August 2, 2012

Rehearsal: Creating a Character

by Michael Wayne Rice


Photo by Kenneth Alexander. Michael Wayne Rice as Ghost in Hamlet.

Red light, yellow light, green light:
And they are off!

This is usually my first thought when I attend the first rehearsal for any show I do: “Oh my God! Here we go! I hope the director doesn’t expect too much from me. And I hope I am not the only actor not off book!” (“Off book” is cool stage lingo for having one’s lines memorized.)

For an actor, what is rehearsal? Quite simply it is a time to play, discover, mold and solidify a character. It can actually be an intense process, but it is also fun. Making character choices (a complicated process) is a hard thing to explain to a non-actor. You see, for the most part people who watch performances, TV, or films, see a character that has been fully developed. And how many times have you seen a performance and said to yourself, “I could have done that,” or “I would have done that differently”? If you have never said those things to yourself, you are a rare individual, for most people look at acting as something that is easy. And it is certainly easy to do when you are mimicking a performance.

This leads to the question, is acting different form mimicking? While the ability to mimic is a talent in and of itself, mimicking takes what has been created and tries to recreate it. The hard part of “character creation” has been done for the mimicker. An actor creates. A person who mimics re-creates. One starts from scratch and builds something. The other takes what has been built and re-purposes it.

But to create from scratch is a whole other ballgame. I am fortunate enough to have taught acting classes and have had individuals come into my class saying they want to act because they saw their favorite actor (Deniro, Pachino, Depp, etc.) do a role that they (the students) thought they would be able to do. And most of them were pretty decent when reenacting a performance of their favorite actor. But when I gave them a script, a monologue that they have never heard or seen before, well let’s just say they broke down, looking dumbfounded at the paper in front of them. The lesson: to create a believable, memorable character from scratch, is infinitely harder than reproducing an already created character.

Photo by Kenneth Alexander. Michael Wayne Rice as Master Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor (with other cast members).

The secret sauce to an actor’s great performance.

Rehearsal, for the actor, is the time to begin the process of creating, deleting, choosing, and molding a character (including a character’s likes and dislikes, a character’s slant on life, a character’s take on the personalities of the other characters he will be interacting with, etc.).

Here are the basic tenets of character creation I learned in graduate school:

1. Incubation
2. Saturation
3. Illumination
4. Creation
5. Rinse and repeat

Part of the rehearsal process is memorizing lines. Incubation is about memorization, or getting the words to sit in the mind. Once the words are in your mind, it is nice to have some time to let them sit and marinate. For those of you who drink wine, would you rather have freshly squeezed wine, or wine that has matured for a while? Actors who let the words sit in their brains for a while will almost undoubtedly come up with interesting character choices. That is what SATURATION is about: letting the words ripen in your mind.

Usually at the beginning of the rehearsal process, actors are at the very beginning stages of Incubation and Saturation because that is when they start memorizing their lines.

It is usually around week two that stage 3, Illumination, really kicks in and actors start having some deep insights into character behavior, character movements, character backstory, character voice, character outlook on life, and so on. This stage can also be called the “AHA” stage, where you literally hear actors exclaiming out loud, “Oh, I get this moment now!”

The last stage is Creation, or what I like to call well-founded Creation. This is the stage where actors are making smart choices that fit well within the confines of their personal definition of how the character lives. Imagine, if you will, a huge block of clay, six feet high and four feet wide. Well-founded Creation is the point where the block, having been carved to take human shape in stages 1-3, now gets its fine definition. Now it starts to look like an individual person instead of just being human in shape.

Then you rinse and repeat steps 2-4.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly about the rehearsal process

On paper, the creation process looks and feels very linear, when in actuality it is a lot messier than that. A LOT! There is no right way to go about the process. Incubation has different time limits for different people. Saturation is such a personal process that it cannot be put into words. Illumination and Creation are happening simultaneously so choices are made, kept or discarded, and the actor keeps trying to fine tune character choices. Please understand that the rehearsal process can be very chaotic looking, amorphous looking to the untrained eye. It is usually not until the last few days before the production opens, that the show really begins to take shape and look presentable.

And once the show opens, actors are expected to just have fun with the show they have created. So come see what we have created. You will enjoy it. Others have!

Next week, two of apprentices will blog about their experiences this summer with Livermore Shakes!  Another engaging look behind the scenes!