Finding Your Character for the Inside Out
Have you ever tried out for a play, thinking, “They’ll never cast me,” only to get the call a few days later and find yourself in way over your head? That’s exactly what happened to me years ago when I was cast in a reader’s theatre production of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Babylon Revisited. It had been adapted and was being directed by one of America’s premiere historical novelists, John Jakes. I had performed in several musicals and dramas prior to this experience, but I was really out of my element in reader’s theatre. On top of working with THE John Jakes, I also was surrounded by a well-seasoned cast. A newspaper article announcing the production called them “veterans” of the local community theatre. That was daunting enough. But being in the presence of John Jakes was the most overwhelming aspect of all.
I wondered what in the world he had ever seen in me as I sat on a comfortable, overstuffed sofa in his lovely home, which was where we had our first few rehearsals. A bookcase prominently featuring his novels, which at that time included the Kent Family Chronicles and the first installment of the North and South trilogy, loomed over me. It seemed to reinforce how completely out of my comfort zone I was.
I had been cast as one of two narrators and also had another (smaller but more flamboyant) role — that of the main character’s former girlfriend. The narrator’s part was rather straightforward, but I realized after a few rehearsals that I wasn’t getting into the other character. I could deliver the lines and act the part, but I could not find this character’s “character.” I knew her backstory, but I could not make it real. I felt she had depth, yet I could not feel the extent of it. She was similar to characters I had played previously. So why was this so difficult?
I began to examine the problem. I first realized that I was trying just a little too hard to please John Jakes. It wasn’t that he was so demanding. He is actually a very nice person, and a talented director. But he is one of those larger-than-life people; it’s easy to become tongue-tied and spellbound in his presence. Another reason was that I had to change into a completely different character in the middle of the show (and back again). This was not a normal character metamorphosis. I stepped offstage as the narrator, then right back on as this new character.
I wondered how long John would put up with my inability to nail this character down. My apprehension didn’t help.
I decided I had to examine the character’s specific personality traits and work on character development from the inside out. Instead of focusing on actions and dialogue — the outward things — I had to get inside the character’s thought processes. Ah, method acting, you say, but it’s really not as “Brando-ish” as you might imagine.
I had to visualize her as a real person. What would she be thinking as she entered a room and conversed with other characters? What would she be feeling, and how would she convey those feelings? What were her eyes saying? I knew that as much as the narrator was a calm and even presence in the show, this character splashed onto the scene, wrought emotional havoc, and exited in a flourish, leaving a trail of exhausted humanity in her wake. What I had to discover was why. And when I found the answers, I would know how to play her.
I explored those questions as I rehearsed at home, and I became more comfortable with this complex character. I remember the look on John’s face at the next rehearsal and I knew I had finally captured her the way he envisioned her.
When I finally grasped the role, my trust in myself as an actor returned. Self-assurance was the exact fuel I needed to complete the portrayal.
Not all characters require such intensive dissection. But if you are struggling with character development, perhaps you are only working on the character’s outer traits. Give this technique of working your character “from the inside out” a try. It might be just the method you need for your character’s development.
And as for working with those seasoned actors or famous directors, just be yourself, do your homework, and give it your best effort.