The development of a character is something which occurs over time. There is no set approach for an actor who is attempting to discover a character; however if good circumstances are created for the work involved then the search is likely to be fruitful.
Character work is often stimulated by text: clearly having someone else's words in your mouth will lead you directly to how someone will think and behave. But what happens when you don't have a set text or when characters in the text have very little to say?
Here we are obliged to improvise actions, situations and relationships in order to unearth who the characters are and where they belong in the world. To this end clothes, shoes, hats and all kinds of personal objects that are potentially significant are constantly available during rehearsals. This would also be the case when someone has considerable text to carry. As Beryl Reid always said "I find my character when I have the shoes". Improvisation away from, and around the character will provide the reservoir of ideas which an actor can call on to bring a character alive in any situation.
Often students are at ease with creating a character psychologically. So while they respond to hot seating questions and are in tune with their character's thoughts and attitudes they are less secure about their physical being. They end up walking, moving and talking like themselves.
The following exercise comes from the Lecoq School, in Paris, where characters are explored primarily through the way they move. If a character is really working they can be received and understood by an audience without the need for spoken text.
The preparation for this exercise can be given as homework as it takes some time, though it should be fun.
1. Get your students to think of the name, age and occupation of a character. A character who could exist in the present day and in this country. Also, ask them to think of three adjectives that describe their character, for example scary, practical and insecure.
2. Ask the students to find a costume for their characters either by raiding their friends' and family's wardrobes or by visiting jumble sales.
3. Arrange a session where your students can arrive in costume and in character. Stand in a circle and introduce all the characters to each other. Then begin work on their physicality as a way to find out more.
4. Ask your students to walk as neutrally as possible in the space. It may be that the costume they have chosen already influences them about the way their character moves.
5. Then starting with the feet and working up to the head, lead your students through an exploration of how their character could move.
Some things to consider could be:
> The distance between their feet.
> The length of their stride.
> Whether their feet are parallel or turned in or out.
> If they walk with the weight on the front or back of their feet?
> Which part of their body they lead with? Head, stomach, chest.
> If they give the impression of being pushed/pulled from the back or front?
> Whether they roll their hips.
> If they seem to defy gravity or are prey to it.
> If they resemble a particular animal.
Get your students to explore and experience all of the options but especially the sensation of changing the usual way they move their body. Get them to explore and then to decide on the particular way that their character moves.
Urge the students to be bold and definite with their physicalisations. These can always be toned down later but it's important to feel a physical transformation.
> Developing devising skills
1. Use these characters in simple improvisations.
2. Set up a simple situation which could be 'waiting at the doctor's surgery' or 'arriving at the cinema and finding a seat'. These are good situations because they are often silent and involve simple interactions with other characters. They provide a way of looking at the creation of a physical text.
3. Set up a simple space with chairs and perhaps simple props and get a group of students to improvise the situation.
Ask the students watching these improvisations to discuss the different characters they have seen. How does the physicality of a character inform an audience about their emotional state, occupation or status?
Working from text
For example, Complicite have used a wide variety of inspirations for their devised shows. Put it on Your Head, an early show about the British at the seaside, was inspired by a cache of flowery bathing hats found at Brick Lane market. However, more recently the Company has used substantial texts to devise from: Bruno Schulz's short stories, Daniil Kharms's poems, plays and stories, and novels by John Berger and Torgny Lindgren.
How do you begin to transpose these texts into images, sequences or scenes?
An A level student spoke of not having any stimulus. Their teacher loudly disagreed: 'We gave you so much stimulus, so many books and sources'. The student replied ‘Yes, but it was all too intellectual, we didn't get what you wanted us to do with it'.
So it seems that the ability to access the stimulus, to be able to understand and be inspired by it is central to devising.
The first step is for a group to understand a piece of text, then to agree what it means, what the important events are, and what things they like about the text.
For devised work Complicite usually employs a writer who will work on the text before the rehearsals begin. This work often involves dividing a text up into events that the actors can begin to work with. The writer is involved at every stage of the rehearsal process and gradually develops a script from improvisations.
The following exercise in rehearsals can be used to unravel and understand sections of text. If a few different pairs or groups do the exercise it is interesting to compare how different interpretations can be.
1. Divide your students into pairs and ask them to read carefully through the chosen text.
2. Get them to describe the text in ten distinct moments or sentences and to write their ten moments down.
3. Ask the students to read out their moments to the rest of the group and then compare the different versions of the story.
This was an exercise we did in pairs during the exploratory workshop for The Chairs in 1997. We chose a particularly confusing piece of text from the play, but you can apply the exercise to the texts that your students are using.
