your own experience to converse with. Real people don’t chat to cameras or speak at length with themselves. If they do, there is an imaginary person conversing with them…someone giving them opposition and responses.
It is important to remember that no matter how much backstory you create for your character, it is actually the person you are speaking to who should be the focus of the scene. Rather than it being about you, the scene should become about them and how you want to change them. More on that later.
3. Where am I?
Your environment has a big effect on how you feel and act. You are in a different mood when you are in your bedroom than when you are in your kitchen. If you are auditioning for a role, you will probably be in a casting director’s office. This is not an environment most people feel at home and relaxed in. But the scene does not take place in a casting director’s studio. So it is your job to place your character in the appropriate environment, using your imagination. When you are on set, you will need to imagine that you are not surrounded by crew or audience. They must disappear from your awareness. Putting yourself in the correct surroundings will very much aid your ability to immerse yourself in the fantasy and allow you to give a believable performance.
4. What do I want from the person I am speaking to?
This is your objective… the big “act” of your ACTing. I spoke about this at length in the first chapter of my book (See my post here, “ACTING – LESSON #1“) . Every word you say in the scene is to accomplish this…to get the other person to give you what you desire. This quest – changing the other character, is what the scene is all about.
5. What are my tactics?
You have one objective but you should employ a varied strategy to accomplish it. As you look through your lines again, explore the different ways you are using your words as you attempt to move the other person to your way of thinking. You may try humor or sympathy, bribes or threats, guilt or anger. This makes for an interesting quest. (See my past posts, “BEATS = TACTICS” and “DON’T WASTE YOUR WORDS”).
6. What was the conversation leading to the first line?
Your character didn’t suddenly appear out of nowhere on his first appearance in the story. His entire life led up to that moment. What was said immediately before the scene begins, is what caused it to begin. It probably isn’t in the script. Still, you need to know why and how you came to that moment. Your scene is a continuation…a response to what happened before. In fact, all of your lines are a response to something. You should never make any statements as you act. Everything is an answer…either to what someone asks, implies or what you think they don’t understand. You are always in dialogue, even if you are the only one actually speaking. I have lots more to say about this later.
7. What am I really saying?
Is your character saying everything he or she means? Probably not. In real life, each time we speak we must choose a limited number of words to communicate so much more. The same holds true for your character. In fact, your character may say the opposite of what he really means. Take a look at each of your lines. Read between the lines. He might say “I love you” and actually be thinking “I hate you”. This is called “subtext” and your performance should be rich with it. What you are thinking as you say something gives it its true meaning. So your thoughts as you speak are far more important than what you are actually saying.
8. What is the other character saying? Even when the other character is saying nothing, you are always responding to what you think they are saying. Acting is reacting. Know what you are responding to so every line you say can be an answer.
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You should ask and answer all of these questions every time you act, whether it is a short piece of commercial copy or a long Shakespearean monologue. Does this seem like too much work? If you answered yes, it’s because you haven’t done it enough. If you practice, it will become second nature and you will soon be able to quickly see what is required of you in the scene.
I am an acting coach and often book students for one-hour sessions, one after another. They come to me to get coached for auditions they have that day or the next. I read through the sides once and immediately can guide them on everything they need to do…objective, relationship, subtext, tactics. How can I do this? Because I do it all the time. Experience has given me great insight and the ability to utilize it quickly. It’s just what I do.
And it’s got to be what you learn to do too. Pick up scripts when you don’t have an audition. Imagine you only have a few minutes to prepare. Do it. Do it over and over. Soon it will be easy.
Make strong specific choices. Take the time to do the work…whether it is just a couple lines or a three-hour play. The process is always the same…finding truth within the written words.