Unlocking Your Multi-Dimensional Character
Discoveries in preparing for a role.
Published for Newsletter: May 15th, 2023 11:00 AM
It was 8:30am I was walking into my acting class and I was just about to find out how little I knew about my character. I was scheduled that day to work on a scene with my scene partner Analise Scarpaci in the play Machinal by Sophie Treadwell. I went through all the steps necessary; the given circumstances, the objective, I read the script, kind of, like twice. I felt ready.
I was playing First Man and Analise was playing Young Woman. Our scene was going according to plan, it was well rehearsed, we did fine, but I was feeling stale. Our teacher stopped us, and through his intuitive ability, found out my problem. He asked me question after question about my character’s past life that I just did not know the answer to. Questions that could have been directly answered from the script and were painfully obvious. I stood there feeling like an idiot as I received my notes. I thought I had done the work, but my work was only surface compared to what could have offered me the insight and deep emotional truth of the character.
A set of skills that took me a long time to develop and still continue to develop as we speak. Now every time I enter a rehearsal space I try my best to be as ready as I can with as much foundational knowledge of the character as possible, because that stale feeling isn’t one I would like to return to. That feeling was a subconscious lack of awareness to the world of the character, and it took away my ability to find life and play within the circumstances of the script.
To help anyone else who might have felt similarly in their work, here I’ll be guiding you through my first couple of actions when a script is placed into my hands (more likely your email inbox), inspire you to feel autonomy in your own work and take responsibility for your character, offer you resources, and lastly, insights into how I research on a tight schedule.
But before our preparation begins, let’s zoom out and ask WHY?
Character work as a divine responsibility.
Why is it that you want to act? Is it because you want to be a storyteller?
Because there’s a message you are aching to share?
There’s a character only explorable in the realm of acting?
If you want to share anything with the audience you first need to understand what it is that you are sharing.
I’ll be talking about my beliefs in acting frequently here so take this only as it serves you.
I believe that when you are cast, you are cast for a reason. There’s a divine energy, a spirit, that asks permission to be apart of your journey, and at this specific time you are ready to embody this soul. Humanity is aching to be seen and heard, and these characters want the same gift that they might have missed in life. You have the ability to bring them to life again to allow them to be seen, to tell a story.
This creates a responsibility. A relationship is formed with your character. A curiosity takes hold and the only option is to explore, and envelop yourself and the character in empathy. This is my experience.
Do everything in your power to help this person who has called on YOU to tell their story, because I truly believe that as actors we have a divine responsibility to heal our world, our universe, and that includes these souls through the art and the gift that we do.
Unfortunately we can’t live FULLY in this spiritual world, we still have day jobs, money to make and a capitalist world we have to navigate. So let’s of course include a grounding and head into the logical conversation.
Some of you might be saying, “that’s all fine and good, but I work a 9-5” , “have kids” , “my grandmother needs me that day I’ll be busy.” It’s hard to find the time, but I believe that most of you have more time than you think you do. “All tedious research is worth one inspired moment.” -Uta Hagen.
You are going to have to make your own schedule. I don’t know yours so I can’t walk you through this in writing, so I’ll just offer the basics of scheduling.
In scheduling, we need to talk about priority.
When you say “I don’t have time.” It’s not true.
Yup, I said it, I want all the angry responses. Have at me!
Alright… feel better? Let’s proceed.
What I mean to say is that you might just have different priorities. That’s alright, you can prioritize family or a relationship and that’s a beautiful thing. But I bet you there are some things that you currently prioritize in your life that are taking up valuable time and energy. Time that could be used in building something life changing. LIKE ACTING! (I’m biased)
So if Acting is a priority to you, and you don’t feel like you have the time, you might need to look at what you are willing to get rid of.
Don’t just go throwing random responsibilities out the window, really understand what you are giving up and why.
