Has your director ever asked you to fill out a worksheet answering questions about your character like “How old are they? Who are they related to in the text? Where are they coming from when they enter stage left? What is their motivation?”
This activity is pretty common in educational and community theaters, and is meant to help actors sleuth out details about their character by closely reading the text. Whenever those details aren’t exactly clear in the text, the questions help the actor to imagine or infer what they can about their character, so that each actor can make realistic choices for their characterization.
In a nutshell, this is one form of “Everyday Dramaturgy.”
What is Dramaturgy?
Dramaturgy can be summarized as “the craft or the techniques of dramatic composition.” Most directors and technical directors “do” dramaturgy either deliberately or as an innate part of their process. Good dramaturgy helps a production to “ring true” with the audience because it unifies “the world” of the play–things like a show’s specific era, setting, and the production’s intention. Professional dramaturgs with MFA or PhD degrees are often hired by professional productions as consultants to help clarify and inform some of the choices available in the staging of each show.
But I don’t have a PhD!
You don’t have to have a PhD in Dramaturgy to apply it to your art! Every actor and member of a production’s team can benefit from the basic kinds of questions dramaturgy asks us about the world of your production.
Today, let’s consider how Everyday Dramaturgy can help actors explore the world of their play. This will help every actor craft believable characters and give them more choices when they’re onstage.
What is “the world” of a play?
Actors can explore the in-depth setting of their show, whether it’s Shakespearian or 1980s Hair Bands, the 1930s Dustbowl or the 1700s Early Baroque period in France period. Dramaturgy asks actors to think about the literal setting, but also to the social and cultural settings their characters operate in.
Here are 3 Big Questions you can ask yourself to “dig into” your character. And each big question has a list of smaller questions that you can refer to each time you have a new show and new character to develop.
1. Ask yourself: What is the specific location and time of this show?
Yes, the physical location, but also, what are the sub-sets or other locations referenced in the text? What is the exact date in time, and what other significant events were happening here or in the world? What season is it, what time of day it is, and do these affect my character or the plot in any way? What designs, colors, objects, inventions, philosophies, trends, and fads were happening in this place and time?
You could discuss these items with your director or acting coach, or with other actors; maybe your director has already done this with you. It’s easy to research this online if needed, and even to see historical images of the place and time.
These questions about time and place will help you to imagine where your character is coming and going from, and will really help you get into the “mindset” of your character. Knowing your era in detail helps you to make choices consistent with the time and place. Perhaps your character has never travelled anywhere beyond their little bubble. Perhaps they are a “person of the world,” or maybe they take a staunch local’s perspective. Maybe a season or holiday or the ticking of time is influencing their decisions or motives. Maybe a certain historical objector invention is a good metaphor for your character, or maybe a certain philosophy from the era explains your character’s motives.
2. Ask yourself: What is the personal and social environment of this time?
What did people look and behave like in this time and place? What did they wear, and how did they carry themselves in public vs. in private? Does my character operate freely in public? Why or why not? What’s the difference, in this era or world, between the generations? What is the concept of privacy there and then? What’s personal space and how does it operate? How are gender roles, orientation, race, nationality and ethnicity perceived in this place and time? How do people greet each other in this time and place?
These questions about the social environment will help you navigate how and when your character can interact with others in a historically appropriate way. Perhaps it’s not appropriate for your character to do or say certain things freely or in front of others for a social reason in this time and place. Perhaps your role is someone who doesn’t care at all about conventions or “rules” of the social setting, so they defy them all! Perhaps your character may curtsy, or shake hands, or hug & kiss upon meeting, but probably only certain options are actually historical.
3. Ask: What determines status and power in this place and time?
Which relationships in people’s lives at this time have the most power over them? Which positions in society have the most influence and status in this time and place? In the play, who has the most “power,” and why? Where does “power” come from in the world of this text: is it money, education, religion, experience, physical strength? Is there a difference of power between old and young, or different generations? What is the difference of power among genders or races, if any? Which names or titles do characters use for one another, why, and when are titles optional?
These questions about power will help you figure out if and why your character has any innate power or status over others in this text. This will explain many of their actions and reactions to the plot and to others. Perhaps your character is struggling for some kind of agency or personal power they are lacking. Perhaps they have control of that, or maybe they don’t, and that’s frustrating to them. Perhaps a discrepancy of power or status is behind that conflict driving your character or others.
It’s true; these Everyday Dramaturgy questions about the world of your play will limit some of your choices as an actor, and will close some doors so that you can be historically appropriate. But remember that the answers will also open up choices and a deeper understanding of your character on many more levels–doors and windows and trap doors and attics will open up for alternate actions and reactions onstage!
In closing, dramaturgy asks all theater artists to carefully consider every choice they make in a production. And with “Everyday Dramaturgy” questions in your actor’s toolbox, you can make powerful choices that present both the text and your director’s vision faithfully to your audiences.
Next time at “Everyday Dramaturgy,” Part 2: Team Questions and Creative Activities