Actor’s Toolkit: Substitution

Simply put, an actor’s job is to be someone else. This poses a fundamental dilemma: “I am not someone else. How can I convincingly become someone else?” Theoretically, the more you can think like the character, the more you will talk and act like the character—but how deep should that transformation go? Actors will disagree about the answer to this question, though very few would say their answer is the only one. daniel day lewis lincoln.jpgDaniel Day Lewis’ method is characterized by complete immersion. In playing the role of Abraham Lincoln, Day Lewis stayed in character for three months straight, whether the camera was rolling or not. He even required everyone on set (even the director, Steven Spielberg) to address him as “Mr. President.”


As I said, few actors will argue that their method is objectively better than others. Most acknowledge that whatever works for you is best and most effective. In light of this, I present a tool that I find helpful, and that I use to coach actors when exploring relationships in the play. I must credit (and highly recommend) Ivana Chubbuck’s book The Power of the Actor for inspiring my further investigation into this technique. If you, too, find this helpful, then by all means, make it your own. If it doesn’t mesh with the way you think and prepare, then leave it alone.


What is it?

Taking a concept from the script to which you cannot personally relate, and replacing it your mind with a situation from your real past.


For me, the more I have to fabricate and invent for my character, the less genuine I feel. Instead of pretending to know how it feels to lose my job, I’d rather actually know how it feels. But since I haven’t lost a job, nor do I want to (just for the sake of character research!), I can substitute it with a similar emotional context.


In our coaching sessions, Nancy has been developing a comedic monologue about a woman who is putting the final touches on a social event she is hosting. She realizes that a minor detail—ice for the beverages—has been forgotten. More specifically, her husband is the one who has forgotten to do his job, and the guests are arriving presently. Her scene objective is very obviously “to get you to get the ice.” Nancy has hosted parties before, of course, but nothing as high-stakes as this party seems to be. Nancy is also happily married to a man who is helpful around the house and is not in much need of her prodding.

So, we needed two main substitutions: one for the party guests, that would warrant such extreme intimidation, and another for the lagging husband.

drinks-on-iceTo find a suitable substitution for the party guests, we referred back to the overall objective we had discussed—that is, “to be accepted.” Nancy decided that this group was her professor husband’s scholastic peers, to which she feels a bit inferior. If she can impress them, she can feel accepted into his world and gain the affirmation of those she admires. I asked Nancy, “Does that situation sound familiar? Is there an individual or a group of people that you want to consider you as a peer, but you don’t feel ‘good enough’ to mingle with?” Nancy thought for a while, and came up with a name and a face of an individual in her theatre community who fits that description. All of a sudden, when Nancy performed her monologue again, her desperation and “putting on airs” was heightened as she considered who exactly she was trying to impress.

For her other main substitution, the woman’s husband, we came up with another description about what the husband represents. Someone who you feel is unappreciative of the work you do. Someone who you feel is holding you back. Someone who drags their feet and doesn’t keep up with you. The first “person” that came to Nancy’s mind was her dog, actually. lazy dog.jpgSo we tried it! A substitution does not have to be the same gender or even species! Nancy did her scene, and mentally substituted the husband with her dog. The monologue certainly took on a different flavor. I asked Nancy how it felt, and she said it was okay, but it didn’t feel quite right. Great! Sometimes your substitutions won’t feel right. If that’s the case, brainstorm and try another one. After a few tries and a few options, Nancy found an individual that invoked the right emotional attitude within her.

The audience doesn’t have to know that Nancy’s thinking about another individual and not the character’s husband. All the audience sees is Nancy truthfully motivated to say the things she says how she says them.

In summary, then, here is a step-by-step process to try to find an effective substitution:

  • Identify a relationship, background, motivation, or life event you don’t personally identify with
  • Generalize what it represents (My character lost his job = loss of something valuable, loss of something that makes me feel secure, loss of something my family needs to survive)
  • Think of a real-life memory that fulfills one or more of those ideas
  • Say your lines again, this time while you think of that person or scenario from your real life


One last note, and then I close. Like I said, this is just a tool. If it fits in your belt, then by all means use it. If it is awkward and unwieldy, drop it. But if you find it helpful, here is an added benefit: As your character overcomes obstacles to reach his or her goals, you as a person have the opportunity to overcome your own emotional obstacles to reach your goals. It makes the entire acting process very personal and purposeful. Your real-life fighting spirit can be rekindled to run alongside your character’s fighting spirit, and you both grow through the process. That can be the power of substitution. It’s not for everybody, but I’d love to hear any stories or examples you could share about how substitution has helped you explore your character!

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