Creating Characters on Stage

Posted on 10 November 2014

A famous dictum of fine art is: your process is your own. How you get at creating works that are uniquely and authentically your own is your personal choice, your personal responsibility, and nobody else’s business. All means are valid, though perhaps not all means are recommended or ethical. These are things we need to think about.

If you create your work by swimming in green jelly then playing the nose flute, that may be considered eccentric, but if the results are engaging then worrying about simple oddity is moot. On the other hand if you cause harm to a person, such as by using a toxic paint on a photographic subject’s body, then you need to stop and take a closer look at your tools and your motives.

When performing as a comedian or an actor you can choose to embody a character by observing the behaviour and traits of others and bringing these observations into your performance, you can search within yourself to find the places where you are this character, or you can take on cultural stereotypes and represent a shared worldview to your audience.

In comedy and improvisational theatre we frequently rely on stereotypes. Mario and Luigi are barely human in Super Mario Brothers. They are stereotypical working class Italians with a cheerful can-do attitude. The characters are endearing, but they aren’t going to tell us very much about Italians, the working class, or ourselves. This does not mean as creations they lack value. Life is rough, anything that brings a little genuine joy is important. However, stereotypes at their worst are damaging to whole segments of our populations.

What is of concern is when the vast majority of media, especially that which purports to be representing reality, is trading largely on stereotypes. Stereotypes are then mistakenly seen as “archetypes” or “The Truth”.

I would strongly suggest performers spend time learning how to create a character where you go beyond cultural symbols and draw instead from personal understanding. If nothing else, when you go back to using a stereotypical character, you can bring it to life with greater detail, pathos, and humanity.

The way to start is by letting go of your culture’s judgements of both yourself and others. You cannot see a person’s humanity if you cannot go beyond seeing them as an expectation. If you expect to see lazy poor people, then you will see lazy poor people. If you have no expectations, then you may see some poor people who are lazy, but you may see many more who are frozen in despair or desperately diligent. It will be a complex picture.

I know far too many actors who only want to play an idealised version of themselves. Those who want to play villains often bring more interest to their performance, but they may still be looking for an idealised self, because villains seem to have more freedom and more power. All of us every day attempt to wear a self we feel will be effective and will help to make us likeable to ourselves and others. All that we are, all that we can be, much of it remains just beneath the surface unexpressed.

As a child I learned to hide any good grades I received. When other children found out about a paper of mine receving an “A”, they would tear it from my hands, rip it up, push me to the ground, pull my hair, and call me names. I knew children who could do as well or better than myself in various subjects, but who carefully avoided standing out.

Dysfunctional families are notorious for putting on happy smiles when what lies beneath is turmoil and pain. The reality is that a family member revealing themselves could become subject to dangerous repercussions. In order to survive physically and emotionally members will present as hyper-normal and hyper-cheerful. “Nothing wrong here, look the other way.”

No one wants to be hurt. No one wants to be ostracised. We all want people in our lives who respect, care for, and validate us. Our culture tells us only certain sorts of people live the good life. So many of us act as characters in our own lives hoping to achieve it.

If you want to be a performer or creator of any note, you have to let go of that one character, at least for the space of a show. You have to recognise the validity of anger, fear, and love, whether or not you approve of how these things are expressed by your character. You have to find strength in vulnerability. You need to trust your audience and reveal yourself. You also have to have faith that goodness can be found in a wide diversity of people. Many folk put on a show of toughness and darkness in order to protect a fragile side.

Whether or not you can find it in yourself to believe you are a particular character, by respecting that character—you will find its humanity, express that humanity more truthfully, and give your audience something of real value. You will be respected as an actor and remembered, not superficially admired for a resemblance to a cardboard hero (or villain) and soon forgotten.

When I teach creative writing courses, I tell my students they need to see their characters as a basket full of puppies. One puppy may be a little slow, another may willfully widdle on things, still another may be over-eager to play ball. They are all different, and some of them are even naughty, but you love every one of them. Each one is special and each has a right to their existence. We can be so unforgiving of ourselves and others that it is hard to see people in this fashion, but it is an artistic necessity. The greatest artists hold at least a seed of compassion for all humanity in their hearts.

Peace and kindness,

Katherine


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