Before ever setting foot on the stage, actors must understand their characters and prepare to play them onstage. As with the technical areas, this requires both mental and physical groundwork that helps them to transform into the character that transports us during performance. Actors never work inside a bubble; because theater is collaborative, they must work within parameters set by others and interact with one another, the audience, and their environment.
As we continue through this section, consider what the role of an actor is and how they go about personifying another. What might some of the challenges be?
We’re All Actors!
Regardless of what we think about acting as a profession or as an art form, we have to realize that as human beings, we are all actors. The nature of acting is part of our human experience, often in many more ways than we might imagine! For example, consider that as children we often learn how to be grown-ups through imitating our parents or other role models. We “play” by pretending or play-acting to be the characters we see in movies and on TV. This type of play-acting or role-playing is part of our nature. We take on roles to learn.
In addition to the role-playing we do as children, we continue to act as we get older. We take on different roles in different social situations. Often these are not totally different personas but are instead parts of our true selves that we emphasize in particular situations. For example, we take on the roles of “teacher” and “student” in the classroom. We may have distinct roles that we take on when at a party with close friends and another when sitting in church or talking with a grandparent. We may have many roles in our lifetimes: father, mother, daughter, son, boss, employee, student, teacher, etc. In each of these situations there are specific expectations that we have for ourselves and for others. How we choose to comply with or go against those expectations is part of our “character” in that moment.
Speaking of character, we often define ourselves and others by mentioning a person’s character. What does that mean? Clearly, it comes, in part, from our history of recognizing differences in behavior in different situations. For example, someone might have the character trait of being a braggart, or a show-off, or a liar, or a cheat. Who among us can identify the “class clown”? These personal roles are adaptations that we tack on to our basic personal traits in given situations; these personal roles tend to become identified as our character or our identity.
Acting on Stage
In the 21st century, acting on stage is distinctly different than it was at the beginning of theater in ancient Greece, or even throughout much of the history of theater. In fact, it wasn’t until the very early 20th century that acting came to be what it is today, essentially a realistic mirror of true human behavior. That type of acting has three significant challenges, and they are the following:
3 Challenges of Acting
- Making characters believable
- Physicality—using voice and body
- Synthesis and integration—blending inner and outer methods and skills
Now, let’s look at each of these challenges a little more closely.
Challenge 1: Believable Acting
Believability in acting really refers to whether or not the audience is willing to believe the characters are real, despite knowing that they are fictional creations by actors. This is a very difficult challenge to overcome. However, in the late 19th/early 20th century, a Russian actor and director, Konstantin Stanislavski, realized that many of the actors around him did not know how to portray believable characters. Instead, they relied on the previous technique of standing and merely declaiming lines to the audience seated directly in front of them. However, he also noticed that some actors were much more successful at making characters that seemed to move and speak like “real people.” He researched those successful actors’ processes and techniques and developed a system of methods that he wrote down and began to teach to his own actors. This method, or system, has been developed and modified in the last century, but his ideas remain the basis for almost all believable acting in the 21st century. If you ever hear an actor referred to as a “method actor,” then it refers to the fact that the actor uses Stanislavski’s techniques to create believable characters on stage.
Stanislavski’s formula or method includes 7 elements: Relaxation, Concentration and observation, Specificity, Inner truth—“magic if,” Purposeful action, Through-line of the character, and Ensemble playing. Let’s look briefly at each of these to get an idea what each of these elements refers to and how they help an actor create a realistic, believable character.
Relaxation—Relaxing for the actor means to let go of physical and mental stress and tension in order to be able to call upon the body, mind, and spirit to work clearly on developing and manifesting (bringing to life) the character that is being called for in the script. It usually involves a series of practices using breathing exercises, stretching, centering, and meditation to rid oneself of personal issues and stress.
Concentration and observation—Most modern actors are keen observers of human behavior. In fact, that is one way that actors develop a “repertoire” of physical actions and emotional responses to a wide variety of possible experiences. Not everyone reacts the same way in a particular situation, and an actor observes others to identify and select a variety of possible ways that the character might react. This toolkit of various reactions, both physically and emotionally, becomes quite useful when an actor wants to differentiate the character from the actor more distinctly. The other part of this element is concentration. This refers to the fact that an actor has to remain believable while there are many distractions going on around him or her: noises and movements in the audience, or flashes of light as an auditorium door opens and closes, or movement or odd noises from backstage from actors or stagehands waiting in the wings. At any given moment, an actor can usually see at least one other thing than what the character is supposed to be able to see. That means the actor must develop keen concentration to keep focus on the character’s reality in the scene while still being aware of and reacting (if necessary) to what is going on in the actor’s real world on stage. This split between the actor’s concentration is best developed with frequent practice and thorough understanding of the character’s development.
