When Do We Learn About Character?
This was a question asked recently by a part-time student. In order not to launch into a rant that would no doubt bore them rigid, convince them I didn’t know anything about character, or forcefully remind them that I’ve been doing this for as long as I can remember, I kept my mouth shut and let another student explain what they had missed the week before.
This is my confession. For the past 10 years, I have never taught a single exercise on character or characterisation.
Why? Because having trained and studied and read about most of the major post-Stanislavsky developments in acting, I can’t see how it helps.
I understand what people say and why they believe that. But I still don’t think it helps. Actually, I believe it hinders most actors. They are taught things that are impossible to put into action, they never use them, or they feel so guilty that they can’t use them that they say they do, but never actually do. Most of the games and exercises of character are fun, but they aren’t much help.
Even in 2018, this is heresy. Even in 2018 to suggest this is to risk people saying that I’m uneducated. If only I understood the value of character, I would use it. And since Daniel Day-Lewis, Saint Daniel, the Patron Saint of acting gone ‘method’ is so well known for his transformation, he’s wheeled out in every argument and as if one person’s method is suitable to teach to everyone else.
I’ve always believed acting should be fun. It’s already hard work. To me, character is simply an illison that we created in collaboration, collusion with a willing audience. Character is action.
How do I know?
Tell me about Donald Trump, tell me about Obama, tell me about Charlie Sheen, tell me about Sarah Palin. The things you know about them - we call them their characteristics. Their characteristics come from the things they did and said. So character is really characteristics.
The character is created in the mind of the audience when they see the actor do and say things which reveal the characteristics to them.
A man enters a room. He takes out a pistol. He checks it’s loaded and hides behind the door. A woman enters. She does not see him. He smiles to himself. Raises the pistol. And fires.
What we saw, we will interpret as the actions of a man who killed a woman with a pistol. It doesn’t really matter what the actor playing the man was thinking. It’s invisible to the audience. And the more character he tries to add to the role, the more conscious the audience are of the existence of these choices. Character is about the most self conscious thing you can do, because you are striving to be other than you.
When the actor playing the man comes on and does these actions with absolute faith and confidence in those actions, the audience place those actions directly in context (they’re smart) and they start to tell themselves a story about the character.
The man’s actions from then on will add to this story, taking the audience this way and that way until the end of the story.
I’ve never thought that acting was character. Rather than putting something on, it’s always seemed to be more about letting yourself be vulnerable and trusting enough to carry out the uninflected actions of the character on stage or before a camera.
It isn’t a character’s feelings which they audience might connected, it’s the feelings of the actor, who may or may not be feeling something like the character, but will neither create feelings nor deny feelings.
The tools that we teach are designed to help the actor become a skilled performer. Able to give a compelling performance without ever going through the humiliating process of pretending to be someone else.
And yet character is the done thing. It’s the advertised thing. It’s the written about thing. And no serious actor would be heard suggesting they don’t bother with any of those shenanigans, lest someone here and fail to take them seriously.
It is still believed that real actors transform themselves and lazy actors just read. This is neither true, nor helpful.
When do we learn about character? If I had my way, the answer would be never.
Mark Westbrook is the head of the Professional Diploma in Stage and Screen Acting at Acting Coach Scotland.