Bill Smith 6/8/99
"Congratulations, you've got the part. Here's your
script. Rehearsals start on Monday at 8:00 AM, sharp." NOW WHAT??? What
are your responsibilities in preparing for the role? How should you go
about studying your script?
Stage directors expect familiarity with the text,
but memorization is not the first order of business. Film directors
need you to be "off book," so plan on memorizing your lines -- whether
from a side or the full screenplay. By the first meeting, both
film and stage directors want you to come in with a strong sense of
your character's psychological and emotional makeup, and a range of
choices in how to perform the role. Clearly, you need to spend
considerable time reading and analyzing your character's text and
actions in relation to other characters and the script as a whole.
Character analysis is a method of assessing textual
information about your character -- one designed to help you make
intelligent and intuitive acting choices. Character analysis also comes
into play at cold reading auditions. We'll assume, however, that
your goal is either to prepare an audition piece, or develop a
character for produced project (film, play, commercial or industrial.)
Your first task is to read the entire script from
cover to cover. One mistake many actors make is to read
thoroughly the scenes in which they appear and merely skim through
scenes in which they are absent. Ultimately, every actor must
appreciate that a character is a single element of the script, and you
do injury to the play, the cast and the production by concentrating
only on your "turf." Explore how you character relates to all the
other characters, to the environment and to the issues and conflicts of
the play. Keep in mind that there is much information to be
absorbed by other characters as they talk about you, even "behind your
Get into the habit of taking notes, either in the
script, on a separate pad of paper or an actor's log. Underline
or highlight key facts, unusual vocabulary or phrases. Mark text
or action that seems unclear with a question mark for further
investigation. Think of yourself as a detective, indeed a
Sherlock Holmes, who searches circumspectly for clues about your
Of course, the writing quality of the script can
make your job of character analysis easy or complex. There are good,
intuitive writers and there are inept writers. A skilled writer uses
insight into human behavior and a sensitivity with the spoken word to
provide you with direct and indirect hints about characterization,
timing and action. With a good script, you only need spend time with
the language and actions to uncover the motivations of your character.
Built into the text are expressed ideas and needs, bits of information
about the character's background, syntax, vocabulary and interpersonal
style -- everything you need to create an honest and
Less skilled writers often place ulterior
commercial, political, social or exploitative motives above the
accurate recreation of life as art. With such material, you have to
select what portions of the text are playable and true-to-life, and
what parts have to be "doctored" (or "actored") in order to arrive at a
performance which will not embarrass you. With experience, you'll learn
to recognize good as opposed to bad writing.
Good writers tend to shed light on your character
primarily through dialogue. With few exceptions, less perceptive
writers often provide elaborate character sketches and notations to
compensate for language which does not "ring true," or to explain off
erratic and oftentimes inexplicable changes in behavior and
motivation. (George Bernard Shaw who wrote "volumes" of notes on
the play, the characters and the social issues surrounding his stories
was a notable exception.)
Character analysis involves: (1) listing given
circumstances, (2) interpreting given circumstances, (3) creating a
biography and (4) selecting playable objectives, obstacles and actions.
Think of your function as part detective, part psychoanalyst and part
I. LISTING GIVEN CIRCUMSTANCES
Given circumstances are the essential bits of
information about your character provided in text, character notes and
technical directions. They comprise the fabric from which you will
weave the design of your character. Early in your acting career,
it's a good idea to write out these details, no matter how trivial.
This may seem like so much busy work. But one of the biggest mistakes
for an actor is to base a character on a generalized "feel" of first
impressions. First impressions often overlook important clues about the
psychology of one's character. An actor who doesn't "dig
out" all the given circumstances of one's character is likely to end
with a "default" interpretation.... a two-dimensional character sketch
and a safe, but flawed performance.
It's natural to favor given circumstances which
relate to your personal experience, while overlooking certain character
clues for which you have limited experience, or which fall outside of
your subjective perceptions of human behavior. Those ignored given
circumstances may be crucial in finding the truth of your
Given circumstances for your character derive from:
(A) Things the writer says about
your character in notes and stage directions: This includes information
about physical characteristics, dress, profession, sexual preferences,
background, behavioral tendencies and psychological quirks.
(B) Things your character says about self and things
your character does -- both actions and activities -- which illustrate
preferences, needs or drives.
(C) Things other characters say about your
character, or things other characters do to your character that imply
reactions and attitudes about your character.