But at the end of the day you HAVE to show up ready in the rehearsal room, even if you have that 9-5, or else you’ll be missing out on so much joy that you could get from this craft.
So, first, write down everything that is non-negotiable to you, and then everything else. What are you able to cut out to make time for this craft?
Now that we’ve made more space, let’s break things up from when you get the script.
I strongly recommend getting that script as early as possible, and everyday reserve at least 45 minutes of focused, deep, and intentional work into the script.
A few hours of intentional work a day will help you build steadily toward your goal. We will use this concept many more times in coming newsletters as I’ll be going into topics like “The 4 hour work week” and habit building.
In the beginning of my process when I receive my script, if I’m short for time, in another project, or working my side job, Just before I go to bed, I like to open up my script and go through its entirety with a pencil close by.
Later on, I’ll find any reading material to lightly study. Something that helps to develop my character, or a greater ability in telling the entire story.
So with the time you have now, map it out. Cut it up into sections.
Let’s say you have one month (30 days or so) until the first rehearsal, and you have 5 scenes and in each scene is 6 sections for you to memorize.
So everyday you schedule working on one section per day. 6x5=30, and your set for the first day of rehearsal! If you feel you can memorize more on one day, then double up, then you’re ahead of the game, and that’ll give you more time to put somewhere else.
If this is something that you want to do as a career, you need to allow that 45 minutes of focused work to become 2 hours, or 4 hours. Let it grow and let it develop in time.
“[…] Improving by 1 percent isn’t particularly notable—sometimes it’s not even noticeable—but it can be far more meaningful, especially in the long run. […] if you get 1 percent better each day for one year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done.” (James Clear, Atomic Habits).
That my friends is the power of compounding!
The Practical Steps of Building your Character.
Now that we have more time let’s fill that time with important work.
When I get a script the very first thing that I do is read the script.
Sorry, it has to be said. Sometimes people come into spaces not having read the script, it’s STILL A THING!
Get a sense of what the story is about, themes to discuss, and flow of the narrative.
Alright, once you read the script, you’re going to read it again. This is important because you’re going to find a lot of things that you didn’t notice the first time.
But while you do this you’re going to get a sheet of paper, or create a document on your computer, and create three sections. At the top of each of the sections you’re going to write:
-WHAT THE AUTHOR SAYS ABOUT ME
-WHAT I ( AS THE CHARACTER) SAY ABOUT MYSELF
-WHAT THE OTHER CHARACTERS SAY ABOUT ME (AS THE CHARACTER)
As you read through the script, mark these down in simple bullets so you can refer back to these throughout the entire process. I believe that this is from Uta Hagen. I know for a fact this next part is.
Next you’re going to read it again. Yup, AGAIN! Get to know this story intimately, because it will only inform you. Then answer these questions for each scene your character is in.
-WHO AM I?
-WHAT TIME IS IT?
-WHAT SURROUNDS ME?
-WHAT ARE THE GIVEN CIRCUMSTANCES?
-WHAT IS MY RELATIONSHIP?
-WHAT DO I WANT?
-WHAT’S IN MY WAY?
-WHAT DO I DO TO GET WHAT I WANT?
Use these in your arsenal of tools to build a solid foundation for your character before you even get into the room.
I also use Ivanna Chubbuck’s 12 step technique to further solidify myself. Some of these are similar to Uta Hagen’s practice, so no need to answer the same question twice.
BEATS AND ACTIONS
PLACE AND FOURTH WALL
LET IT GO
We’ll go into deeper conversations about separate techniques throughout our journey together here. I’d love to study them myself even more and share my findings.
Keep in mind that what you list out will change and grow throughout your rehearsal.
It’s quite a bit of work but I really want you to remember to start small. I give you permission to only read 20 or even 10 pages of a script, or answer one question per day, and to just break it up how you see fit. Your path to reaching your goal will look different every time, with every new character you begin shaping.
