One of the most brilliant pieces of advice I’ve ever had from a director is to ‘learn to love your character.’ Absolutely sound wisdom, I think, when you’re playing someone who you really struggle to associate with – whether they are an axe-murderer or just plain nasty.
So let’s assume you are playing such a character, someone who you really couldn’t deal with in real life. As a performer, it is our job to tell their story; whether you like their arc or not. We just love delving into the thought-process of someone else: feeling things that we, as our actual selves, would not necessarily think about saying, doing, or becoming.
Regardless of your character, the play you’re in, or the set you’re on, stepping back after a long day of rehearsals and performances is one of the best habits to form as a performer.
Here’s a personal anecdote: at drama school, after another classic day of spinal rolls and phonetics, we were working on a piece in which I really struggled to associate not only with my character but all the characters. They were hard work. The play was tackling issues that were currently prevalent in my personal life and I kept thinking: “but I don’t want to behave this way,” in hindsight I can now see that I was making it about me, a common mistake made by not only actors, but people in general. Far more worryingly, though, I was thinking: “if I think like her then I might become the same as her.” I was beginning to do the same and have those thoughts outside the workplace and I didn’t like it…
Research and exploration outside the rehearsal room is vital, don’t get me wrong, yet noticing when you are letting that other consciousness bleed through into your day-to-day choices, actions and personal life, this is not the best way to go.
However, I’m really grateful for this particular text project because it made me speak to my director. This is a problem a lot of actors may face and that is partly the reason why dealing with mental health in the arts is such a hot topic at the moment. We’re learning more and more about personal development and physical and mental well-being and that being able to talk freely about these kinds of issues in a professional environment is crucial. Voice your discomfort in the topic at hand with someone you trust and respect. I did. And I’m really glad I did.
So I said I was having some character trouble and she sat me down. I was nervous and it was gone 7pm but she sat me down nevertheless. She said that we, as performers, need to find a way to detach ourselves from the characters we portray. Find a way in and find a way out. Every actress will have their own way and guard it as if your life depends on it.
Perhaps, right now, you’re playing a fabulous comic lead who’s journey is a walk in the park. You can walk straight off stage, past your dressing room and straight into the Marlborough for a swifty before bed. But what about the darker, more questing characters you’re just aching to play? The characters who require a bit more training before this walk in the park. I’m going to expand this analogy as I find visualisation an ever-useful tool in my kit and it might help you too.
Imagine you are an island (bear with me here) or that your mind is an island, a really lovely island with grass and flowers and lots of things you love and happy dancing people, a bit like Hair. Now imagine this new, tricky character’s mind is another island, a little smaller than yours, but still full of… well, whatever it needs to be filled with. Quite frankly, it’s not cosy and it’s cold and dark and there are cockroaches trying to crawl up your legs.
Now as performers, we have to go to this new island and spend some time there and get comfortable there for a little trip from time to time and then, when the show is done or the rehearsal day is through we can get back… oh wait! How do you get back to flowers and the rhythm of life?! You booked a one-way ticket in the heat of the moment and now you’re stranded.
Better get cracking on building a bridge. It won’t be easy when you start out but if you keep working at it you will build a structure worthy of Brunel’s approval. Think about crossing a bridge that is a fraying twist of rope with missing planks. You’re not Indiana Jones. Now visualise a safe, clear bridge linking you as a person and your newly found character. You can walk freely and safely to and fro, from island to island. Yes, our job is to tell the character’s story and share their journey, but it is also, an equally important part of our job to be able to step back to our homeland and check in with the real you border control, safe and sound.
Find your own method of stepping back, coming out of character, taking a moment, whatever you want to call it and put it into action. Play around with it, just give yourself some space find your way back. You will be doing yourself a massive favour in the long run and when you encounter those difficult parts and plots. You will have safe passage home.
I would like to dedicate this article to the incredible actress and director of my aforementioned text project, Sonia Fraser. Sonia was a gracefully fierce woman and I think about her classes often. A truly inspirational actress.