Building character: How actors get into their roles

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Lirona Joshi

Staff Writer

When the characters have taken their bow and the curtains close, actors remove their masks and go back to their normal lives as students.

This transition from an individual to an actor all starts with an open auditioning process that happens at the beginning of the year from which students are called back appropriately for whatever roles the directors feel they will best fit. Based on their performance on subsequent specific auditions, individuals are given their roles for characters in a production.

“In theater we talk a lot about what your character type is, and college is a really good place to figure that out,” said Micayla Johnston, a junior interdisciplinary major from Wetumpka, Alabama. “I usually end up playing the sweet character.

“Knowing character type helps me figure out what character am I going for because when you go into an audition kind of wanting a specific character you can tailor yourself towards that character.”

Once the student actor has been assigned a character, they are set up with a task to immerse themselves in the shoes of that role and bring that character to life.

According to Jermaine Van Buren, a senior theater major from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, there is no set formula for internalizing a character, and individual actors follow their own method.

“A lot of people have a standard way (where) they look at character and analyze it with the text itself,” Van Buren said. “So, we’ll find clues within the production, within the play and the musical that tell us about the character and their point-of-view perspective, even like the tiny quirks and mannerisms about the character.”

Another approach that is popular among the actors while preparing for a role is studying the author or the playwright and identifying the themes that writers base their characters upon.

“I like to read about the author to find out like what their mindset is at that time while they were writing it,” said Nicholas Wills, a junior from Fayetteville, Georgia. “And then again I don’t watch too many movies that is based off of that play or whatever, because then you have a different person’s interpretation of that character in your head.”

Although relating to one’s character through personal experiences in life is a common method employed by all three, Johnston added some roles can be challenging.

“Sometimes there are characters that are going through things and are portrayed in ways that I don’t tap into, and those can be harder characters,” Johnston said. “But the challenge is also really because that’s the moment where I feel like you kind of relate to humanity as a whole.

“Figuring out that OK this person sitting next to me in class has gone through the same thing and now that I’ve played this character then I maybe understand other people in the world better.”

While the character development is done by the actors on both a personal level and through practices and interactions with co-actors, it is ultimately up to the vision of the director how these individual roles are shaped.

“While you work by yourself really figuring out your characters’ mannerisms and how they speak and everything like that, while you’re at rehearsal, the main thing is to take what the director says about your character and how he feels you should phrase these things,” Wills said.

Memorizing the lines also involves the process of stringing together the character’s personal life.

“I find myself in the middle of rehearsal, I’ll be like, ‘Oh, that’s why she (says) this,’ where this is a connection that probably the audience might not get, but if I get it it’s going to pull them in a little bit deeper,” Johnston said.

In practicing as a set, actors are not only acting and reacting to each other but are also working on improvising the play in case of unexpected events.

Van Buren said that it’s not uncommon for actors to practice improvisation as a part of the rehearsal process months ahead of the actual show.

“We practically practice how to improvise because somebody may forget a line or maybe forget a prop, so you have to be able to specifically improvise around it to get the next part of the set,” Van Buren said. “It all comes with practice.

While practice adds confidence, the actors have their own techniques to get over nervousness  right before the show.

“On the day of show I’m thinking like everything has to be perfect, like I choose specifically what clothes I’m going to wear to the theater,” Wills shared. “Me and my casting mates for this show (Eurydice), we were literally right backstage like a minute away from starting up, and we’re hovering around doing jumping jacks and trying to get all the nerves out before we leave.”

Actors share that, although they are told to carry on the show regardless of the reactions of the audience, they do enjoy performing when the audience is more responsive.

“We feed off of that – we see how they’re responding to what we’re doing because you do the show for so long in rehearsal with nobody in the room except for the director and like a couple of other people,” Johnston said. “The first time that you do the show with a full house – oh man it’s so rewarding because of audiences that laugh – so we want people to be expressive when they’re watching us.”

While the audience feedback is an essential part of their improvement, the actors unanimously agree that at the end of the day it is the director’s opinion that really helps them evaluate the quality of their performance.

“Then again the most rewarding thing as an actor is thinking, ‘Oh, man, that was good because people share they made a personal connection to something in their life,’ or ‘Hey, this part really made me think about this,’” said Johnston.“When they share deeper meanings like that – those are times where I think, ‘Well, that was a good show.’”

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