(D) Hidden given circumstances: things that are
implied about your character through vocabulary, patterns of logic,
illogic, vocabulary, syntax, etc.. Also actions, activities and
conversations your character avoids.
Having gleaned the given circumstances for your
character, your task now focuses on piecing together the parts to the
jigsaw puzzle. With few exceptions, you should consider these given
circumstances as sacred.
Some writers impose (through bracketed notes) what
they would like you to do with your character, without giving the
necessary motivational support in the text. You can recognize this when
the writer describes attitudinal behavior -- usually in the form of
adverbs and adjectives like "lustfully,""ominously" or "suddenly
suspicious." If the writer has given you preceding text and actions
which will result in a "lustful" or "suspicious" reaction, well and
good. You'll have no problem motivating the character. Often as not,
the writer makes these inclusions of attitude changes out of a need to
point you in a direction which has not been mapped out by preceding
Use caution when you come across these attitudes. Do
they correlate with preceding or antecedent given circumstances? If
not, they may be red flags for a writer in trouble. Of course,
characters do lie and can be pressured into actions against their will.
And remember, actions speak louder than words. You need to weigh and
balance each bit of information against all other bits of information.
If your character claims to be neat and organized,
but treats his home like a pigsty, you have not two, but three given
circumstances to analyze: facts about (1) your character's claim for
neatness, (2) your character's poor housecleaning habits and (3)
evidence about discrepant behavior in your character, suggesting either
a pathological denial of reality, or a desire to manipulate or mislead
How should you record these given circumstances in
your character analysis? Some facts are undeniably states of being:
John is 26 years old; Mary is six feet tall; Fred is grossly
overweight; or Cynthia is a blond.
But, most facts can and should be expressed with the
active verb which suggests the character's psychological action. For
example, you could note down that John is a Harvard graduate. But how
much more playable is this: John rubs it in with his friends that he
earned a Harvard M.B.A.. Which is more useful: Mary is a flirt... or
Mary flaunts her hour-glass figure at all the men? Do you get more of a
clue from: Fred is an alcoholic, or Fred sneaks a nip of booze whenever
no one is looking? Would you prefer to work from: Cynthia is a
comedian, or Cynthia deadpans her outrageous stories?
As you list given circumstances for your character,
it's a good idea to evaluate these bits of information. Begin by
comparing each fact to the whole. If what your character says
corresponds with what the character does, and with what other
characters say about you, then the probability of that information
being true is good. If the information cannot be supported, or is
contradicted, then that piece of given circumstance is questionable.
You may wish to gauge each given circumstance on a scale of 0 to 10 --
0 being untrue, 3 being possible, 5 being probable and 10 being
absolutely true and verifiable.
This step of character analysis assumes that you are
reading the entire script. Yet many actors take the lazy route when
pulling together a monologue for audition purposes. They'll skim
through a script for a standard two minute cutting and base their
interpretation on just their piece without reading what precedes or
follows the monologue. Worse yet, they'll pick up a book of monologues
and prepare the audition without even an inkling about who the
character is talking to, or what the situation is. Be warned: you're
courting disaster if you do this. You're bound to make grossly bad
judgments about the character. It's often the case that the director
knows the script and can tell that you've misinterpreted the character.
Always base your character analysis on a thorough reading of the
script, from cover to cover.
II. INTERPRETING GIVEN CIRCUMSTANCES
Now you are ready to organize given circumstances
for your character into a sketch or psychological overview. Here, the
real art of interpretation begins. You have facts which are
irrefutable. But you also need to fill in the gaps about what might
have caused your character to arrive at the mental, emotional and
motivational point for your first appearance in the text. Here is a
list of background information, attributes and essential
characteristics to use as a guide for character interpretation.
Sometimes, the writer provides you these pieces of information. In
other cases, you will have to make decisions, based on your intuitive
perceptions of your character, about background information not
detailed by the writer. These choices may help you motivate and
effectively perform your character.
A. Motivational Characteristics:
1. Nationality or Regional Background: cultural patterns, language,
2. Religion: religious upbringing which have shaped beliefs, moral
standards, ethics and attitudes about life and death.
3. Family: relationship with brothers, sisters, father, mother;
childhood experiences, memories and home atmosphere.
4. Community: social standing, financial standing, work, income,
friends, politics, social behavior and social prejudices.
5. Education and Career: schooling, cultural exposure, use of language,
travel, hobbies, interests, professional training; jobs held and
successes and failures in those jobs.
