In great films there must be a reason why we get sucked in to caring for something even as implausible as, for example, a boy called Elliott who befriends an alien. It’s probably the same reason why we can’t stop watching a TV series about a charismatic and ruthless couple hell-bent on becoming the U.S. president and first lady, crushing anyone who stands in their way. I’d think it’s also the reason why one woman can convincingly swing between playing Margaret Thatcher in one film, a contemporary New Yorker lost in the musings of Victoria Woolf in another, and yet transform herself into Julia Child in the next. Why all this has been on my mind is another story though…
You may know I play a magician character called Norvil. In developing Norvil’s new show that rolled out in May, I made it a bit of a mission to think about all this more. I wanted to know what can any kind of performer learn from great characters to make their performances better – even if the character they’re performing is themselves? Why and how do great characters pull us in?
When working from a script like any of the film actors I mentioned, the performer’s job is to piece together the puzzle of who this character is from the text. But when the show is being developed from scratch as it was in my case, it was a matter of deciding the ingredients that’ll be used to define the character. What’s driving my character? What does he want to achieve? What are the obstacles in his way? What’s his back story? Then it’s to ask: how do all these things influence every aspect of the show?
To help me get clear on all this I’ve had some good chats with director Psyche Stott. Once I asked her what she thinks makes a character interesting (I thought it was a perfectly legitimate question to have). But she nudged me in another direction as she suggested that interest grows naturally out of other things instead. Psyche maintains that it all comes down to truth and believability. People want to discover the mystery behind the actor’s character or the person presenting their craft… as long as they believe the person’s story. How does the person’s body, their actions, and their every choice communicate this story? Thinking of the problem this way around, I realised that to ask how can you make a character interesting was putting the cart before the horse.
A QUICK REWIND
Enter my Boston friend Lynne, stage right. Lynne’s a total theatre nut. Last June on Twitter we discovered we were about to both watch the same NTLive performance of Alan Ayckbourne’s A Small Family Business from opposite sides of the Pond (me in the Olivier Theatre and her in a ‘streaming cinema’ in Boston). The day after the play, Lynne tipped me off about Ayckbourne’s book The Crafty Art of Playmaking. I’m telling you this because his “Obvious Rule No. 5” is: “They (the audience) need to care about your characters.”
That got me thinking. You’ve likely walked into the room half way through a film before. Everyone else in the room is watching with rapt attention, but you, not knowing anything about the characters or the action will be less interested than they are in what’s on the screen. Maybe it’s even an awful character but they’ve become invested in that character’s journey and outcome.
This ‘caring’ comes from something interesting. Psyche told me she thinks, “Ultimately we’re all trying to make sense of who we are, understand why things are the way they are and decide what we’re going to do about them… Good characters help us make sense of these things and feel connected” in these common themes.
CHARACTER VS. CARICATURE
It’s interesting for me that even in the old classics – think of Chaplin, Arbuckle or Keaton – you can still watch them today and connect. The style of course is totally different than acting styles today but the characters they portray are crystal clear. Their stories and motives make sense so still we get pulled in. These old classic film icons are so famous now that they often get thrown around as flimsy caricatures, but actually the originals are full and rich characters.
OH YES, NOW FOR MY POINT HERE…
So before you start thinking I’ve gone off the deep end of performance theory, I want to explain why I think all this relates practically to any performance a person can make. My examples will be on magician performances, but you can transfer the ideas into whatever your own ‘thing’ is that you do in front of people.
Variety artist extraordinaire Charlie Frye said in an interview “It’s the character and the humanity of the performer that counts.” (1) That’s a big statement coming from a guy who spends his life perfecting countless skills, stunts and acts … to say what makes it all ‘work’ (or not) is whether the audience buys in to who you are. He’s clearly learned from the Vaudeville and music hall greats as shown in this excellent article on music hall character acts.
One of my mentors Eugene Burger warns of the common tendency to do magic in the style of a cooking show. ‘Add this to that, stir, bake and here’s something I prepared earlier.’ This is to say that ‘tricks’ on their own are not magical. For there to be any magic for the audience, you need to invest in the story of what you (your character) are doing, connect genuinely with your audience and believe in what you’re doing. Oh yes, that brings us to belief…
It’s the matter of believing in your own magic. To encourage magicians to believe in the (impossible) things they’re performing, the director and magician Henning Nelms wrote,
“When everything you do is consistent with your character
and the phenomena which you exhibit,
you will find it easy to suspend disbelief in your own marvels.”
The question then of ‘how’ to achieve this is next. What’s your relationship to the performance? Do you believe in it? Are you a skeptic? Are you in control of it? (Like in a blog post last October again it comes down to asking good questions).
If the cards you’re using are a family heirloom, you may handle them differently than if you found them left on a park bench. Similarly if the person you call up on stage to help you was chosen because she reminds you/your character of your beloved grandmother, you’ll treat her differently than if you think she’s carrying the plague. Once all these details of the character start to be defined, things start to become more three-dimensional and interesting for an audience because it all starts to feel richer and more real. And they probably won’t even consciously know why.
All this is still totally relevant even if you’re not playing a ‘character’ per se. A performer or speaker can ask other people what adjectives they’d use to describe you. Pick and choose some that you’d like to own (good, bad and ugly are all up for grabs) and see how to adjust your delivery in ways that emphasise those traits in line with your character. Suddenly the script or repertoire will change, all to become more cohesive with who ‘you’ the character are. If you’re not used to thinking about these things, I know it can be a bit of a leap at first. But I’ve found it’s worth sticking at it and seeing what the experimentation turns up.
So if you’re still scratching your head from the opening paragraph, we care about Elliott befriending E.T. because we believe in the story that’s being told. We get sucked in to secretly hoping Francis Underwood succeeds as president in House of Cards because despite how despicable and manipulative he is, we’ve become invested in his complex story. And finally Meryl Streep is brilliant in the totally diverse roles she takes on because she figures out ways to convey through her voice, body and performance all the nuances of the characters she discovers, revealing them to us in each role as if she’s a new living breathing person. It all boils down to caring and believing. If we can start to figure out even some of what makes that magic happen, I think we’re a few steps closer to presenting characters that work and finding audiences that care about them.
(1) Genii Magazine, July 2014
Top image by: Barış Kemal Kirik