The choices that we made showed slightly different emphases. One pair chose to tell the emotional journey through the section, whereas another chose to tell the physical story. This variance is important to recognise because stories exist on different levels simultaneously. Each section of text has a physical or spatial journey, a rhythmic journey, and an emotional journey for each of the characters.
Different ideas may or may not work but are always worth exploring. The crucial thing is not to make decisions too early on, but to play with all the possibilities. By keeping an open mind we keep the piece as open as possible. This will keep it alive.
> Developing devising skills
1. Get the students to prepare a short scene which uses the ten moments they have prepared.
2. Be strict about getting them to show exactly what they have written.
These may be bare sketches but can be used to compare the different ways of approaching the story.
> What are the different emphases?
> Do some versions have a greater sense of emotion?
> Do others tell the physical story more clearly?
> Do you begin to get a greater sense of what is needed to tell this story fully?
Roles within the group
When your students begin to work together on the devising process they will naturally gravitate towards different roles. Some students may be active and positive performers - comfortable and happy improvising, others may prefer research, directing or writing. It is a shame that within many examination frameworks students are marked on their final performances. This goes against the nature of most theatre where leading roles naturally emerge with their supporting characters or chorus.
Most professional theatre practitioners admit that equality in the devising process simply doesn't exist. John Fox of Welfare State writes about the inevitable arrival of complex bureaucracy when working on big projects and also the need for a leader; one person who is ultimately responsible.
It may be useful for your students to define the different roles that need to be filled, and to get them to take responsibility for different aspects of the process.
The creative environment
Part of the pleasure of rehearsals is seeing a room transform from a bare space into a chaotic jumble of costumes, pictures and books. Finally, sift out what is needed, mark out the space and gradually a show will emerge.
In a school setting students are often sharing a space and have to set up for each session. If it is possible help each group find some space which can be theirs for the duration of the devising process to gather all their material together. Stick visual influences on walls, gather props and costumes and keep a file of written material. This ensures that valuable sources are accessible for the group to dip into whenever necessary. It can also help to stimulate individual notebooks.
Encourage them to create visual material: collages, paintings, sketches or even junk sculptures which can help to refine ideas about the look of a theatre piece, the space it will inhabit, atmosphere, colours and weight. These sources can be used directly in exercises but also for students to read and leaf through during breaks. It is a way of helping a whole company to absorb a visual aesthetic or historical information.
A level students often talk of 'faking' their individual notebooks. It is not wrong to put notes together for presentation in retrospect, but it is important to keep detailed records as the work is happening. This is part of the ongoing research and exploration, and helps a group to define, structure and assess their devising process as it is happening.
If possible use video or stills cameras to record improvisations, or get students to take turns at keeping detailed notes and sketches. Writing notes in retrospect is much less useful, so encourage notetaking while discussions and improvisations are actually happening. These notes can become a detailed group record to be accessed by all the students.
Reading aloud as a group
Reading written material aloud is an important way of sharing ideas and telling stories. Individual research can only help if a group is good at sharing and disseminating information. It is clear from Complicite rehearsals that the most powerful research is that which can be experienced and explored as a group. It is crucial that the group has a shared understanding of the central themes and images to be used.
If your students enjoy creative writing they could write pieces of poetry, prose or reminiscences. Get them to read these aloud to each other and see which elements are amusing or touching. These may be useful as provocations for scenes. This is much more potent than simply reading silently.
Choosing a subject
It’s crucial that your students find a rich seam to mine; a theme, subject or inspiration that they are all interested in. The subject matter should lead them naturally to the appropriate style and form of expression. Allow for surprises, for changes of direction and reject things that aren't functioning.
It is important to choose a subject or theme quickly: to make the decision and get on with the work. It is like choosing a site for an archaeological dig. The decision of where to dig is based on a hunch; an idea that is informed by the immediate surroundings. When you start digging you will always find something. It may not be what you expected, but with patience something will emerge. Stick with the site. Stay with your initial choice of subject matter.
Deciding a subject matter - a starting point - is something that every artist struggles with. Sometimes the discovery is effortless and easy, at other times the brain feels empty of inspiration. Ultimately we must trust that ideas and ways forward will arrive.
Exploring a subject
When your students have decided on a subject get them to write all their ideas down on a huge piece of paper. Brainstorm as wildly and widely as possible and get them to uncover what needs to be researched and where the information can be found.
