Researching Your CharacterBy Ty Unglebower • Sep 15th, 2010 • Category: An Actor's Advice
The purpose of research is to give a certain degree of authority to the character you are playing. Those that take the craft seriously really have no reason to refrain from some research. Especially if that research on the part of the actor will add depth and color to the character being portrayed.
Understanding the basics of how a certain occupation works can help you play a character who makes their living in that fashion. Some brief perusals of pictures of and a few articles about a city to which you have not been will give more depth to a character who hails from that location. (Especially if that character makes any speeches about said location.) And we can all tell when someone is delivering a line which references something the actor doesn’t understand or have any knowledge of.
Research therefore, whether it is into a relevant historical figure, a place, an event, or even something as simple as a recipe is an essential tool for the serious actor. And often in ways that the audience will not consciously understand. You could get away with delivering a detailed speech that heaps praises upon the beauty of Aruba even if you have not so much as seen a picture of the place. Few people in the audience would know. But given how easy it is these days to familiarize yourself with such things, opting not to is rather lazy.
Plus, having an actual image to work from during your scene will in fact present a polish to your performance that can only be defined specifically in your head, but will have an impact on those who are watching you. Nuances that are very difficult if not impossible to fake on stage, those tiny details in a performance which separate good from great, often come about due to the extra research an actor undertakes in preparation for a role.
I don’t mean to suggest that every single role one ever gets requires hours of time online or in the library. Truth be told, some roles do not require much research at all. But when you are cast as a character that is in some way defined by something with which you are not familiar, (or even if just a single scene is defined by such), your first job should be to get familiar with said things as early in the rehearsal process as possible, so the rest of your decisions can be informed by that extra knowledge. Despite what many of them think, rare is the playwright that can provide all that is needed in this regard through the script alone.
Research of course has its limits. Plays being fiction, actors cannot expect to attain 100% authenticity, 100% of the time. But they can obtain 100% believability, (note the difference). So long as they are not paralyzed by all of the extra information (which can happen when an actor tries to incorporate everything they learn into a performance), the actor not only enhances his character, but his professional esteem by taking the extra time to conduct a little but of research into character related things outside of the rehearsal process.
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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.