6. Character's adjustment to environment: successes, failures, passions
and dreams which would impact psychological drives.
B. Behavioral Characteristics:
1. Mental: quick-witted, brilliant, average, stupid, dull, verbal,
prejudiced or open-minded, witty, etc..
2: Emotional: introverted or extroverted; steady, poised or changeable;
affectionate, confident, uncertain, proud, confused, cheerful, lonely,
gloomy. Does your character have a strong sense of humor? What are your
character's emotional responses to people and situations in the play?
How does your character react under emotional stress? What are your
character's reactions or temperament to stimuli which would ordinarily
trigger fear, anger, love, joy, jealousy, etc.?
3. Physical: age, height, weight, appearance, coloring, smell,
sexuality, laugh, posture, nervous gestures, diet, level of vitality,
source of body energy, mannerisms, health, facial expressions,
clothing, characteristics of walking? Are character rhythms slow,
alert, fast, tense or relaxed? What are your character's central points
of physical tension (does the character move stiffly, elegantly, or
perhaps with a limp?) What is your character's general
appearance, dress, makeup, hair style? What accessories or props does
your character use?
4. Verbal & Vocal: Quality, pitch, tone, tempo, inflection, accent
of voice; Vocabulary, syntax and use of language. Does your character
verbally communicate energy, boredom or stress?
III. CREATING A BIOGRAPHY:
From these given circumstances, you may wish to
write a biography for your character, which starts at birth and takes
you to your first entrance in the script. Written in first person ("I
was born..."), this bio serves as your "memoirs." Detailed and
specific, you work from given circumstances, and weave in additional
material from implied or assumed facts. Fill in the gaps with details
intuited from psychological reasoning to create a biography with
coherency, believability and consistency.
Why should you write your biography from the
subjective point of view (first person singular), as opposed to the
objective voice (third person singular)? True, an objective biography
permits a more critical and impartial analysis of your character's
motivations. But it is precisely that clinical objectivity which may
make it harder for you to commit to experiencing the world through the
eyes of your character.
Writing the biography as a subjective expression
accomplishes several things. Hearing yourself say "I fell in love
with..." or "My mother and I didn't get along because..." paves the way
for a stronger identification with your character. It also forces you
to dig deeper in justifying your character's actions and behavior.
As you begin to write the biography, pretend you
have just been given a shot of truth serum. Assume that you are talking
to someone you implicitly trust with your secrets (that may or may not
include any of the other characters in the script.) I know one
actor who writes his biography as if he were resting on his death bed
and confessing to a priest. I don't know that this would work for
all actors, since one might be prone to express regret about actions or
deeds of the past for which no guilt was originally felt. Each
actor must find a personal way of writing (in first person) the
character's story that helps in committing to the character.
Use any textual reminiscences or factual data as
biographical substance. By all means use personal experiences
from your own life that parallel those of your character. (These are
especially valuable, since you can readily visualize through all five
of your senses the true-life events that influenced and shaped your
personality.) Flesh out friends, family, associates and enemies
from the past. Then, Imagine encounters and incidents from your
character's past which could shape your character into the type of
person represented in the script. By all means, develop these events as
anecdotes in your biography.
This is the point at which creating a character may
require some amount of research on your part. If you're playing a
computer hacker, you may get needed information by interviewing
computer buffs, spending time at local computer shops to research or
just "hang out," as well as reading magazines and textbooks. When
playing a nurse, you could spend time at local hospitals to observe
protocol and behavior and to talk with nurses about their background,
training and reactions to the job. Books, movies, TV shows and other
resource guides may provide additional valuable information to help you
expand and refine your biography. A tool many actors are
beginning to use is the Internet. Not only can you find websites
that describe certain professions, lifestyles and personality types,
but you can also find "chat rooms" with which to "talk" to people not
unlike your character.
There are two criteria for what to include and what
to exclude in your biography:
(A) All choices must relate
organically to the given circumstances in the script.
(B) All choices must help
motivate you in playing the character.
Finish your biography with the incidents and
experiences which immediately precede your first entrance in the script.
IV. SELECTING PLAYABLE OBJECTIVES, OBSTACLES AND ACTIONS.
After completing a working biography, it's time to
select objectives, obstacles and actions. You cannot find
truthful and inspiring choices just by analytical work alone. In
most cases, choices are "found" in rehearsal by playing with and off of
other actor's choices, by taking direction and often by
improvising. Nonetheless, the actor's private research before
rehearsals and throughout the rehearsal period should include
preliminary choices that you will demonstrate to the director.