Get them to visit art galleries and museums, to watch films, listen to music and gather images, pieces of text and books. Find ways of sharing the research. For example, each student could bring an appropriate object, image or piece of text for the group to explore. Get each student to devise and lead a short improvisation exercise to help explore what they have found. Keep these explorations short to move quickly from one inspiration to another. Giving strict time limits and tightly defined tasks will show results quickly and help students to decide which areas of the exploration are particularly inspiring.
It is important to remember that each piece of research and the improvisation made in response is not the finished product. This early research is about giving all the performers a shared, practical understanding of the subject matter.
‘We looked at biographical material and at his drawings. The Book of Idolatry (Schulz's collection of drawings) was very useful because we could see our characters in it. Maybe not specifically but you could see that a person in a drawing was very much like Uncle Charles for example. It's something that you relate to or inspires you. Rae Smith the designer drew us in rehearsals and the drawings would be put on the walls for visual reference. We looked at books from the period, other artists work. We found art connected to him and that world of Eastern Europe. We had a whole bundle of research material to nourish our minds. The more you can immerse yourself in the piece the better. It's always important to research the background to the piece whether it's text based or not.’ Clive Mendus. Street of Crocodiles.
It doesn’t matter where you begin. Anything can be a starting point in theatre – a gesture, an idea, a song, a line of dialogue.
What matters is the next step – how to find the opposing force, the conflict, the tension. If someone is sitting in a chair, the scene, the act, the play will be about how to get them out of the chair. What force, what cajoling, what entreaties, what seductions, what bribes are strong enough to get that person out of that chair?
When I worked with playwrights in Uganda I started by asking about their social rituals which are complex and deep-rooted. They described rituals of birth, marriage and burial to me in great detail. I then asked them to think of a force so strong it could disrupt the ritual in question. So the gourd containing the wine which celebrated an engagement leaked; the only relative whose presence was essential to bury the body failed to turn up; the newly circumcised young man was subjected to unbearable pain which shamed his family forever in revenge for something which had happened ten years before. Seventeen new plays emerged from this process.
Once the oppositional force is established, theatre begins. The audience want to know what will happen and why. The question ‘what will happen?’ will engage them while the performance is in progress. The question ‘why did it happen?’ will engage them long afterwards. Stephen Jeffreys, playwright
Gathering the material together
Inevitably after a period of intensive exploration and research the group will have created a lot of fragments, scenes and characters. There will be far too much material. The job of devising now involves categorising the material, linking elements together and giving them titles.
Students don't necessarily have to think about structure yet, but need to consider putting two things together. For example, if you look at a photograph of a neutral face next to a photograph of a bowl of soup, you will almost certainly see 'hunger'. As students juxtapose fragments of work, stories will emerge naturally.
Begin to get your students to define which elements are strongest and most interesting, which explorations are no longer necessary. Can they see a clearer direction unfolding?
In any devising process there needs to be an overview of the whole process and what needs to be accomplished at each stage. As Steve Canny writes, the final structuring of a piece of theatre is difficult to pin down but the crucial element is experimentation. Trying scenes in various ways and orders. This is impossible if you haven't improvised and created scenes in the early stages of the process. The worst thing you can do with devised theatre is to structure everything before you start playing and improvising.
This was an exercise used for Out of a house walked a man... to try and put a short cabaret style sequence of 'sluchai' (stories and sketches) into an order. When we had discussed and combined our choices we were ready to improvise our way through whole sequences and see what worked.
1. Get each group of students to give every image and scene that they have created a title.
2. Divide them into pairs or threes, and ask them to put these scenes into some kind of order.
3. They must decide which scenes do not fit into their version and also outline where they can see obvious gaps.
4. Then in their groups of two or three get them to present their proposal to other students in the group.
5. Where are the points of contact between the various proposals and what are the differences? Are there any exciting new ideas, or unusual ways of approaching the material ?
6. Get the group to improvise their way through some of the proposals. Get the students watching to note which sequences work and which don't. In this way the students will begin to structure and consolidate the pieces.
When your students have a proposition - a first draft of their piece of devised theatre - they are ready to attempt a run through in front of an audience. This is really where a piece of theatre is born: where the real work begins. It is only when the students perform their piece for real that they will feel what is functioning and what is not. After they have shown their work they can listen to the feedback and respond by re-structuring and re-shaping the work. They may decide to resurrect scenes that had been cut, or feel the need to create new scenes.
Students should give themselves a deadline for when the first presentation will happen. A deadline which gives them enough time to re-work a piece in detail.
Write a Reflection Essay on each section, answering the questions, suggesting your exercises and approaches to devising performance with ensemble.
The Director’s Craft: A Handbook for the Theatre (Chapter 10 p 141-168)
Deadline: August 27