In asking players to portray characters--in scenes and in games--we are asking them to move outside of themselves... to empathize, to understand, to play. My three-year-old daughter does this multiple times each day: First, I am informed that I am actually the baby and she is the mama. Next, she is the big sister to her "babies" (an odd assortment of dolls and stuffies). Then, she is a baby giraffe. It goes on and on.
For many of us, and for many of our students, it takes real work to step outside of the character we play every day to find a new character to play for a moment. What acting offers us is a chance to see the world from new perspectives, to interact in different ways and experience different relationships, to explore objectives and desires, to experiment with how to be.
This is no easy task. I'm often heard side-coaching, "Play a character that is not yourself. Show us someone we haven't seen before. Be obvious; say what comes next as this character." However, finding new characters takes some direct, intentional coaching.
I like to start by using metaphor as a method for developing character. I learned most of the following activities at BATS Improv, with John Remak and Lisa Rowland.
You can guide the class through the following explorations in the classroom or in a larger space (preferably indoors):
- Find your center. Not a different character--you. It might be in the center of your belly, in your chest, in your knees. Feel where your energy is centered as you walk around the room. Don't interact with others as we do this...yet.
- Now, stop. Clear that character--the character of you. Now, imagine the new character you are going to play has their "center" in the tip of their nose. Walk around the room as this character. What does your facial expression look like? What do you like most in this world. How do you feel about strangers? What are you feeling right now?
- Repeat this with other body part centers--knees, bottom of feet, top of head, belly, chin...whatever strikes you.
- Spend some time debriefing how it felt to be each of these characters. You can talk about story ideas, relationships, characters' goals and motivations...the list goes on and on.
- Guide them through similar explorations of character using various colors or musical instruments. At some point, ask the players to interact with each other in brief scenes--in pairs, small groups, and large groups (party scenes). If you have a large class, have half of the class act as an audience and then switch it up.
I've been doing some of this work with my cast of 54 6th-8th graders as we prepare for tomorrow's play. Mostly, I've been guiding large groups of student actors through some silent, thoughtful work on how to represent their character. I ask them to close their eyes and imagine how their character would feel in various situations. I ask them to imagine what it is their character wants most. I ask them to show a body position that represents their character's personality. This can be considered their "neutral" position, so that they can be in character even when they're just standing on stage. I also have them show us a facial expression that shows who their character is. In practicing this in rehearsal, they have something to fall back on when on stage.
In the classroom, we can do similar explorations in improv workshops. However, we can also explore characters from literature, from historical events, who are/were scientists, as preparation for creative writing--the possibilities are endless. For, aren't we all just characters? And how powerful it is to experience interactions in someone else's shoes.