In a previous article I stated that I wanted to discuss several master teachers and their methods. There are certain skills and processes that an actor absolutely needs to master in order to be successful. As far as skills go, the general consensus is that the top skill to hone is improvisation. There are too many things that can go wrong for a successful actor to ignore that skill. When discussing processes, there are generally two that come to mind right away: auditioning and character development. This article will deal with the character development process.
Okay, so you nailed the audition, landed a part in a play and you’re reading through your script. Now what? The first thing you need to do is understand your character. In order to do that, there are several basic questions that you need to ask yourself. Who are you? What are your circumstances? What do you want? What are your relationships? What are your obstacles? What do you do to get what you want? I’m sure some of you recognize the questions as the six steps of character development as taught by Uta Hagen. She covers this in several chapters in her book A Challenge for the Actor. I, however, will cover these steps in a four part series of articles. I highly recommend that book to anyone that is serious about his or her craft. The six step process of character development is something that I always cover in my acting classes because I feel it is a great tool to use for something that is so crucial to the actor. Let’s analyze each of these steps.
1 – Who am I? This question, like all the others, can be broken down into sub-categories.
What is my present state of being? Are you hungry, tired, frightened, relaxed? How would your state of being affect the way you react to something as simple as a ringing phone? Will you answer the phone or ignore it altogether. If you’re taking a nap and the phone starts ringing, you might cover your head with the pillow until it stops. If you’re in the middle of a project that is tiring you out, the phone might be a welcomed break. If you’re being stalked, the phone then becomes the stalker and you may just stand there staring at it, afraid to even touch it. A person’s state of being can also change from one moment to the next. You need to be aware of those changes because they will affect your behavior.
How do I perceive myself? How would self-perception affect your reactions to the circumstances? Let’s look at two different students: one has a healthy self-esteem while the other thinks they don’t deserve to be a member of the human race. How would each person react to the following statement? “After you finish your assignment, I want you to present it to the class.” The student with the healthy self-esteem will take it in stride. The other student, however, may respond with something like, “Why bother? It won’t make any sense anyway.”
How would your perception of yourself affect your relationship to others? Someone who is shy will react differently from someone who is self-absorbed, or outgoing. How would some of these different people behave in a social environment? You see these people all the time. The shy person is the one against the wall hoping that they can make it through the night without any interaction with the others. The self-absorbed person only talks to people that are willing to listen to him talk about himself. The outgoing person is generally confident, friendly, and good at listening to others. What do you think their home life would be like? For example, is it possible that the shy person and the self-absorbed person could come from a similar environment at home? It’s possible that both types could come from a home where they are not made to feel wanted or important. One person withdraws and the other overcompensates. In that case, you would need to make a character choice and then stick with it. Keep in mind that certain choices will affect other aspects of your character’s personality and you need to be consistent.
What am I wearing? How does your clothing affect your behavior? Think about the change that can take place when you wear something that looks really good on you. You stand differently, walk differently, and even speak differently based on the clothing you wear. How often has putting on some nice clothes made you feel better?
Let’s imagine two different people walking into a formal affair – one person is dressed nicely in an Armani suit or a dress designed by Dolce and Gabbana; the other person is dressed in a hand-me-down suit or gown that is clean, but slightly worn and not quite a good fit. What will their body language be? The person in the designer clothes will look like they own the place. Shoulders back. Head held high. The other person may “shrink” when they walk in and hope that no one really notices them.
This first step in the character development process creates the foundation for your character. It establishes who you are, which will determine how you react to everything around you. Naturally, other outside influences will add to what your actions will be, but “Who am I?” is the core. In the next 3 articles we will look at the other 5 steps in the process and dig deeper into what brings your character to life. After all, your character is the one the audiences need to connect with during a performance.
“My criteria for my performances is, and I’ve very seldom done it, did I disappear? Did the acting disappear? And did Clarence appear? And the answer to all those three questions is yes.” – Michael Caine, speaking of his performance in the movie Is Anybody There.