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Playing A Character Outside Your Character

By • Jul 7th, 2010 • Category: An Actor's Advice

When acting, one must try at all times to not “break character.” That is to say we must never reveal our actual selves in full to the audience while we are on stage. It is a common problem with people who are new to acting. (As well as those who are not new, but are not worried about being any good at it.)

Less is said about its cousin; a corollary problem that is just as common, and just as stifling to the evolution of one’s craft. I call it “self interference.”

Self interference is when something about who we are as people interferes with our ability to give our best to a role. Examples include opting not to use swear words when in character, because you don’t actually use them; a teetotaler refusing to perform the illusion that he is consuming alcohol; someone refusing to kiss another actor because they are “committed only to kissing my spouse for life;” Christians who refuse to portray characters of another faith in the midst of worship.

The list goes on and on. As a person, to an extent I admire the convictions of such people. But as an actor I think it is more than a little cowardly.

True, I advocate always being aware while on stage that one is an actor. I am against losing all consciousness of self when on stage, as that invites a loss of control over the performance. But to have such obstinate awareness of one’s regular life that any character one portrays must conform to certain standards, (even if an alteration of the script is required) shows little commitment to the art of acting, and little respect for others involved.

With intense research I suppose one could find plays that contain only characters that did not behave in ways that conflicted with one’s morals. But just how deep into the art of creating a story can one get if one is merely playing characters that remind one of himself? There is a little bit of Ty in every role I take on, but if all my characters thought exactly as Ty does, I’d have never played anything.

Every actor has a range of course. They have types of characters or plays they can or cannot do. Or they simply have preferences. I respect that. I share that. But if an actor’s range is dictated not by his talent, but is in fact limited to characters and plays that only portray things with which he personally agrees, his chances to act are going to be very limited.

Theatre is story telling. It is a mirror held up to the human experience, and the human experience, as any adult can tell you, is not made up exclusively of those who will behave as we would. So if we wish to truly become master at the craft of acting, we must be willing to portray acts, while in character, that we ourselves would not commit. This means portraying drunkenness even if you never drink. It means being willing to kiss other actors on the mouth even if you are married. It means being willing to enact a staged murder. (Though oddly enough, many of the people I have worked with that object to portraying other acts on stage don’t generally shun the idea of pretending to kill someone…)

It is a role. It is acting. It is bringing to life, through your talents, a character whose skeleton was written by the playwright. You are no more abandoning your religion or being a “slut” by doing so on stage than you are legally changing your name to your character’s name when performing. Therefore commit to everything there is about a character, and in so doing commit totally to a performance, regardless. That is the mark of a professional.

If you can’t do it, please don’t ask directors or other actors to compensate for it. Respect the craft enough to steer clear of those roles that require actions you personally find problematic. But don’t expect to evolve much as an actor if you do so.

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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.

5 Responses »

  1. Bravo Ty no truer words have been written. I can’t stand those actors that won’t give themselves 100% to their role. I say, if you can’t act the character as written by the playwright, if you can’t do what is called for of the charcter, then don’t audition for the role, and for crying out load don’t ask any director to modify the script because of your whims. Great artile Ty, I’m sure you will get lots of feedback from this one. Thanks for posting.

  2. Damn Ty Im starting to agree more and more with what you write . Although I am of the David Mamet school of thought when it comes to “character” but thats a another discussion.

    Any actor who takes a part needs to conform their actions to the script. If they dont they should get out of the business. And if they were an actor in a show I was directing that would be quick as I would fire them.

  3. Thanks David. And although altering a script is sometimes alright for certain pieces in regards to vision. (Shakespeare and such), it really shouldn’t be done because one objects to portraying something their character will do.

    I have been in shows with such people though. On the community level I think it is common. I think it is equally common for directors on the community level to let it happen. But I would hope that in the future community directors would at least make it clear at auditions that certain actions will be required by ANYONE cast in a role. (And in fact one company for which I have performed always mentions when there will be kissing and such on the audition sheet.)

  4. Hey Bill, Can I come be in a show you are directing. From all of your previous posts you sound like the style of director I want to work with. Seems some directors just don’t get it.

  5. David , If you want to come in a audition sometime send a headshot and resume to my attention at :

    American Century Theater
    2700 South Lang Street
    Arlington, VA 22206-3106
    (703) 998-4555