Perhaps on of the biggest challenges I have had to face in any production is trying to make my characters spontaneous. I look at some of the performances I have seen and what I find has kept me most interested in a show (more often than not) is a performance which is unpredictable. I have mentioned this in a previous blog, A Sense of Control, where I talk more about the instability of characters in general. There is another aspect of a character’s unpredictability which as a green actor, I often overlooked.
As film has slowly evolved over the years, the need for realism has intensified. It is an expectation from both the audience and the production companies. I think it (realism) is a key element when trying to create a connection with an audience; the ability to relate. Theatre has been dragged along with this concept as audiences expect to see similar efforts towards realism. Gone is the stylised theatre of yesteryear. Well, not gone as such, just not as prolific. This is not a bad thing and I am not one to complain. Creating such characters is harder but so much more enjoyable.
Now, one key thing about realism, and the focus for this blog, puts the typical actor at conflict with themselves. They know the story, the lines, and more often than not, the lines of the other actors. Well, the story is scripted after all and an actor’s clues for their character development come from the journey they take. There have been the occasional attempts where parts of the script have remained secret even to the cast, and there is also a big Improvisational Theatre movement, which is incredibly fun I have to say.
Predominately however, the cast are reading for a fixed story line and they know what is coming. The problem is, in reality, they shouldn’t. The character should not have much of a clue until the last second (unless you are playing Sherlock Holmes or a similarly hyper-intelligent character) what the other person is going to say, or do, or even what environmental things may be going on. In an effort to create realism, an actor is therefore trying to forget what they know while trying to ensure they get the lines right. Talk about conflict.
How does on handle this? Everyone has their own technique and thankfully there are few wrong answers. For me, I follow a two fold process.
When learning my lines, I determine the importance of accuracy. If doing something like Shakespeare, then getting every word is somewhat important. I have found more often that it is not too important to get the words exactly right, and a certain degree of flexibility is permitted. I then learn my lines without any real emotional focus and by that I mean I try the lines in as many ways as I possibly can. Place a stress here, inflection there, emotional hiccup over here, then do it all again completely differently. This method is meant to allow me to respond to things that get said or happen around me rather than anticipate them, because I don’t really know HOW I’m going to say my line until the moment arrives. Introducing this aspect of uncertainty in my own performance is my way of dealing with “being in the moment”.
And that leads us to what I am reacting to. Obviously, as I know the story, I know technically what is coming, but I don’t know how. For that reason, I prefer to only know vaguely what might be coming, if possible, so that I may find I can react to they way a line is said, or the way something is done. This sounds a little hard to believe as one might think, “How can you not know how a line will be delivered when you rehearse the scene several times?” To that I say, it is about where your focus is. I focus on the message of the scene and lines at the moment of saying them, just like I do when not acting, because in the moment that is all you have to focus on.
When in a discussion with a person (not acting) I take bits of what they are saying (hopefully the important bits) to help me develop a general message or feel to what they are saying. This is something that annoys people whose memory works far better than mine, and have the mysterious (to me) ability to recall, in detail, a conversation as it occurred a week ago. I work in visual and emotive memory, and am not very linguistic.
So what is the point of all this? Modern day theatre and film draws its drama not from the technique or the style of the acting, but from the uncertainty and conflict of the story and the characters. An audience tend to lose interest in a character if they have little or no depth, which is actually a technique used to ensure the audience focus on the right characters. Flatten non-focal characters and the audience will not pay much attention, something you don’t want to happen for a major character. I have found that I need every tool I can learn and develop in order to ensure my characters have depth and layers to them. This is just one of them.
It is a tool that, like many others, has given me a new appreciation for real-life interactions and to accept the uncertainty. Unless you are really very smart, you cannot accurately predict how a conversation or activity is going to go, so you are better off learning how to be flexible. I guess this comes a little way back to an earlier blog about Expectations. As an Actor, I need to be prepared to adapt and react. As a person, I need to realise that I should expect anything. The easiest way to do that is to expect nothing.