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Authenticity In Your Role

By • Jul 11th, 2012 • Category: An Actor's Advice

How much research for a role is too much? To be frank, I don’t think that there can be too much research. I myself don’t spend hours upon hours researching a role in most cases, but if doing so makes an actor feel more comfortable playing a part, more power to them.

So now that I have established there is no maximum amount of research into a role, is there a minimum? I’m going to say yes.

Plenty of people I know in the theatre insist that there is no need to do any research of any kind for a role. That such is the job of the playwright, and all an actor need do is recite the lines that are given him in the script. A perceived knowledge in the part of the character will convey itself to the audience automatically as a result of presenting the words on the page.

This is well and good, if we conclude the actor exists only to ape what a playwright has spelled out for him, and is to make no choices of his own. This view will suit you perfectly if you are ever in a David Mamet play. However if you desire a bit more from your art than that, studying up on a few aspects of a character is not only acceptable, but practical.

What does the character do for a living? If it is mentioned in the script, study the nature of that career. Learn some of the lingo and not just that which is found in the script. Get a sense of the demographic to which he belongs, and that which he is surrounded by. What year is it? What location? Why might those things effect what he says on the stage, and how he ends up saying it?

As I said before, I don’t choose to become an expert in my character’s field. Some do, and that is fine. As for me though, I like to know backwards and forwards what a character means when he is saying something I am unfamiliar with, plus some. If he is an expert on something and within the script offers his expert opinion, I like to know enough about it to decide an alternative he could have suggested. If a character reveals where he likes to walk in a certain city, I’ll check out that street, plus a few nearby streets so I can decide why he may or may not take them. Knowing the alternatives also makes it feel like more of a choice when I deliver the line, as opposed to just spitting street names out that have been fed into my by the script.

In short, authenticity. Like so many other things I do as an actor, my research into a role, a play’s environment, its timeframe, etc. is all about establishing just enough authenticity to make the scene and the character appear more real to the audience by appearing more real to me.

Research may not always be practical for you. The mathematical sciences are either something you understand or do not understand. I happen to not understand them. Yet even then, if my character is a wiz with such things I can at least ascertain a broad sense of what he is trying to do, and use that to inform my performance. So long as I believe what he is saying about calculus, I don’t have to understand it.

Thankfully.

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