When an actor prepares to play a role, she doesn’t only memorize her lines and reach into her schtick bag for an accent and wig. Creating a layered character requires getting under the skin of her character. To do this she might:
Learn as much as possible about the time the story is set. What it looked like, smelled like. The kinds of jargon people used.
- Imagine the character’s personal history. Who were her parents and what kind of relationship did they have? Who were her friends and why were they her friends? What does she do when she’s alone?
- Write journals about scenes not in the play or movie to learn more about the character. Take an important moment and write a stream-of-consciousness monologue that follows her thoughts moment by moment.
- Find a piece of music that communicates the character’s rhythm. The music becomes the character’s theme that the actor plays on her iPod in preparation for playing a scene.
- Work on the character’s movement patterns. Work from the breath and find how the character holds herself, speaks and tosses the hair out of her eyes.
- Study not just the lines, but what lies under them
The actor may fill a notebook to brimming with notes and scratching and doodles. She may create an altar where she gathers images that relate to her character. Every dialogue exchange may have alternate meanings that she works through over and over.
The idea of this work is not to put on the character, but to live the character. To be the character. To feel inside the skin of the character.
This preparation work becomes like the tea bag, the actor the teapot full of water. The richer and more varied the tea, the more layered the performance.
If this work is done well, when the actor steps on the stage the audience sees a lot more than a person reading a bunch of lines. They feel the presence of a fully realized character. They feel it in vocal intonations, how the actor moves, the gleam in their eye. Even a raised eye brow at the right moment can speak volumes.
Because it really is like making a tea, the prep work doesn’t last in the actor for long. Like any tea, it gets cold and old and eventually evaporates into the air. It can be brought back, but it’s not like snapping fingers. The steeping process needs to begin again.
I have come to believe that writing works in a similar way. When you are truly writing the character, the words come from a special place. When your readers take in the words on the page, there’s something else that comes through. Your readers can sense the tilt of the head, the look in the eye, feel the breath moving in and out.