There are as many schools of acting as there are
directors, coaches, teachers and acting mentors. Don't be fooled. Much
of what some of these experts call an "approach to acting" amounts to
performance styles, more than a process of acting whereby the actor
learns to perform a character with choices which are "true-to-life."
Aristotle calls art the imitation of life. But the
actor's goal in this "imitation of life" is also to suspend the
audience's disbelief -- that is, to make the performance so believable,
that the audience forgets that this is a play or a movie. It makes
sense that the actor's process reproduce, as much as possible, the
dynamics of human behavioral psychology. Konstantin Stanislavski, the
Russian director of the Moscow Art Company, was probably the most
influential acting teacher of the 20th Century. His system, copied and
modified by Boleslavsky, Strasberg, Chekhov, Lewis, Adler and
Vakhtangov ( to name a few) is essentially an approach to acting which
reproduces the building blocks of human behavior.
Summarized, the idea works something like this: At
all times, a human being is in search of something. Call this an
objective, or want. (Note: some acting teachers distinguish
between a character's objective and intention. You're still
concerned with what the character wants. Michael Shurtleff likes
actors to ask "What am I fighting for?"). At all times, a human
being encounters an obstacle in the pursuit of one's objectives. The
balance between the strength of the objective and the resistance of the
obstacle determines the strategy or action one takes to adjust to or
overcome complications and fulfill the want. As in the pursuit of
goals in real life, sometimes your character will win and sometimes
your character will lose. As you review your character analysis
(given circumstances, interpretation and biography) you will discover
or intuit possible objectives, obstacles and actions to your character.
OBJECTIVES: An objective, in most simple terms, is
what your character wants. For each beat (or section of script defined
by one basic transaction or change of subject, scene or strategy) your
character operates with one objective or immediate want. Your character
also has a super-objective for the play or screenplay as a whole.
Objectives are what create conflict, because your objectives conflict
with other character's objectives. Wants are what create life for your
character. Wants are what cause your character to act, or rather react,
in response to people, the environment and self in a specific way.
Call it what you will: objective, goal, purpose,
pursuit, endeavor, drive, purpose, intention. They are all synonymous
for what your character wants -- now (in the immediate scene) and in
life (at least by the end of the play.) The difficulty many actors have
with objectives is in defining each objective in a way that is
playable. An objective is not playable if its stated form does
not shape, influence or motivate your behavior or actions. When asked
what his character wants, a perceptive actor will never respond that he
wants an object, condition or person. (Example: I want a cigarette; I
want peace of mind; or I want Sylvia.) This approach may give the actor
a focus for his energy. But they lack a core motivation, a depth of
want or need.
Nor will the actor express the objective in the form
of a state of being. (Example: I want to be charming; I want to be
secretive; or I want to be arrogant.) The problem with these forms of
objectives is the passive nature of the verb, "to be," the use of
descriptive adjectives which lead to attitudinal acting. This approach
usually results in the actor performing externals clichés. This
amateur approach to acting results in symbolic behavior more
appropriate for a parlor game of "Charades," than for the stage or the
Stanislavski and his many followers invariably
agreed that a playable objective needs four things: (1) the statement
"I need" or "I want" -- which acknowledges the character's ego in
filling the gap between that which he has and that which is missing
from his life; (2) the active verb which suggests what the
character strength of the character's need; (3) the focus
(person, recipient or object) of his want; and (4) the desired
Instead of stating as your objective that "I want
Mary," you might get more value out of operating from objectives like
"I want to win Mary's admiration," or "I want to tempt Mary into
kissing me," or "I want to arouse Mary's sexual curiosity."
Each of these examples incorporates the desired
response from Mary, causing you to be highly sensitive to her every
reaction to your behavior. This gives you a gauge by which to decide
whether you are getting closer to your objective, or are losing
ground. Whether your are winning or losing points, you will sense
how to change your strategies or actions.
Here are some more examples:
EGO ACTIVE VERB
FOCUS DESIRED RESPONSE
I want to
encourage my mother's
I want to reduce
I want to
I want to crush
I want to awaken
OBSTACLES: An obstacle is that which stands in the
way, or opposes one's progress. If there were no obstacles, no
resistances in life, then we would all share the same objectives, and
all our wants could be immediately fulfilled. We are always at conflict
with other people and our environment. In a universe without obstacles,
if you want to quench your thirst with a glass of iced tea, it always
will be no more than a reach away.
