Let’s Get Dramaturgical Baby! How To Be Hands-On With Your Character

Get hands-on with your character!

Last time in Everyday Dramaturgy we explored some basic questions about time and place that can help actors make great choices for their characters. Today we’ll look at two fun, creative activities that casts or individual actors can use to explore their characters’ emotions, motives, and behavior. These activities are meant to be hands-on, or rather “all senses on”.

Explore your character’s emotions via music:

Make a playlist for your character which reveals their feelings and shifting moods. We’ve all felt the power of how music can change the mood in a room, give us a physical reaction of elation or sadness, or even clarify and focus how we’re feeling when we don’t understand ourselves. Music is an excellent way to understand your character and clarify what they may be feeling.

You can tackle this in several ways to help you dig into your character. First, you can select the songs based on either the sound and general mood of the song, or you can choose the songs based on the lyrics and content. Either way, the songs intersect with things that happen to your character, how they react, and what they say in the script that reveals their feelings. The songs don’t need to be in any unified genre or era, unless you want, because the point of the activity is to identify the driving emotions that your character experiences and then emotionally connect with them through a song.

Next, you can structure the list as an “emotional plot” that matches up chronologically with all the scenes your character appears in. Find a song that connects to your central emotion in each scene, or if the scene is long and your character experiences a major shift, choose one song for each. The shifting moods of your character may be subtle, or may be extreme, but each character’s moods are based on their motives and how the plot frustrates them or clears a path for them.

This activity is useful even after you make the playlist. If you can connect to the emotion of a song or can feel it in your body, it becomes a quick touch-point to help enter the emotion of that scene before your entrance or during a transition. If your cast does this activity together formally, or even just for fun, you can share playlists with one another as a way to understand the characters you interact with in a deeper way. Most important, naming and identifying specific emotions is a skill that each actor needs. Finding a song that expresses “outrage” instead of just “anger” strengthens the way we develop our character. Finding the difference in tone between a generalized “happy” and “relieved” definitely makes a difference in our choices onstage. Music helps us to find the right hue, shade, and tone of each emotion our character needs.

Explore character dynamics through a “social mixer”:

Trying out and selecting gestures, postures, and body language that really work for your character can be hard in the throes of blocking or running scenes with others. And even though actors are expected to rehearse and research on their own, there’s something to be gained by in-the- moment “play” with others all while in character. Mingling with other actors in an improvisational mixer can take the pressure off and free you all up to experiment and “find” your character without messing up lines or the scene. Of course, never arrange this sort of activity with other cast mates on your own without your director’s permission or initiation, but some cast processes involve a rehearsal or social activity of this type, so you may have occasion.

An “in-character” mixer activity starts with a common social situation which naturally creates social expectations, basic plot, and tension all on its own. Try to pick something “normal” or at least plausible for both the topic and era of your show—a time and place where characters might actually meet for an activity. Some general ideas for mixers are a tea party, a family meal, a “village” picnic, a sporting competition, playing poker, park improvement project, or even a formal debate. For example, Death of a Salesman casts may have a family dinner that they prepare and eat together in a home. My Fair Lady musical casts might attempt a somewhat formal tea party.

If you aren’t able to do this as a cast or group, an individual actor can always have a little fun and pick an activity or outing to attempt while in character. Perhaps take a trip to the mall to shop for a specific item, or go out to eat, or attend a special event like a fair, walkathon, farmer’s market, or fundraiser. Let’s be honest: you might be very limited or have to forego this activity if your character is someone whose actions or behaviors would alarm others who weren’t in the know—see recent articles in the news of actors rehearsing intense scenes in parks and being confronted by concerned citizens and police! But if it’s acceptable in public and you’ve got a willing friend who’s game for living in the moment, you might be able to rope them into the fun by explaining the premise and purpose of improvising somewhere in real life.

Whatever mixer is chosen, it will set into motion social conventions like different generations reacting or participating differently, or gender roles that are assumed by the activity. But each cast member shows up in character and attempts to navigate the entire situation from beginning to end with the emotions, gestures, word choices and physical bearing that ring true for their character. It gives you a chance to explore– and even make mistakes– as you walk in your character’s shoes. It also reminds us as actors that for our character, each moment in the show is fresh, unpredictable, and “live,” so that we don’t become stuck in a rut of reactions or assumptions about our character.

When the mixer is over, have a short debrief session where cast mates can talk as themselves about what they discovered and how. Explain what you learned about your own character and others, and take the time to assess how the activity went. You’ll be surprised that even the awkward and indecisive moments helped you to access your character in a new and exciting way. And you’ll probably have a few laughs as well as revelations from “playing” in character.

Written by Rachel Duncan

Rachel lives in Salem, Oregon, and has directed at The Pentacle Theatre, Children's Educational Theatre, Central High School, and Western Mennonite School, among others.

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