How Actors Act, Part Two: Physical Acting

On the first day of rehearsal for the final play of my college career, not a single line of dialogue was read from a script. Instead of sitting down for a table read or jumping into a dramaturgical analysis of the time period or themes of the piece, we stood in a line along the back wall of the theater, pushed our bodies down into a slight squat and marched with effort across the floor in unison. 

We were told to put as much force into our feet as possible, to tense our bodies into a rigid form as tightly as we could, and then all at once – when the tension couldn’t be contained any longer – to push off with a kick and take a step forward. We were to do this silently, looking straight ahead and in complete unison. 

We did this for hours. 

Tadashi Suzuki invented this theater methodology, and it’s one of several methods that actors can use to craft their performances. Last time, we looked at how a thorough investigation of a character’s life outside of the text can inform an actor’s performance. This time, we’ll examine how the purely physical choices an actor makes can create a character.

Not every acting method works for every actor, and I admit it took me a while to see the benefits of a historical and emotional exploration of a character’s life when I knew the reasoning behind my choices would be lost on an audience. A purely physical approach, however, and the methods that accompanied it, clicked in my head immediately and unlocked a completely new experience for me as an actor. 

The first question to ask yourself when creating a character physically is, how can I describe this person in one word? Emotional words such as “angry,” “sad” or “excited” work best for this, but other words such as “tight,” “floaty” or “large” can be a lot more interesting. 

Let’s look at the concept of largeness as an example. What does “large” look like? Sometimes it’s easiest to break it down into specific body parts. How do I take up a lot of space with my legs? My arms? I can puff out my chest, and for extra height, I can walk on the balls of my feet. What does a large face look like? I can raise my eyebrows, widen my eyes and open my mouth. 

Now that I’m standing there, every part of my body outstretched and engaged, I can ask more questions. How do I move while retaining this shape? If I’m walking, I must take large steps. I must gesture with large, sweeping motions. How do I speak with this face I’ve made? 

Once I’ve pushed my physicality to absurd limits and answered these questions without making compromises to the largeness of my body, then I can start to dial it back into something that looks more natural, yet without losing the qualities I’ve discovered.

You can apply these questions to any descriptive word you like. “Angry” might feature balled fists, stamping feet and a squished face, and so on. Now when you gesture or walk across the stage with this descriptive word in mind, a very simple physical choice informs your actions.

One benefit of a purely physical approach is that any choice you make is immediately recognizable to the audience. If you enter with a limp, the audience might wonder why your character has a limp, and if the script never answers that question, the audience might always wonder about that choice. 

A second benefit is that physical acting lays an immediate foundation to build on, so if your character enters big and bold, taking up as much space as possible, the audience will start making assumptions about that character before you even speak a word. And if you can demonstrate to the audience who you are before your first line of dialogue, you’re doing something incredibly right. 

A third benefit is purely for the actor, but it has sweeping ramifications. Physical acting requires constant engagement. If you’ve ever seen a play during which a character asks a question, and then there’s a pause, and then the person the character was talking to snaps back into the performance and says a line in response, you know that actor’s brain was somewhere else for a second. 

Physical acting means there’s no autopilot: You’re engaged every second you’re on stage. That engagement creates a deeper connection with your scene partner and brings a greater sense of spontaneity and liveliness to each performance. 

Next time we’ll examine two techniques that can combine to create unusual and memorable characters: mask work and clowning.