Michael Stuhlbarg On Creating A Character
How to Develop a Character for Theatre
Whether you are new to theatre or not, becoming intimately familiar with your character is essential to a great performance. To do this, you will need to read the script multiple times, research the time period and setting, and think in terms of objectives instead of feelings. You can also create a sketch of your character by asking yourself questions about your character’s physical, social, psychological and moral attributes. Additionally, make sure to use rehearsal time to develop your character further.
Getting the Basics Down
Read the script more than once.Read the whole script at least once. Read the prologue, epilogue, the stage directions, and your lines as well as the other characters’ lines. As you read the script for the second and third time, highlight your lines and any important information given about your character.
- Highlight information about your character’s age, where they live, their name and upbringing, likes and dislikes, friends, family, favorite foods and places, as well as their political and religious viewpoints.
- You may be able to find this information through your character’s and other characters’ lines, as well as context clues.
Become familiar with your character's world.Contextualize your character by researching or imagining the time period your character is living in. Identify or imagine the culture and politics of the time period, as well as the politics of the city, town, or village they reside in. Additionally, think about how the gender, age, race or ethnicity, and class position of your character affects their relationship with the time period.
- For example, if your character is a female teacher in the early 1900s in New York City, it may be helpful to think about the gender politics of the time period and how this affects your character’s morals, aspirations, and convictions.
- If you are playing a character in the future, it would be helpful to read or watch futuristic books and movies. This way you can get a general idea about how a society's culture and politics can evolve, and the effects it can have on a character's morals and aspirations.
Think in terms of objectives instead of feelings.Playing emotions can come off as insincere and superficial. Therefore, instead of thinking about how the character feels, think about the character’s objectives or motivations. By thinking about the character’s objectives or motivations, you can create the desired and appropriate emotions.
- For example, instead of playing how disappointed your character is, think about why your character is disappointed. Your character may have just lost a very important competition that would have enabled them to fund their college tuition.
Try to avoid stereotypes.If you are playing a grandmother, for example, do not automatically act enfeebled or out of the loop, or talk with a quivering voice. Instead, use the character’s backstory to develop the character. Think about how and why your character may have certain traits and not others.
Rehearse.Memorizing your lines can only get you so far. You will need to rehearse your lines out loud to yourself multiple times in order to fully develop your character. Once you have rehearsed with yourself, rehearse in front of different audiences as well.
- Reading your lines out loud will also help you develop your character’s pitch and tone of voice, as well as their dialect.
- Ask your audience for feedback, for example, “Is my accent too strong or not strong enough?” and “Does the tone of my voice fit the mood of the scene, or does it fit my character’s demeanor?”
Creating a Character Sketch
Identify the physical qualities of your character.On a sheet of paper write down your character’s gender, sexuality, age, health status, height, weight, complexion, hair, mannerisms, posture, and type of clothing. When you are rehearsing, use these qualities to create an accurate representation of your character. Ask yourself:
- “Who am I, what is my name and do I like my name?”
- “What is my gender and sexual orientation, and how do I feel about them?”
- “How old am I and what do I think about my age?”
- “What is my complexion and do I like it?”
- “Do I have any deformities or handicaps, and if I do, how do I feel about them?”
- “What is the volume, tempo, and pitch of my voice?” “How do I feel about it?”
- “How does my posture reflect my age, health status, and inner feelings?”
Establish your character's social status.Ask yourself questions about your character's relationship to their environment and society, upbringing, social status, as well as their likes and dislikes. Then imagine or draw your character in different scenes and how they would act depending on their social status. This way, when you rehearse, you can use these sketches as references. Ask yourself questions like:
- “What was my childhood like?” “What were the best or worst memories?”
- “Who were my parents and what did they do for a living?”
- “What is my educational background?” and “Am I intelligent?”
- “How much money do I have, or how much do I want?”
- “What are my political and religious views?”
- “What is my job and do I like it?”
Identify your character’s psychological qualities.Becoming familiar with your character’s psychological qualities will help you develop appropriate responses and reactions to different scenarios. Imagine different scenarios and act out how your character would respond based upon their personality. For example, act out how your character would respond to their wallet being stolen. Become familiar with your character's personality by asking yourself:
- “What choices am I faced with and which ones do I make?”
- “What are my ambitions or goals?”
- “What makes me angry, sad, or happy?” or “What relaxes me?”
- “Do people generally like me?” and “Why or why not?”
- “Are any of my psychological traits manifested verbally or physically?”
- “What are my fears?” or “What do I worry about?”
Experiment with your character’s moral qualities.Identify your character's ethics and morals. This will give you a more in depth understanding of your character. Then think of other characters that are similar to the one you are playing. Review movie or TV scenes the character is in and use them as a reference while you rehearse for your character. Ask yourself these questions about your character:
- “Who do I admire?”
- “What is my attitude about the choices I make or will have to make?”
- “Will the pursuit of my goals or needs lead to a moral choice?”
- “Are the choices that I make based on an ethical standard or not?”
- “What barriers do I face and how will I overcome them?”
Developing Your Character on Stage
Practice your stage entrances.Before entering the stage, really think about where you have been before your entrance. This will help you channel genuine emotions and reactions once you get on stage. Then practice different stage entrances to see which one fits the scene best.
- For example, if you were supposed to be at the shopping mall before your entrance, think about how your shopping experience went. Did you find everything you were looking for? Are you tired from shopping? Did you run into an old friend or ex-boyfriend at the mall? Asking questions like these will help you set up an appropriate demeanor for your stage entrance.
Act outside of the box.Take risks by trying different movements and positions on stage. See which ones fit your character and which ones don’t. Use rehearsal time to do this. Remember that you can always tweak your movements or exchange them for something different.
- For example, run around, jump on objects, fall down, cry or laugh until your stomach hurts. The main idea is to take risks to see what works and what does not.
Listen to the other characters’ lines.Instead of just reciting your lines, listen and pay attention to the lines of the characters that are speaking before and after you. This way, when it is time for your lines, you can speak and respond to the other characters in a more genuine and sincere way.
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