The Art of Unpredictability

My wife, Kelsey, was cast as the Ghost of Christmas Present in A Christmas Carol. She wanted a fresh take on a classic (and traditionally male) role, while still evoking the wonder and nostalgia that her scenes bring.

We hinged our exploration on one main insight: She is the present itself.

What does it mean to be the present? Specifically, the here-and-now of Christmas? Knowing the story, and looking at ourselves, Christmas is not always happiness and joy. Christmas is a diverse fruitcake of sorrow, regret, worry, excitement, want and indulgence, boisterous noise and solemn silence.

On top of that, being “in the present” means always listening and ready to react at a moment’s notice.

If all of those emotions are personified in one character, one who is furthermore able to react to anything at anytime in any way, we find an entity that is, well, “formidable”, as Scrooge puts it.

Kelsey’s portrayal of the Ghost of Christmas Present was unpredictable. The fact that she is happy with a cookie, however, is not.

“Unpredictability” became our landmark for the choices she would explore. Unexpected changes of volume, intensity, proximity, direction, and emotion kept Scrooge on his toes and the audience on the edge of their seats. Being in the present, Kelsey surprised even herself sometimes while acting on impulse.

Now, this level of unpredictability may not be suitable for every character, but the lessons learned certainly are. Maintaining unpredictability is one of the most potent tools in an actor’s kit, because it forces you to remain in the moment and it keeps the audience interested in what you might do next.

Unpredictable does not mean unprepared or improvised, though! A fair amount of research and exploration should go into knowing what your character would and would not do. Behavior may be unpredictable to the onlooker, but it stems from rational conclusions in the mind of the individual.

How can we cultivate an aura of unpredictability on stage?

  • In rehearsal, don’t say a line the same way twice.

    Keep your brain fresh and active by exploring multiple options for delivering your line.

  • Actively listen to your scene partners.

    This will help keep your responses relevant and in the moment.

  • Avoid choices that are stereotypical of your character.

    Stereotypes, by nature, cause people to make assumptions and predict behavior and never lean in to learn otherwise.

  • Challenge yourself to find more detail and more intensity in your character’s personality.

    Even an obsessive-compulsive (and predictable) character can be unpredictable to the audience by the extreme lengths to which he goes to maintain order and routine.

Has an actor’s performance ever made you feel like anything could happen? Share your thoughts with us!

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