What Questions Should I Ask About My Character?

For the blog readers, I’m skipping ahead a bit, and there are some upcoming posts that will help fill in whatever gaps may be in this post.  For my current students, however, this is a direct follow-up to something we talked about in class tonight:

woman readingYou asked, Davina, how you learn how to ask the sort of questions that I ask each of you after your presentations.  In addition to what I told you in class, there is also the matter of practicing.  I spent much of my childhood reading every play I could get my hands on, acting them out, and trying to figure out what made the characters tick.  This personal effort goes hand in hand with the exposure I suggested is the only real way to learn script analysis.  Do it enough and over time, you’ll slowly get better at it.

But there is a little more to be said.  You don’t have to ask the same kinds of questions for each character you ever play.  This is one reason why the lists of questions that you’ll typically see in script analysis textbooks isn’t particularly useful.

There is a school of thought that you ought to be able to write a comprehensive autobiography for your character. His favorite color, favorite food, number of siblings and relationships with them, what he studied in college, etc.  I know actors who do this faithfully and who seem to get something out of it.  More power to them!

For me, this is tedious work, but I have two bigger objections to it.  First, I probably don’t know the answers to many of these questions until I am deep into rehearsals, at which point writing it down doesn’t matter.  At least, it doesn’t if I correctly understand the purpose of these autobiographies as being to help me to figure out who my character is so I can play her correctly.

The second reason I object to it is that coming up with some of these answers is a waste of time.  They matter only if the answers impact the character in some way during the course of the play.  In most plays, your favorite color or food won’t make any difference.  Your relationship with your brother may only matter in some plays.  What you studied in college or which college you went to may not matter, but whether or not you went to college might.  Whether or not you graduated might.  Or might not, depending on the play.

question-mark1So I asked Anne a lot more questions about Dora’s background than I ask about many characters, because the answers all have an impact on who she is today, how she raised Alan, and how she is choosing to deal with this situation.  It’s difficult to get an accurate picture of her without it or to understand what underlies her scenes, but by answering them all, you can start to paint a clear and cohesive portrait of this woman.

For Jamile and the Dinner with Friends monologue, I focused on how Tom feels about his wife, Beth.  All of the background issues I asked Anne aren’t going to have a lot of impact on Tom’s monologue.

For all of the characters in Agnes of God, I have talked about their relationships with God, religion, and the Catholic Church.  The question of God is also critical for many of the characters in Equus.

So what questions you ask have in part to do with the nature of the play and what it is about.  When you understand that the three characters in Agnes of God are three different representations of Christianity, you start to understand what you need to do with the play.  When you understand that Dinner with Friends is about marriage and friendship, it narrows down what you need to focus on.

As you’ll see in the coming weeks, the questions that I ask about Months on End, A Lesson Before Dying, and Norma and Wanda will be different still, but will be directly related to what the plays are about and what happens to the characters.

So how do you know to ask for details about all the aspects of Dora’s family life both in childhood and in marriage, but that you don’t need to ask for them in Months on End?

This is the tricky part.  Knowing the answer is part of what acting talent is all about.  Being naturally gifted in this department is one of the reasons I had a realistic chance of making it as a professional actress, just as instinctively understanding that drawing is a function of light vs. dark, rather than distinct shapes made up of both, is part of what makes someone a talented artist.  I’ve spent considerable time puzzling over how to help you learn to do what comes so naturally to me.

Which is why I don’t think it can be taught in a formal way, but can only be internalized through repetition and experience.  We all connect the dots in different ways, and no one else can successfully identify how your brain works in this regard.  You open yourself up to the possibilities by gradually eliminating your preconceptions and learning to trust your instincts.  There are ways to actively do those two things; beyond that, you have to just keep doing the work and trust that time will take care of it.  You’re a human being, and human beings have some pretty good instincts about what it means to be human.  It’s just a matter of learning how to interpret those instincts as an actor.

I’ll have more to say about this, including some hints about what to pay attention to, when we get more deeply into script analysis.  But there is so much else to talk about before we get to that point!


2 thoughts on “What Questions Should I Ask About My Character?

  1. Thanks Jeanne for answering my question. When I read through a play myself I come up with minimal answers compared to the thoughts you have in class.

    • As I contemplate this, Davina, I think that the primary difficulty is that we are never taught in school how to think in this fashion, how to explore the “whys” of life. Rote answers that can be used in multiple choice questions is more the order of the day. This means it requires a fairly big shift in terms of perspective and what you notice.

      It comes naturally to me, I think, simply because I am inordinately curious. “Why” is the questions that drives me as a human being in my daily life. As a result, using that technique in acting is like breathing for me.

      Once you start to make the shift to open-ended wondering rather than categorizing and pigeon-holing, you’ll start to get the hang of it. I promise.

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