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Copyright, 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 back."

    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 character. 

    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 revealing performance.

    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 chameleon.


    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 character. 
    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 given circumstances.

    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 other characters.

    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.


    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, socio-economic standing.

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?


    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.


    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 camera.

    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 response.

    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:

I want        to encourage    my mother's        generosity.
I want        to reduce          Fred                     to tears.
I want        to bolster          the group's          courage.
I want        to crush            Judy's                   spirit.
I want        to awaken        my brother's        pity.

    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 from:
     (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 your mother-in-law.

    (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 weekend gig.

    (6) Your character:  you want to sweep your partner off the dance floor, but you believe that you have two left feet.

    (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, or reaction.

    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. 


    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.