Theater Info for the Washington DC region

Being In The Background

By • Aug 4th, 2010 • Category: An Actor's Advice

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that because you are playing what they call a “background character” (or a chorus member in a musical) that nobody is going to notice you. Or even that nobody is supposed to notice you. But the fact is you are there for a reason, even if you have no lines during the play. The audience is not only supposed to notice you in the background, they WILL in fact notice you. So pay close attention to what you are doing.

Don’t distract from the main action of the scene of course, but you are always acting. Every time you are on stage you should be in 100% performance mode. This separates okay productions from great productions. When those “silent” ones in the background are alive and vibrant without taking away from the action, the whole experience is improved for the audience.

It is an ironic truth that when actors fail to take this into consideration, one of two things can result, and they are polar opposites. Let’s take a common type of scene requiring characters with no lines appearing in the background: a crowded restaurant scene.

On one distracting extreme, we find actors that represent eating and drinking and conversing in ways that no normal person would adopt. Exaggerated gestures with the utensils. Nodding and chewing to excess to express how good the food is. Tilting a cup to their lips at such lightning speed that the only thing being conveyed is the fact that the prop cup is actually empty. Generally just flailing about wildly at a pace far too fast for dining out.

On the other end of the spectrum, we find actors that are sitting straight as a board at the table, whether or not the scene takes place in a prim and proper location. They move their eyes but not their necks to look around. They are so delicate with their cups, (if they touch them at all) then one would think the entire set would explode if one were dropped. The actors shrink into their background role so that nobody will notice them. Yet the opposite effect is true; they end up being just as distracting as those who flail about.

The cure for both “background syndromes” is to remember to always be acting. Don’t ever phone it in, even in the background. This means having a knowledge of the entire scene in which you appear. It means knowing you character’s traits, if he ever appears in the script. And if he does not, it means making someone up, with his own motivations and ticks. Accept the boundaries of the scene, but let your imagination soar. Breathe life into your background part. This should be fun.

Once you have decided who you are in the scene, slow down and think about what eating a meal is like. How do people hold their cups? Does everybody sitting at one table behave in a certain way? What about the character you are playing? Again, do they appear in the script and gives clues that you can use about their habits? Or are you playing an anonymous role with no lines? These questions must be answered by the serious actor, because one cannot just nod and “peas and carrots” one’s way through the scene. Nor can one stand there like a cardboard cutout waiting for a bus, afraid to move or show a facial expression.

People notice what happens in the background. It is not a time for you to take a break from acting. It isn’t a time to kick back and say, “Look, I’m screwing around,” or “Hey mom, I’m on stage!” It’s a time to perform, just as much as it would be if you had the lead. If being the lead is the only thing that motivates you to take your acting seriously, you don’t deserve to be in a lead.

I know I would never cast you in any of my plays.

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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 (for theatre related thoughts) and (for thoughts on personal success from an outcast). Follow him on Twitter @TyUnglebower.

One Response »

  1. Ah, something I needed to hear. I agree with you but you also can’t deny that background characters obviously contribute less thean leads. If people think they always need to contribute a lot in order to have fun.. your right . It’s not for them. Thanks for the reminder!