This post is in response to Lindsay’s podcast from last week called Horrible People. In it she spoke about the need as a playwright to not make your characters perfect, to allow them to lie, to allow them to have flaws, to make mistakes. I thought it was a fantastic podcast (I’m biased) and I thought that the same type of notion can be applied to actors.
We are all human. We all have good in us, we all have bad in us. In addition to our positive qualities, we have shame, guilt, we find certain things distasteful, we judge others, we subtlely undermine others. No matter how good a person is, there’s always something “bad” inside, and the evilest villain only works onstage when there is a kernel of good trying to escape.
So when analyzing a script, look for those opposites. If your character is a hero, find the parts of the script where she isn’t so perfect. If your character is a villain, exploit the moments when they allow some compassion to shine through.
But… what if your character isn’t good or bad? What if your character just is? This is very common, and it’s not necessarily a sign of bad writing. The writer is ultimately telling a story and some characters are there to support that story, and it’s up to the actor to give them dimension. A 30 minute play with a cast of 40 characters can’t possibly fully develop them all.
What if the playwright doesn’t give you much to go on? What if she hasn’t written in a “bad” side to your character? Here are some ways to inject a little “bad” into your role:
Keep a Secret
Hide an unpleasant fact about yourself from others. Guard that secret with your life.
- You shoplifted something you’re wearing.
- You’re hiding an addiction. Doesn’t have to be major – could be coffee, Mountain Dew, Oreos.
- There’s something about your home life you don’t want people to know – your parents are breaking up, you’re not as rich as you’d like to appear, you don’t have cable television.
Have a Grudge
This is ideal for when you’re playing in a group/ensemble scene. Choose someone in the group that you don’t like. For whatever reason – you don’t like their perfume, they stole your boyfriend last year, they got a job that you wanted, etc. The “why” isn’t as important as having made the choice. How will this affect your character? You won’t stand so close to them if you can help it. If you get stuck standing close to them, then you’ll be uncomfortable, you’ll look for reasons to move away.
If something bad happens in a scene, feel responsible for it. You don’t have to actually be responsible, feel guilt that you could have prevented it.
Covet something on stage – an article of clothing, someone’s hairstyle, a prop. Make it extremely important to get that item for yourself. Want it. Need it. Be bitter when you don’t get it.
Think of yourself as above everyone. You’re smarter, you’re taller, you’re prettier, you’re funnier, etc. The actor Danny Burstein uses this: “I have this thing I do where I imagine that every character I play is the smartest person in the room in any given scene.” (source)
This stuff is intended to help you give dimension to your character, to give you life onstage. Be wary of stealing focus or of altering the director’s vision.