Acting Tips: Getting into Character

Michael Kary

actor on stage

Many students who come to college to study theatre have dreams of "making it big." They have visions of singing on Broadway or starring in a network television show. What many of them do not have is a solid plan for how to get there. There are all sorts of obstacles in the way and the unprepared performer has little chance to overcome them.

Theatre students are exposed to all the facets of professional theatre, so they can find work in the entertainment industry (instead of a restaurant). One of those facets is a firm foundation in performance technique (a phrase which here means: a reliable, effective method to achieve a desired result).

Technique might be a foreign word to an actor just starting out. Like any other performance-based art, though, it's important for an actor to train. For example, dancers work the barre, pianists work their scales, and singers run their voices through myriad exercises to get their instruments in top form.

It shouldn't be any different for actors...but it often is. Actors will often forego any type of training and jump headlong into "doing a show." At the end of the performance, the audience (typically stacked with parents and friends) leap to their feet and applaud. It's no wonder a young actor might think, "Who needs training? I'm already awesome at this!" However, that thinking is flawed. It's like a young pianist walking into a recital and whipping out a Rachmaninoff piano concerto without ever having learned what a key signature is and thinking, "They're going to LOVE this!" For someone pursuing a career on stage, they are going to need some technique because plays can run for months, even years and family and friends only come to opening night.

Given Circumstances

Given Circumstances (or GC's) are the facts within the script that influence how a character walks and talks. There are three main thoughts in that sentence that we'll break down. First, you are looking for facts about your character. This can be tricky because we readers don't tend to gravitate toward facts. We like judgments instead. For example, we like to finish a play and say, "That character's evil, that one's an idiot and that one is gorgeous." None of those are facts. They're judgments, and judgments build a wall between an actor and his character.

Judgments are usually one of two things: unplayable or hyper-controlling. If an actor thinks his character is evil, there will be little for an audience to relate to because few patrons nowadays identify as evil anymore. The result will most likely be a stereotype without any depth. Similarly, if an actor judges her character to be gorgeous, how is she to play that? Whose definition of gorgeous will she use? Instead of judgments, actors should lean hard toward facts, and in order for those facts to be useful, they need to directly affect how a character walks and talks (or the actor's body and voice). To avoid being overwhelmed, it may help to break the given circumstances into four main categories: Who, What, Where, and When.

Who: This includes things like a person's name, gender, race, nationality, worldview, profession, and hobbies. However, the most important "who" is the character's relationships. Who are they talking to? How do they feel about them? How does their status compare? Be specific and look for clues that will affect the character emotionally. For example, a "friend" isn't nearly as helpful as, " childhood companion who saved me from drowning."

What: This category deals with what a character is physically doing. Is she disarming a bomb? Is he preparing for a party? Unlike the other three categories, it helps to keep the "what" a little vague. You want a "what" that offers a great deal of physical action that will either reflect the character's emotional state or get in her way (in a good way). We staged a production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, in which a father was talking to his son about how to treat the young man's mother. In the scene, the father's physical action was polishing his shoes and this reflected the emotional action of polishing his son.

Where: This includes obvious clues like geography. A character will walk and talk quite differently in a monastery's prayer room than she will in a skydiving plane with the door open. Again, be specific. Look for environmental factors that affect the character's body or voice. The most important aspects to look for are: Is the location public or private? Foreign or familiar?

When: This can be a time of day/month/year or it can be a phase of a character's life (infancy, adolescence or adulthood). These are great if they affect the character's life. However, it is most often best to determine what happened right before the scene or (if applicable) right after. A character will talk one way right after the diagnosis than right before the baby is delivered.

In any given scene, the diligent actor will find pages worth of these given circumstances hidden in the text. It's important to look there first and foremost. In a very real way, the text is the Bible for the world the playwright has created. It contains all the rules necessary for the characters in the story to live their lives.

Actors who like adding a truckload of their own "facts" to a story are exhibiting a lack of trust for the creator of that universe. Some actors will complain that their "small parts" don't have any GC's. Don't be lazy. Keep digging and you are bound to find character gold. I have found pages of complete, rich and effective given circumstances for characters like Policeman #2 or The Waitress all tucked within the language of the play.

If acting is your passion and you know it is your lifelong career goal, then get started on that path with the Bachelor of Arts in Theatre and Drama degree program at Grand Canyon University today.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.