Every time I write about character, a new flood of complaints arrives. But to be honest, in the past ten years of running Acting Coach Scotland, I have never really changed my mind. We don’t teach any character work, no characterisation exercises and rarely talk about the character as something that the actor is responsible for.
Now, I didn’t wake up last Tuesday. I understand that the dominant ideology prescribes character work as a given good for actors. As a University Professor once said to me with much bewilderment “If your job isn’t to create the character, then what is it.”
My answer is the reason that I still don’t believe in character. At least, not as the conscious creative process of the actor. I believe it is something that emerges from the work that the actor does.
Character emerges from the choices that you make as you attempt to bring the writer’s words to life.
Where the Problem Came From
Stanislavsky believed that the writer provided the bones, and that you the actor were required to fill in the rest. It’s funny, because no one ever does that to a novel. Our imaginations are allowed to do their work, no one else is required to come in and fill in more for us. So, for the past 150 years, character has become the job and responsibility of the actor.
Stanislavsky at least was fighting against something, the superficial dominance of a type of acting that existed in the Russian Theatre before 1900. We on the other hand, no longer need to resist Melodrama and declamatory acting, - as we all have Netflix, and we all know the dominant style is Naturalism.
Where Character Comes From
I believe that as you work on a play or film, you turn your understanding into choices and those choices, acted upon in the moment of performance on stage or before the camera, make the character appear in the moment. In fact, on camera, I guess the editor also makes a fair few decisions about your character will eventually appear like to the
The main reason that I don’t believe in character is that I think it’s unnecessary. And it pains me greatly that everyone from layman to Oscar winner believes in it in a way that seems unquestioning.
Whenever people criticise this approach, it’s as if I have insulted their religion. It seems to them that I have committed an act of blasphemy and need to be punished. Over the years, many high and powerful from the acting world have tried to slap me down. But it doesn’t change the fact that I see great performances all the time from people who spend zero time on ‘character work’.
Whenever people do character work, it seems to have little to do with helping them dig deep into the writing, but an external adventure into their own creative thoughts and feelings. To me, it takes them further away from the writer’s intentions than ever.
The Uncomfortable Truth
I am willing to say that people are unwilling to question the dominance of character because they are afraid. Because without it, they are scared that they won’t be able to produce the performances they’ve built their success on. And in an industry fuelled by fear and narcissism, no one wants that. But in the end, I think it’s selfish.
I still see no tangible relationship between character work and the final performance you give. I think it would be impossible to prove the link between character work and great performances. Maybe if you get to live like the character for two years, maybe authenticity is inevitable, because frankly you are not longer acting the part, you have become it. The average actor does not have the ability to spend two years preparing a role, so these tools are useless to the actor who has 6 weeks rehearsal or a weekend before shooting to prepare for the job.
Everything you need is there in the script, or in the director’s wishes for each scene. Sure, you can put on a costume, and find their voice and all, but deep down, the script has all the answers. And fully committing to the desire of the character will usually create a character for the audience.
I still can’t help but feel that is akin to masturbation for actors to spend the weekend walking around town in their character’s shoes, or shooting guns to play a soldier, or wearing a loincloth in your spare time to play Jesus, or Tarzan. It feels good, it feels like we are ‘doing work’, but the truth is that you don’t need to justify yourself. Acting is a very silly job for an adult to do, but being silly doesn’t mean you should have to justify it by making up a series of nonsense exercises that do nothing but convince you that you have a real job.
At the same time, I don’t blame you for doing this stuff, the entire world of acting bar a few has everyone off doing sense memory, mumbling to themselves, dredging up memories and pretending to be someone else, despite our common sense always reminding us of the contrary.
Maybe this blog post will piss off a whole new generation of actors and acting teachers. I do not wish that. This is just an honest reflection of how my views really haven’t changed in the past ten years. Maybe I just don’t shout about them as loudly as before. If you wanna do all that good stuff, go ahead, knock yourself out.
To You, The Best
Mark Westbrook is the author of Truth in Action, a revolutionary take on acting without character.