Character: The Actor's Imaginary Body
So you want to begin working on character and you don’t know where to start. First, let’s focus on the goal. What we are trying to create? We use the term “character” when referring to a person in a play, book, movie, or story. It’s generally a term “real” people use to refer to people that are not “real”. But let’s think of this from the character’s point-of-view. They don’t think of themselves as characters. They can’t. To our characters, they are actual people living truthfully in the world of the play or movie. They, like us, have things that they want, emotions that they feel, thoughts that they think. As far as they are concerned, characters are true things that live truthfully, have full and rich histories, and have genuine dreams for the future.
Chekhov believed that the characters we actors create have living souls; that they had thoughts, feelings, and desires all their own and that we can, through the power of our creative imaginations, commune with the characters we play, talk with them, question them, demand that they reveal their inner lives to us.
This way of thinking, that our characters are living beings independent from us as actors can be a bit jarring and even embarrassing to actors at first, but in my experience, thinking of our characters in this way frees us to think of them with specific and complex creative detail. It also frees us from the prison of our own personalities and egos, forcing us to not think about what WE would do in a given circumstance, but what our CHARACTER would do in that circumstance. Most importantly, with practice, it frees us from the trap of playing the cliché of the character, the ordinary, expected, familiar interpretations that audiences have endured countless times and allows us to be surprised by our characters actions and emotions, playing truly inspired characters that are unique to us and our individual feelings of truth.
So let’s look at this character we are trying to create and think of them as fellow living beings, the same as ourselves but for the fact that they can only exist in the world of the play or movie. Using our imagination and concentration we are going to form a strong and detailed picture of what they look like.
The first step in creating a character is to read the script thoroughly and ask yourself these two questions:
How is this character similar to me?
How is this character different than me?
Let me go through the part of Claudius from Hamlet as an example. How is this character similar to me?
1. We are both male.
2. We are both middle aged.
3. We are both healthy.
Great, now how are we different?
1. He is from Denmark.
2. He is a king.
3. He is from a different time period.
4. He is a murderer.
5. He has no children of his own.
Chekhov says that our work as actors does not lie with how we are similar to our character, but how we are different. The similarities require no effort from us. We are safe and comfortable with the fact that we can play these aspects of the character effortlessly because those aspects are within us already.
The differences between us and the character are where our work as actors will lie. I don’t necessarily need to consciously play these aspects. For example, I don’t have to play Claudius with a Danish accent or anything, but I should be conscious of these qualities when I begin forming a picture of my character in my mind.
So, now that we have a bit of a start on thinking about our character, we can begin to form the character’s imaginary body.
This particular technique is called “body sculpting” and it is an imagination and concentration exercise that I use at the very beginnings of class or rehearsal to get a really strong image of our characters right away. As a quick note, I’m going to be moving very quickly through this but in reality, you should be prepared to spend a minimum of 20 to 45 minutes or more on this. I’ll put a link to a written version of this exercise in the notes so you can try it at your own pace.
Body Sculpting for Imaginary Body
First, find your own circle of concentration within the space that you are in. Basically, a space that’s about three or feet in diameter that allows free range of motion while standing still.
Using your creative imagination and with your eyes open imagine that you have in front of you a block of clay that has a rough humanoid appearance, but not much more than that. There is no need for this imagined piece of clay to be anything more than the approximate size and dimensions of your character. We’ll begin filling in the details momentarily.
Now, this lump of clay may not be exactly right so imagine that you can shape this clay to conform precisely to the boundaries of your character’s body. Do this physically with your hands as if the clay really existed. This will allow you to be really detailed in making your creation. What is your character’s height? What is her body shape? Take as much time as you need to get this right. This is not a race.
Now, move on to the head. Begin to sculpt the head, paying special attention to its size and shape. Sculpt the cheeks, the chin, the ears. Sculpt the eyes, the forehead, the nose. Sculpt with as much creative imaginative detail as you can.
When you are ready, move down to the neck and torso? How thick and long is his neck? Sculpt the chest and belly. Move to the back. Is her back straight or hunched? How wide are the shoulders? Can you see his ribs?
Move to the arms and hands. How strong are they? How wide are the wrists? How delicate are the fingers?
Move to the legs and feet. How wide is his stance? How thick are her thighs? Are the toes short and stubby or long and spindly?
Once you have put the finishing touches on your character’s body, you can now clothe the character fully. Imagine that this character is alive and can speak and ask the character’s advice on what he or she would wear. Listen to the character. If they do not answer at first, ask again. Ask them what time of year it is. Ask them if they like pretty colors. Be their servants in this moment but don’t let them not answer your questions. Be demanding.
Again, this might seem pretty strange to some, but I want to remind you that pretty much the entirety of the actor’s job is to imagine some person, thing, or circumstance is there that is not actually there. The bulk of our work lies in the world of our own imaginations so this type of exercise, if you allow yourself to be open to it, is well within the actor’s wheelhouse. You may be self-conscious at first, but I promise you that that feeling will go away with practice.
Now, Using your creative imagination, take in fully this character that stands before you now. Walk all the way around your character. Make discoveries. Notice something new.
Ask your character to walk around the space. Do not let your character refuse.
Once your character has done this and returned. Ask them to do more things. Explore your curiosity. Ask the character to perform the actions that they do in the play. Ask them to sit, to jump up and down, to drink and eat. Carefully observe how your character fulfills your requests. Use as much creative imaginative detail as possible.
Ask them to speak to you. Observe the language they use, the pitch of their voice, its roughness or melodic nature. Try to take in everything.
Once you are fully satisfied that for now, you have learned as much as you can, ask the character to once again stand in front of you.
When you are ready, I would like you to step into the space your Imaginary Body is occupying imagining that you are putting on your character’s imaginary body as one might put on a costume. Only this costume is alive and guiding your movements and speech and thoughts and ideas.
Look at your hand and observe it as your character’s hand. Feel your characters body around you and within you. Breath within your imaginary body. How does that feel?
Note all the differences that your imaginary body has from your own.
Walk about the space in your imaginary body.
Explore your imaginary body. Sit. Stand. Do things as your character would.
Speak. Let your imaginary body guide your speech, your vocal quality, your pitch, and so on.
If you are with other people, greet the other people in the space in your imaginary body.
How does your character feel about these other people? Note everything that can be useful.
After you have interacted as much as you care to, return to your circle of concentration within the space.
When you are ready, step out of your imaginary body and turn facing your character once more.
Ask your character to whisper a secret in your ear. Listen to it. Do not tell anyone its secret.
When you are ready, pack up your character and return it to the air above you.
I have found that once my students overcome their initial awkwardness with this exercise that they almost universally report that they made a discovery about their character that surprised them or that they hadn’t thought about before. What we are trying to do is to make this intangible idea of our character into something tangible and playable. By physically sculpting the character we force ourselves to spend a considerable amount of concentrated creative energy on our character’s physical body. And by doing so, we often make discoveries about our character’s psychology as well.
Do not feel however, that whatever discoveries you make are set in stone. We use clay for a reason, and we are free at any point to make changes to our imaginary body when we feel inspired to.
So now that we have been introduced to our character’s Imaginary Body, we should then explore our character’s psychology. But that’s for next time.
What did you think of this exercise? Did you try it? Did you make any cool discoveries doing it? Let me know in the comments.
See you guys later.