Putting It All Together
Through the first three articles in this How Actors Act series, we’ve examined several methods and techniques actors can use to create unique and compelling characters. It’s important to note that these techniques aren’t just tools for sculpting those characters – they’re also challenges actors can tackle routinely to hone their craft. Acting is like anything else: The more you practice and solidify your fundamentals, the better you become.
This week I’ll take some of the fundamentals we’ve already examined and combine them to create an unusual take on an iconic character. In the holiday spirit, we’ll look at a character almost everyone is familiar with: Ebenezer Scrooge of A Christmas Carol.
A great place to start in any character study is with some light dramaturgy. For instance, where and when does this character live? What is her or his socioeconomic status? What do we know about the character’s life beyond the pages of the story?
In Scrooge’s case, Charles Dickens answers many of these questions in short order. The story takes place in London, and although a specific year is never mentioned, it’s safe to assume it takes place around the time when it was written in the 1800s. If we want to incorporate an accent, a little research into this place and time can yield information about what our character might sound like. Our second and third questions are also easy to answer from the onset: Scrooge is a wealthy miser, and his ghostly visitors show us the circumstances of his life.
Though we could stop here and use just our dramaturgical research to flesh out the role, we can go much further by incorporating physical acting techniques.
Using mask work, we can start to sculpt our character’s facial expression. Luckily, Dickens throws adjective after adjective at us when describing Scrooge, and any one of them is a great base to start with. These descriptions include “squeezing,” “wrenching,” “grasping,” “scraping,” “clutching,” “covetous” and so on. Any combination of them will inform the actor to scrunch and twist his face into a gruesome caricature, but to hold that expression and talk through it for the duration of the play are the challenges of this role.
Those same descriptions can be applied to every body part. It’s easy to imagine what it looks like to grasp, clutch or scrape with your hands, but what about your shoulders? What do “wrenching” legs look like? “Clutching” feet? Incorporate these adjectives into your neck, back and hips to see what this character’s body looks like in addition to that twisted facial expression you’ve created. Now take some steps around the stage to discover how this contortion moves.
The goal here is to stretch these choices to their extremes and hold them firmly as you speak, gesture and move about the stage. The further you push it, the more challenging it becomes – and the greater the discoveries you make. Start to identify the things that make you laugh, or that feel really good to do, and tweak them further. Though many of these choices will relax into something more natural during the final performance of the character, the most interesting choices can come only from experimenting with the extremes.
Now that we’ve found our character’s face, body, voice and movement, we can enter rehearsal to discover how this character interacts with the cast and, more importantly, the audience. Clowning is a great tool here because clowns are honest in their interactions. Present Scrooge’s “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous” form to your castmates to see how they react. The further you take it, the more honest those reactions will be, and you can use them to adjust your character’s behavior.
This is something that people do in real life as well: We pay attention to how our behavior is received, then react and adjust accordingly. Also check for the director’s reaction each time you make a choice. Odds are that if he or she is loving it, the audience will, too.
As long as you remain honest and engaged during this process, you’ll continue to make exciting discoveries, even throughout the show’s run.