Friday, November 11, 2011

Character Work: Letting The Character Lead

When I recently responded to a blog post on character preparation, I brought up the idea, central to my method, the Energize technique, of “Letting the Character Lead.” James Devereaux, author of the Great Acting Blog asked me to share with you an excerpt of my book A BALANCING ACT on that subject.
Here it is, found in Chapter VII:

Try to “hear” the character speak.
Begin to cooperate with your character,
asking questions and getting its “visible” answers.
Michael Chekhov

A character, sir, can always ask a man who he is.
Because a character truly has a life of his own,
marked by his own characteristics, because of which he is always “someone.”
On the other hand, a man – I’m not saying you at this moment –
a man in general, can be “nobody.”
-Luigi Pirandello

The outside-in approach
The theatre world has been divided on this issue for centuries. Some say it is better to create a character from personal knowledge and past experiences (Lee Strasberg, for example). Others say that imagination must be the primary foundation for the actor’s work, that form precedes content and that by working on the form of the expression, the body language and the gesture, the emotion will follow (Michael Chekhov, for example). I have been trained both ways and I see truth in each. I am a strong believer in using both in some ways. The order and sequence in which the actor needs to approach the role doesn’t really matter. However, I truly feel that an actor must get inspiration from outside his personality or he will forever play himself in various situations. Yet, he also needs to root his performance within his own subconscious, in order to be truthful and to exploit the various facets of his personality. After all, actors are chameleons. They love changing personas, and they naturally have an ability to do so, or they would not have become actors.
The first phase of the Energize technique is based on the outside-in approach. In the next chapter we will see how to integrate the inside-out approach via the use of sub-personalities. Ultimately, an actor should use both simultaneously. I conceptualize it this way: starting from inside to open the aspect of oneself that is most appropriate for this particular role, then later reaching outside to wear the new “skin” of the character.
But first, one needs to get to know and befriend the character. Stanislavski called that “falling in love” with the character. In Six Characters in Search of an Author, Luigi Pirandello puts the following words in the mouth of the Father, one of the six “immaterial” characters who tries to convince a director and his acting troupe to perform their story:

FATHER: One is born to life in many ways and in many forms: as a tree, or as a stone, as water, as a butterfly…or as a human. And one can also be born as a character … “He who has the luck to be born as a live character can even laugh at death. He will never die. The one who will die is the man, the writer, the instrument of the creation. The creation never dies … They live eternally, because, being live germs, they had the good fortune to find a fertile matrix, a fantasy that knew how to raise and nourish them, to make them live for eternity! …
DIRECTOR: All of this is fine. But what is it that you want here?
FATHER: We want to live, sir!
DIRECTOR: For eternity?
FATHER: [referring to the actors]: No sir, only for a moment…in them.

Listening to the character, befriending it
One of the first exercises I do with my actors is a relaxation/visualization focused on the character. After a good lying down relaxation on the mat, during which time I take them through all the chakras, aura, and different elements of the energetic system while doing a self-clearing, I ask performers to visualize the character they are going to play. Using their five senses, I ask them to observe, feel, listen to, smell, touch in their minds eye, and (why not?), taste the character they are going to play. This exercise is a “getting to know each other” time, as if the character and the actor were going to become dance partners, and even live together for a while in a marriage. I ask the actor to explore the persona they are going to embody. Using their subconscious and not censoring any information their imagination and intuition are going to give, they create, or more accurately, discover, the character’s personality. A composite of voice, movements, posture, mannerism, thoughts, inner monologue, and personality traits, the character then starts having a life of its own and becomes a real person. I ask actors to listen to what the character wants to tell them. I ask them to take notes at the end of the relaxation/visualization. The character will tell its story, its challenges, and share what its objective, deepest wants and yearnings are. He or she will talk about their struggles and about the obstacles in their way. They will talk from their point of view about the other characters, about events in the play or in their life before the play. He or she will share their childhood, their stories of love and lust, abuse and revenge. From these confidences, the images and feelings about who the character really is will be more vivid, more tangible. The objectives and actions will be clearer and more obvious. This inner dialogue is like having an imaginary date with your character, befriending him or her, finding its qualities, its humanness, and listening to its point of view and its story. Stanislavski talked about “flirting” with your character. It is indeed a seduction dance, a tender approach. Shirley MacLaine writes in Going Within about her performance of Madame Sousatzka:

“I proceeded to sculpt, with Schlesinger’s help [the director] what Sousatzka looked like, what she wore, how her hair was styled, what jewelry clanked on her wrists, how she walked, talked, ate, breathed, laughed, and cried . . . She became a composite of reality; a real, living, breathing character fashioned from our creativity. After I finished my composition of thought, I let her go. I threw her up to the universe and said “Now you play yourself through me.”

Stay tuned for another post about more practical exercises.

© Emmanuelle Chaulet  A BALANCING ACT 2008

Emmanuelle Chaulet is a Lecturer of Theatre at the University of Southern Maine, and an artist’s coach. She is the author of A BALANCING ACT, (Starlight Acting Books 2008) and can be contacted at:  and or