Q: How should the actor address working on material that is, for lack of a better phrase, “not great”?
People often say that art is subjective. This is, of course, true, that two people are going to have their own personal interpretations when looking at the same piece. But there are also standards and principles that make something art. In the craft of acting, the artist is her own instrument. You are, in essence, playing yourself. While playing yourself, you are informed by the writing and the directing and the cast around you. How can you stay inspired when the principles of what makes art are not in play?
Stanislavski has a great quote in the Action chapter of An Actor Prepares: “Of course if you cannot or will not light a spark inside yourself, I have nothing more to say”. But, his students were working on OTHELLO. So, the question here is, how do we ‘light a spark’ within ourselves consistently, if the material isn’t naturally inspiring?
For example, what if you are given a role that is essentially written as a stereotype? Stereotyping is under scrutiny now, thankfully, but it is still quite prevalent. There are unconscious ways that we have grouped cultures and social classes, and defined gender, that are broad and general, and have nothing to do with the beating hearts and striving souls of human beings. We see this vapid representation all the time, generally because there aren’t enough diverse perspectives writing the scripts. So, if you get a character drawn with very broad strokes, in a story that doesn’t feel viable, what can you do?
As an actor, I think you want to say yes to opportunity to work when you can. If the situation is degrading in any way, no. But if there is a way to find a way in, I want you to act! Here are some ways you can make the role interesting to you.
The first step in great acting, in my estimation, is personalizing.
– Your character definitely has a story arc, with a beginning middle and end. Define that. Then put yourself in their shoes. The great news about an underdeveloped script is that there is more room for you to be inventive! Why are you going on this journey? If the clues aren’t in the script, you get to find the answers on your own. So. if you were taking this walk through life as defined by your character’s journey, why would you be doing that?
– Put yourself in the characters circumstances and ask the first question, if I were this character in the moment, how would I feel? What would I do? Why would I behave this way? This should start to stimulate something. If the character is behaving in a way you don’t understand, then it’s more of a challenge to answer the question. Find the answer anyway.
– What is interesting to me about this character’s journey? Find something interesting to you.
– You can find all the ways you are alike and all the ways you aren’t alike. Maybe the list of not alike is long, but that will give you more room to create motivations to behave the way the character does.
– You can make a list of all the things you say about yourself in the script, all the things the other characters say about you, and all the thing that the author says about you. Sometimes just getting those characteristics in front of you can spark the imagination.
– Create a backstory for your character, in the first person.
– If the dialogue isn’t moving, create subtext. She talks the way she talks for a reason. What is it? What’s really going on with you?
– If your character doesn’t have much to do, ask yourself where you were before you came into the scene. Give yourself something interesting to inform the moment. This will raise the stakes of what you do and create a complexity that will be more interesting for you to play.
– If your character is behaving in a stereotypical way, let that go. She is saying something, you humanize it in a way that is interesting to yourself. Find a personal way to motivate it. The words we say are an extension and expression of an inner life. You create that. You can make that as interesting and as complex as you want. Then say the words from there. If the character is one dimensional, you get to fill in the other dimensions. Don’t shrink yourself to fit into a role that isn’t written as a full human being. Use your creative imagination to fill in all the blanks, so the character is fully lived.
This is the actor’s job, anyway. No matter how good the writing is, if film, TV and theatre were just about the writing, the writer could just sit on a stage and read it. The script is nothing without the actor. The actor humanizes the characters and brings them to life. Some writing will be more challenging than other writing, and for different reasons. But you always have the job to personalize it, and your creativity is your superpower.
Please send your specific questions about the art of acting to [email protected] and Kymberly will respond to a different question each week! There are no invalid questions, as long as they pertain to your craft and life as an actor.
Kymberly Harris is an actor’s director. She specializes in character-driven stories, whether the genre is drama, comedy, thriller, or action. Her extensive experience as a method acting coach to professional actors of all ages has led actors to seek her out to direct them towards their best performances in film, television, and theatre projects.