In this post, StageNotes.net makes suggestions of how to use Bruce Miller’s Actor’s Alchemy book in different kinds of classrooms, including creative writing, science, social studies, and psychology. StageNotes’ advice for Creative Writing teachers was “Have your students read Chapter 5 “Sifting for a Character” before they begin working on a play.” Here is an abbreviated version of one of Miller’s classroom exercise Roll Call. Pick up a copy of the book for the full instructions.
Character is most effectively and reliably displayed through a careful selection and execution of actions, not by magically inhabiting a character through some internal or emotional process. I use a particular exercise with my own beginning actors at the beginning of the semester to demonstrate the points I am making here. The game, called Character Roll Call, goes something like this.
I start by asking my students to answer, “Here,” when I call their name. I tell them to answer as themselves as though attendance were actually being taken. I ask the class to observe each other very carefully during the process and to make determinations about each class member based on what they see and hear. They may even take notes if they want to in order to better help them remember what they observed.
As a result of the group discussion, my class will usually conclude that any demonstration of character under the circumstances of the first round of the exercise was sketchy at best. They had too little time and too little opportunity to inhabit and communicate character.
In the second round of the exercise, I ask my students to think of a dominant personality characteristic they possess. It could be anything from shyness to egotism to a great sense of humor to sadness or cynicism. Once they have pinpointed this characteristic, I ask them to come up with a single physical action demonstrating this quality that they could believably execute when their name is called during the next round of attendance taking. The key here is twofold. First, they will have to come up with an action that actually suggests the quality, which, depending on the characteristic, could be difficult indeed. If they can’t come up with an action to represent the characteristic, I tell them to change the quality they are trying to communicate. The idea in acting is to always make choices that can be carried out successfully.
In this round of the game, my actors have a much larger body of work to discuss. Because everyone in the class had to make choices, chances are even if not every choice was absolutely clear, far more of them were interesting, because thought went into their selection. Further, more students willingly guessed at the personality characteristics suggested through the actions presented, because this time through they were more than random and spontaneous reactions of the moment. In other words, because of the specific choices of action, character emerged. And the point of all this is that the exercise is not unlike any scripted acting situation in which an actor has the obligation to be believable, serve the overall script, and do the things his or her character would do under the circumstances while forwarding their own storytelling responsibilities. Each of the actors in the exercise in round two were responsible for the following:
• executing actions that seemed real rather than acted
• executing actions that came naturally out of the situation
• saying “Here” in a way that was consistent with the actions being played and reflecting the ongoing progression in the scene
They also needed to accomplish the following:
• making and executing choices that led to a natural flow from one student to the next
• listening and reacting even when it wasn’t their turn to perform in the spotlight, and listening in a way consistent with who they are in real life, since they were playing the character of themselves
• making their time in the spotlight reflective of their personality trait without any extra mustard
• making their moments in real time and without commenting on their work
A central point of the ensemble element of this game is that an actor must maintain the action of his or her character even when not in principal focus.
In life, no one stops being who they are when they are not speaking, yet so often, beginning actors think they are acting only when they have lines. Childish, no? Each time you respond as a character, execute an action, carry out some business, or move toward or away from someone or something, you add to the audience’s perception of your character. In fact, the sum total of all the actions you execute create for the audience the illusion of character.
The audience will put together the kindness you show in one scene, the anger demonstrated in another, and the intelligence or whimsicality of other moments and mix all the pieces into a complex whole, just the way people do in life. If you come alive only for your spoken moments, you can never expect to be fully believed or to produce a fully realized character.
In the third round of Roll Call, I ask my students to take a moment and come up with a strong personality trait that they can translate into a physical action or series of actions. My actors are now free from the strictures of trying to portray themselves truthfully. They are now free to step outside of themselves and be more creative.
By the end of this sequence of exercises, my students are pretty well convinced that character can be created through a series of actions without the need to somehow completely transform themselves into the character being played. They also understand that successful acting usually results from careful analysis and planning rather than from simply relying on intuition and spontaneous brilliance. Of course, the acting process reserves a special place for those who can live in the moment and react, but most actors cannot afford to rely on that ability alone.
Read more tips for teachers on StageNotes.net.
About the Book
Acting can – and should – be more than guesswork and instinct. Actor’s Alchemy: Finding the Gold in The Script by Bruce Miller examines the relationship between the script and what an actor ultimately does on the stage or on screen. Here is a straightforward guide filled with useful information to help actors learn to use their scripts in a specific and analytical way to solve the problems of the scene and bring their elusive characters to life. In learning how to decipher the script, actors will be equipped to make the choices that lead to delivering a gold performance.