Specificity—The skill needed to bring about a realistic character involves making very specific choices in actions and mannerisms. When we think of people, we usually think of those traits and actions that make this person unique among all the people we know. An actor has to make those kinds of specific choices to animate the character to make it stand out from a stereotype or cartoonish character instead of a realistic character.
Inner truth—“magic if”—An actor can make a character more believable if he or she can not only portray the character’s actions and behaviors but also make the character’s feelings believable. After all, we can usually detect when someone is “just going through the motions” and not being true to their own feelings. The same is true of an actor on stage. To have an inner truth means that the actor’s feelings match the character’s actions and what the character would be feeling in any given moment. Stanislavski realized that isn’t always an easy task, especially if the actor has not actually personally experienced what the character is experiencing. How then can the actor create a sense of inner, emotional truth? Stanislavski calls the method he taught, the magic if. This basically gives the actor an opportunity, during character development, to ask the question, “What would I do if I were in this same situation as the character?” This reflects the fact that an actor usually draws on a lot of him or herself to create a believable character. The playwright only gives the actor the details that make the character unique. The actor has to add those to his or her own persona to make the character fully developed. As a result, when an actor asks the “magic if” question, it brings the actor’s self to bear in making the character believable.
Purposeful action—This trait is one that seems pretty simple on the surface, but it requires a deep self-understanding on the part of the actor. The idea of purposeful action refers to the notion that nothing an actor does on stage should detract from the character’s purpose and goals. That means the actor’s own nervous twitches, swaying, other kinds of motions, or facial expressions should not make an appearance in the character unless they help the character to be believable.
Through-line of the character—We all have motivations for what we do. We have short-term and long-term goals that we use to help us make choices. Ideally, whenever we are faced with a choice in life, we consider which option will take us closer to our goals. That then motivates us to make considered choices that will help us get closer to those goals. The same is true for the life of the character. Even though the character is fictional, to make it realistic, the actor must analyze the character to determine what goals the character uses to guide the choices the character makes. Those goals and their impact on the character’s choices and actions are what Stanislavski referred to as the through-line of the character.
Ensemble playing—All of the elements up to this point have been centered on the individual actor and his or her character. However, it is a rare moment when a character in a play is on stage alone for any length of time. Since most actors work in groups and thus have groups of characters on stage at the same time, an awareness on the part of each individual actor of the believability and realness of the other actors’ characters is necessary. For one to be successful, all need to work together to be successful.
As mentioned earlier, Stanislavski’s system has grown and adapted since it was first developed. Here are some of the more significant developments made by Stanislavski himself and some of his students, their students, and other acting teachers.
Psychophysical action—After he developed his method, Stanislavski realized the difficulties for creating inner truth, despite the effectiveness of the “magic if.” So he added an option to help develop an inner truth of believable emotion, drawn from the psychology of the first part of the 20th century. Essentially, Stanislavski embraced the idea of psychophysical action. Basically, this refers to the idea that if we go through the physical actions associated with an inner emotion, we will then begin to feel the inner emotion associated with those actions. We sometimes see this in action in cognitive therapy today. If you act happy, you will begin to feel happy.
Emotional recall—A student of the Stanislavski method, Uta Hagen, added another technique in the mid-20th century to assist in creating emotional “truth” on stage. The idea of emotional recall refers to the idea that if an actor does not know the true feeling associated with the character, he or she can draw on a recalled similar emotion from the actor’s own experience. For example, the character may be sad at the death of a parent, but the actor may not have had that experience. The actor can recall another moment of loss, say of a pet or a favorite toy, and use that sadness to add an element of real sadness to the character’s sadness that is being played by the actor.
Text as instrument of action—Another student of the Stanislavski system, Robert Cohen, has explored another method of developing emotional truth. Instead of drawing on emotions as inspiration (developed through either external action or emotional recall), Cohen focuses on the text. He teaches that the words of the text will convey their truth directly. If the character is sad, the words selected and the actions defined by the script will lead to the believability of the emotional truth. Essentially, he posits that words focus the emotions and the action, and in doing so, the believability will exist in the text itself.
