Dying on StageBy Ty Unglebower • Feb 3rd, 2010 • Category: An Actor's Advice
There are all kinds of ways for a person to die. Morbid but true. This means there are many ways in which a character in a play may die, thus necessitating an actor to perform various types of death scenes throughout his career.
Many actors seem to find a death scene to be the most difficult, and hence what is supposed to be among the most important moments in a character’s appearance turns out to be one of the phoniest looking to an audience.
It doesn’t have to be this way, if one simple yet elusive concept is held in mind.
But first, let us disqualify certain types of death scenes. Instant ones. Gunshots to the back of the head provide a need for acrobatics, and believable stunts as one falls to the stage. Not so much nuanced acting. We will also ignore comic deaths, such as those in a farce.
Instead, let us concentrate on slower, realistic deaths. This still leaves a wide range of possibilities. Stabbings, stranglings, poisonings, suffocation. You can fill in the gruesome blank as you will. But we need not examine each of these types of stage deaths in order to expound upon some advise for the actor portraying them. As I said, there are universal faults and a universal solution to “death problem” for the actor.
The problem is, most see it as a death scene. Even I have referred to it as such. Yet this is backwards. This puts the emphasis on the death. But a scene in which a character dies is actually a life scene. The final life scene that this character will ever have. Look at it in this fashion and you automatically interpret it differently.
You then begin to play the scene as someone who is trying to live, not trying to die. You begin to consider how a person may cling to life. What might they see, or think, or try to do as life drains out of them? Do they think there is a chance for them to survive this? Do they know it is the end? What do they think of the end? Do they accept it? Are they scared? At peace? Resigned? When playing a character who is alive, each of these mental states represents something quite different to an actor. Yet something about a death scene causes many an actor, (professionals as well as amateurs) to throw human complexity out of the window, and just play “dying.” As though the very concept is as singular as coughing or snapping one’s fingers.
Keep the character alive as long as you can. Don’t accept some arbitrary point at which you drop him out of existence. Motivate the moments leading up to death, and the moment of death just as you would any other moment during a play. The truly creative actor will even portray a character’s response to their glimpses of the next world, if the character would have one.
The way the body moves, what noises it may make, and the duration of the death will depend in large part on which of the many ways to die is being presented. But within those many variations, the concept of a death being the last act of a life should always remain in focus for the actor.
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Ty Unglebower is a Maryland native and has been acting for nine years, having studied it at Marietta College in Ohio. He has been schooled in Shakespeare, improvisation, public speaking and voice articulation throughout his career. His credits to date include over 30 plays and readings as well as 2 films. You can also read his blogs offbook.blogspot.com (for theatre related thoughts) and tooxyz.blogspot.com (for thoughts on personal success from an outcast). Follow him on Twitter @TyUnglebower.