One more fundamental step is to study the author. Researching the author informs a deeper understanding and utility in your character’s development. Most importantly how the character fits into the world as a whole and how the character can best be of service to the story.
Those are my own fundamentals, but then after those are complete I sort of do a large batch of different activities to explore my characters. At this point it’s about memorizing your lines, trying different things on, and It’s really a choose your own adventure. And I will also mention that these “fundamentals” are apart of that choose your own adventure. So here’s a quick list of rabbit holes to go down into with your work.
YouTube videos about people like your character.
Researching particular events that my have effected your character.
Travel to a location that reminds you of something similar in the character’s story. Or is a location in the characters realm.
Study more books on acting and explore different ideas in the craft in how to shape your character.
TRY THEM ALL! Why not?
The script will fall into your hands when it will fall into your hands. All I ask is that you begin, you’ll be thanking yourself that you did much later on in the process.
My work continues throughout the entirety of the run. I do not stop researching, or finding out new things about my character until it’s finally time to say goodbye and let go of my character. With all of this work, keep going, remain curious, and continue finding a deeper and greater sense of truth from the soul of your character.
Enjoy The Process!
It’s not just you that will benefit from this amazing work, it’s all those who are in the space with you.
You will be a leader in the space, setting an example to inspire deeper work. Energy inspires energy. When you are right within yourself, you are sharing that powerful inspirational energy with the world.
You’re building trust in the space, trust in the relationship with your character; the understanding of past circumstances, boundary setting, and physical exploration. As well as the trust and confidence of the team of artists you are working with. You have done the work, and you will do everything you can to service this story, and that’s definitely someone that I would want on my team.
People who do the work will book more. There’s much more to booking, of course, but If you’re an actor that shows up to the job ready to go, ready to play, ready to tell the story you will find more work. You’ll find also that most of your work as an actor will come from work that you’ve done before.
So the project you have in your hands right now is the most important project. Enter into the space having achieved the work that you have, even with the small amount of time that you had. You will be able to enter the room confidently, and ready to PLAY! You are ready to offer ideas. Ideas that are solidified in a foundation of understanding the entirety of the story.
I want to be clear. You’re not doing this to network and book more. Of course we all want to continue our work but these are extrinsic motivators. We do the work because it’s THIS story that we are emotionally and empathetically engaging with. Our work toward telling and sharing to others the findings of this engagement.
You as a human being bringing your art into the space can be truly kind, compassionate, empathetic, and constantly delving into the inner work. These practices will grant you the capacity for finding new opportunities in your life, releasing old ones that no longer serve you, and inviting like minded people to create more amazing art with.
The other day we just finished another full run of the show I’m currently in now and we were receiving notes. I didn’t get many. I always get a little uncomfortable when I’m not getting notes, it means I sort of have to be my own eyes and check in on myself, which is always a little tough. It was the second time it happened, so I just wanted to check in and make sure. At my initial ask my director told me “you’re doing good!” and offered me one note about volume and making certain to invite the audience in hearing important key details, especially as there will be music underneath our scene. I appreciated this, took the note, but I wanted to see if I could dig more. I’m always looking for something to improve, guidance to explore further, so I thought of one more question. I asked “but is it honest?” He looked at me, smiled, and responded definitively with, “it is, it really is.” I’ve grown to trust the opinion of this person and when he gave me his answer I felt I could trust him. This is the work that I have done, the actor that I’ve grown into, and many, many, many, bits and pieces of advice from all across the universe.
Now as I step into the role of First Man once again in Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal, I think about my time in college coming into that classroom underprepared, looking for a checkmark. But this time I didn’t just skim the surface and say that’s good enough for the lesson plan. This time my work grew in depth, in height, in width, in breadth. This time my work continues until I say goodbye. This time I have a responsibility to allow this character to be seen in service to the story. It’s another chance to grow as the artist I am as I give my all to this project.
Much love today and every day,
Matt Piper 🐅🌱
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