But life is not that simple. You might be broke and
unable to buy a glass of iced tea. Or you might have an impacted
wisdom tooth which would make you super-sensitive to cold
refreshment. Or your boss might threaten that if you take one
more break from your job assignment, you will be fired. Or you
might be in the middle of a desert where no one has ever heard of ice
or tea. Or you might prefer your iced tea plain and unsweetened
and wind up in a restaurant in Georgia which automatically serves iced
tea with 4 tablespoons of sugar.
From the given circumstances you have listed in your
character analysis, you will uncover obstacles which your character
tries to overcome in the pursuit of an objective. Obstacles can derive
(1) Time: you have only five minutes in which
to finish cooking supper for your spouse's new client, but the steaks
are still half-frozen.
(2) Environment: the car is too cramped to make love
with your lover comfortably.
(3) Objects: your furniture is too shabby to impress
(4) Your background: raised to believe that
all Jews are greedy, it is time to negotiate for a salary increase, and
you find out that your boss is Jewish.
(5) Circumstances: with your roommate trying
to sleep in the next room, you have to rehearse a drum solo for a
(6) Your character: you want to sweep your
partner off the dance floor, but you believe that you have two left
(7) Your condition: you want to get intimate
with your lover, but you ran out of toothpaste last week.
(8) Differences in personal preferences: you
want to make a friend feel at home, but your friend cannot get
comfortable in the apartment which you keep slightly chilled.
ACTIONS: You have a want and there is a complication
in getting what you want. What do you do to overcome the obstacle and
thereby fulfill your want? This is the essence of behavior, or action,
It may take many actions (sometimes called
strategies) to achieve (or to try to achieve) one's objective.
Example, John wants to make wild, passionate
love with Mary. Mary finds John attractive, and though not a
prude, she is not ":easy." (If she were easy, there would
be no obstacle and John would simply lead her into the bedroom.
That does not make for interesting comedy or drama, although it might
make for "good" pornography.)
John's obstacle might be that Mary wants to take her
time and wants reassurances that this will not be a one-night stand.
Rather than behave like a Neanderthal, John might
ease Mary's concerns by making small talk about the
weather, favorite books or movies, sports, etc.. He
might compliment Mary on her dress, hair and then rave (later, for the
sake of subtlety) about her figure and overall appearance. He
might wine and dine her, during which he will also laugh at her jokes,
lightly brag about his accomplishments, show off his financial
achievements, entertain her with a song, light her cigarette,
graciously hold her chair, feign more interest in her than the
food. Walking back to the apartment, John might brush his hand
against hers, wrap a protective arm about her waist, and might
steal a kiss under the old oak tree. Back at the apartment....
well, we'll leave this to your imagination. But the body language
will become more intimate, the breathing heavier, the murmurs of
delight somewhat louder.
And if John has "played his cards" right and has
demonstrated enough sensitivity and has suggested that there might be a
future for the two..... and if Mary is stimulated and has remembered
her birth control and finds John as stimulating as he obviously does
her..... John might achieve his objective.
So, you see, it takes a number of actions to achieve
an objective. Even so, we don't always achieve our objective and
sometimes, we change our objectives.
Just as with objectives, the skilled actor avoids
passive verb forms like "to be..." or "I am..." You should use the
active voice in your verb-stated action, at all times. An active verb
suggests how one behaves: to flaunt, to tease, to pacify, to belittle,
to plead, etc..
The problem many actors have in selecting an action
is that they generalize the action. Action verbs like "to
converse," "to disagree" or "to interest" lack imagery or color
necessary to shade one's behavior. In place of "to converse," try "to
dance with words." Instead of "to disagree," how about "to bowl over?"
Rather than "to interest," how about "to tantalize?"
If you're not already equipped with a colorful range
of vocabulary, you may find your best acting text is a Thesaurus, or a
book of synonyms. Always focusing on active verbs, find the
specific verb that stimulates you.
FINAL THOUGHT: PRACTICE IT
Practice these tools of given circumstances on your
next monologue, play or film. Patience and persistence will
enable you to develop a personal style of character analysis that works
best for you. While "head work" is only a part of the acting
process, the more detailed and thorough you are in character analysis,
the stronger and more insightful your performance will be.