It doesn’t take a Master’s degree in Theatre to identify a great performance versus a performance that is just okay. It’s less obvious, however, to determine what exactly makes the difference. We may just chalk it up to natural talent, but I propose that the difference is something much more within the actor’s control.
Great characters, like great people, want something.
Success.com posted five daily habits of highly successful people (with a domain name like that, I’d say they are experts in the matter!). And while I was inspired to incorporate the tips into my own life, I couldn’t help but be struck by the implications for the actor looking to create a dynamic, engaging, successful character. Allow me to highlight three of them.
Decide what your character wants most from life over the course of the script. This is your character’s overall objective. It should be basic, relatable, primal. Something you yourself can relate to. “I want to be loved.” “I want to be well again.” “I want to belong.” This overall objective does not change as the story unfolds, and serves as your foundation on which you explore all the other aspects of your character. I will be referring back this discussion about our overall objective often!
After discovering your character’s overall objective, examine what your character wants in a given scene. This is your scene objective. Your scene objective should
- help your character pursue his or her overall objective
- focus on changing someone else in the scene
That second point feeds the audience what they came to the theatre to see: relationships. They didn’t come to see plot. The Phantom’s scene objective isn’t “to kidnap Christine” [which is simply the plot]. Instead, it could be something like “to get you [Christine] to stay with me,” which supports—in his mind—his overall objective “to be loved.”
Don’t get distracted.
Overcoming obstacles is just as important to your character as it is to you in your own life. Theatre is driven by conflict, and the road your character must trod to reach his or her goals is laden with obstacles. Not just plot-related conflicts, however! Spend time pouring through your script and brainstorming as many obstacles as you can think of. Some might be plot-related, but dig deeper. Consider our Phantom again. There are physical obstacles (disfigured face), mental obstacles (“What if she doesn’t love me?”), and relational obstacles (Raoul’s love of Christine) to consider.
Now that you have identified dozens and dozens (yes, that many!) of obstacles in the script with which your character needs to contend, what is your character going to do about them? Don’t be a victim. That’s not compelling to watch. Figure out a way to overcome them! You know your goal – achieve it!
“But Mike, later in the script, according to the storyline, my character doesn’t actually achieve her goal.” Okay, but she doesn’t know that now, does she? She can only act in the moment with the information she has. Don’t let her give up; don’t stop the pursuit!
Live each day as if it were the last.
Besides being a nice sentiment for country song lyrics, the mantra “Live like you’re dyin’” provides our character with a sense of desperation and urgency. Make the most out of every relationship. See every conversation, every interaction as an opportunity to get you closer to your objective. If your character doesn’t really care about what happens in this scene, neither will the audience.
Show me a character who is interesting and compelling, and I’ll show you a character who wants something desperately and stops at nothing to achieve it. The audience may laugh; they may be horrified. They may cheer; they may be disgusted. But they will be gripped. They want you to want something.