This is what feels good. When you dance onto stage, spinning. Bow deeply holding hands before the curtain falls one last time. This is what feels good. Shaking hands, nodding heads. You’re beaming. You’ve done it and done well. This is what feels good.
For the past two weeks, I’ve been consumed by a play at the local theatre. Spending a lot of time rehearsing late into the night. Somehow, that’s worth it once an audience sits in the seats, laughing and applauding. Suddenly, the antics make sense. Suddenly, your character comes alive. Tonight is the opening night of the Youth Wing production of You Can’t Take It With You.
It’s a comedy set in the 1930’s that calls for a lot of fireworks and cardigans, hints of communism, but mostly love. Here’s an actually decent synopsis:
At first the Sycamores seem mad, but it is not long before you realize that if they are mad, then the rest of the world is madder. In contrast to these delightful people are the unhappy Kirbys. Tony, the attractive young son of the Kirbys, falls in love with Alice Sycamore and brings his parents to dine at the Sycamore house on the wrong evening. The shock sustained by Mr. and Mrs. Kirby, who are invited to eat cheap food, shows Alice that marriage with Tony is out of the question. The Sycamores find it hard to understand Alice’s view. Tony knows the Sycamores live the right way with love and care for each other, while his own family is the one that’s crazy. In the end, Mr. Kirby is converted to the happy madness of the Sycamores after he happens in during a visit by the ex-Grand Duchess of Russia, Olga Katrina, who is currently earning her living as a waitress.
Acting is strange, but much like watching a show. You escape into a world entirely not your own, escape your life. You visit with people, meet them, and follow their stories. As an actor, you do that and more. We do not simply escape by watching, but by doing. We slip into a new skin. Zipping up our backs like reptiles shedding in reverse. We’re becoming new people. Our lives become null. I stand in costume and enter the stage. The lights blind me for a moment and then, I’m not Derek Berry.
It’s a strange bit of ecstasy. In the days leading up to the first performance, it feels arduous. You’re tired of your character, annoyed with the contrivance of the plot. On opening night, though, this becomes so simple. To act becomes effortless. Not at all acting. Just being. Only being another person, not you.
Even if your microphone messes up, spitting static signals into the air. Even if you have to wear lipstick and eyeliner, which is pretty damn hard to apply. Did you know eyeliner goes on the inside of your eye? It’s like poking your eye out with a Sharpie! Even if things go wrong, there’s a spirit. An atmosphere that propels a good show to become great.
You can feel it when it comes. This is what feels good. Last night, during the Grand Dress (the final rehearsal before opening night, where a small audience is admitted), we could feel it. A trembling in your bones. A sudden rush of blood to your head. The stage becomes very real, the lights not so distracting, the eyeliner somewhat attractive.
I’m not sure I can quite describe the sensation too well. But it doesn’t matter what character, what role, in what setting. You feel something come alive. And that makes everything leading up to the opening night ultimately worth it.
If you ever want to learn how to make a character become a real, fleshed-out person, audition for a play. Become a character.
A few weeks ago, I auditioned for The Crucible on the spur of the moment and learned the following day that I had been cast as Giles
Corey, a combative 87-year-old man whose wife is arrested as a witch. He storms the courts in an attempt to save her life.
Never having acted in a play before, there was much to learn. But what I really wanted to figure out was how to make a character come to life. Set in Puritan times, we could not convey the characters as modern people, yet had to be relate-able to modern people. This created an interesting conflict.
Who is Giles Corey?
In the script, he’s almost daft, certainly crazy. I was an old man, yet I was 17. How could I act older, appear older? What might I think differently, being much, much older?
But what does he care about? BECOMING a character forces you to ask more questions. Therefore, even a minor character in a story has great internal conflicts. Giles is fiercely loyal and for that reason, dies by the end of the play. Yet he is frightened by death, angered by those who permit innocents to die.
When writing a novel, use some of these same questions to help make your characters more real. If it works for actors, it works for writers too.
1.) Understand the many facets of your character
Even if your character does something horrendous, perhaps he or she does it for a good reason. Even “evil” characters have qausi-good intentions at times. At one point during the play, I lunged at another man, screaming, “I’ll cut your throat, Putman! I’ll kill you yet!” While seemingly a deadly promise, consider that I scream this line at the man who just damned me to die. It’s understandable.
In your story, make sure to understand everything your character does and make sure it’s “in character.” Even if you don’t reveal these reasons in your story, you need to know them to keep your character consistent.
2.) Know your relationships
If you’re character is a cruel guy, maybe he’s not cruel to everyone. Nice people are not nice to everyone. Know how each character feels for the others. Are they jealous or respectful or resentful? Especially if characters are relation, figure out their family dynamic. Again, there’s no need to overtly explain this, but it’s safe to know how each character might react.
3.) Know what your character owns
This may sound weird, but it’s important to know what a character owns. His clothes. His possessions. Does he have a wallet or a money clip? Does he wear bowler caps or cowboy hats? What do these things say about him?
Know what sort of car he or she drives. Know how your character might decorate his or her bedroom/apartment. Know whether or not your character owns pets. Again, you don’t need to describe all of this, but know it.
One great trick I learned is to pick a single object of great importance to your character. Make the character own the possession. Whatever it is, this is distinctly this character’s possession. In The Crucible, Giles walks with a cane. The cane became a very important part of my character. I could use it in so many different ways to help show my emotion.
I might shake it at someone because I’m angry. I might rub the top nervously. I might spin it in my hands.
All of these visual cues can be translated into a story to represent what your character is feeling. After a number of times, the reader will understands that, “Giles stroked the cane, spinning it in his fingers” means “Giles was nervous.”
These are all the pieces of advice I have at the moment, but take them into consideration to help your characters breathe. We justfinished the first weekend of performances. The last 3 start on this Friday. I have learned so much from acting in this play and will definitely blog about it later on in the week, because the people I’ve met are amazing. It has taught me a lot about character development and a lot about people.