Body as tool—A teacher of the Stanislavski system in the latter half of the 20th century, Robert Benedetti, focuses on the physicality of acting to communicate the emotional truth of a character. The premise here is that we can only read someone else’s emotional state by seeing and interpreting their physical actions. As a result, Benedetti teaches that as long as the physical actions of the actor convey a true emotional state, the actor’s own inner emotional state is not really a factor. He says that outward appearance and physicality of action define the emotional essence.
Getting into Character—Watch:
Challenge 2: Physicality
The next major challenge that an actor faces is the training and effective use of the actor’s instrument—the body and the voice. These are the tools at the actor’s disposal for creating a character and communicating that to an audience during a performance. To perfect these tools, an actor must practice, rehearse, and develop effective exercise and toning routines. In fact, an actor may spend anywhere from 40% to 60% of training time on physical and vocal exercise. One of Stanislavski’s elements also plays into this part of the actor’s challenge: relaxation. When relaxed physically and mentally, an actor is ready to react to whatever may happen in a performance and to every need of the character in a play. Some of the exercises that an actor must use include the following:
- Breathing exercises—These aid in relaxation and maximize breath support for the body’s energy and to allow the actor to project the voice without straining it.
- Flexibility/isolation exercises—These focus on each individual part of the body to ensure that the actor has immediate, intentional, and positive control over every part of the body to accomplish what must be done to express the character’s actions and motivations.
- Centering exercises—These give the actor a very real sense of his or her own body, through identifying and understanding the body’s center of mass and the importance of being centered physically and emotionally.
- Dance exercises—These are very useful for both flexibility and balance.
- Stage combat—Though generally targeted at learning specific skills like fencing and hand-to-hand fighting that looks real but does not injure, these training exercises also hone flexibility, balance, reaction times, and hand-to-eye coordination
There are a number of special skills that an actor might need and therefore add to the practice routine. They include the following:
- Musicals—singing and dancing (specific styles and techniques)
- Dialects—various cultural and national dialects can add to a character in many plays where needed
- Pantomime—all body (focusing only on clarity and distinctness of movements)
- Avant-garde—various demands such as tumbling, gymnastics, contortion, acrobatics, and extreme dance and voice demands
Challenge 3: Synthesis and Integration
The last challenge that an actor faces in making a character believable is the synthesis of the character with the actor’s self and integration of the actor’s instrument with the character’s development and inner truth. Making the body and voice reflect the needs of the character’s actions and feelings can be complex. It is one of the reasons that there needs to be somewhat lengthy rehearsal periods before a play is ready. With experience and plenty of practice and exercise, an actor can learn to blend the character with him- or herself to make the resulting performance believable. To do this, there must be flexibility in the instrument and clear ability to coordinate specific movements on command. The external manners, movements, and other outward signs of character need to reflect the inner truth—or at least be able to be seen as being true.
Watch: Colin Firth and “The King’s Speech” (minutes 0:00–9:55)
There are some other traits that an actor may have that are not necessarily needed but can often add to the believability of a character. These include the following:
- Stage presence—The quality that makes an audience pay attention to an actor just because the actor appears on stage; many of today’s stage and movie “stars” have this quality, which helps them to achieve that star status
- Charisma—Refers to the trait that an actor may have that makes the audience want to like the actor’s portrayal; it’s that something “special” that many current stars also have
- Personality—The personal traits that an actor has that make him or her truly stand out from the rest of the actors; oftentimes these can be very noticeable, like the personality that Johnny Depp brought to the Captain Jack Sparrow character
- “Star quality”—Whatever this is, it is one of those things that people in the business of stage or film production can usually spot; it might be related to physical traits or personality traits that an actor has that immediately make that actor attractive and interesting to an audience
Text excerpted and adapted from Brian Ray, Susan Roe, and Kyle Basko, Supplementary Readings for Theatrical Worlds (Athens, GA, University System of Georgia), 5, 16–22, 30–43. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) https://alg.manifoldapp.org/projects/supplementary-readings-for-theatrical-worlds
As previously mentioned, the audience is an integral part of the theater performance. But what does it mean to be an audience participant? Well, it may depend on the theater itself…Audience behavior is not an absolute. There are, however, guidelines to help you and others have the best possible experience in most modern theater settings.