The best actors know that part of the process involves truly understanding your character’s motivation and inner thoughts. Find out how to get started in this guest post by teacher Timothy S...
One of the most effective ways to learn acting is knowing never to accept just the facts when it comes to relationships. The ability to tap into the emotions of your character is the foundation of great acting. That foundation is, in turn, constructed upon the bedrock of understanding your character’s relationship to everybody else. And threatening the collapse of the entire structure is a tiny little hairline crack known as “Just the Facts, Ma’am.”
A Simple Question
What is the relationship between you and your father? Simple question, right? Learn to answer that question regardless of who the other character is and you learn acting, right? Think again. Let’s look at that simple question again and ask a few more questions: What is the relationship between you and your father? Is it the same now as it was when you were ten? What about when you were 16? Is the relationship between a father and a child the same when the child is 25 and when the child is 50? Probably not.
You Don’t Learn Acting By Learning Facts
Again, remember that you should never accept a simple factual statement as the answer to the following question: What is your character’s relationship to _______? No actor ever successfully tapped into a character’s emotions by providing answers to that question along the lines of “She’s my boss that I can’t stand” or “I’m the daughter he never knew he had who tracked him down 20 years after I was born” or even “I’m a hired assassin and he’s the person I’m supposed to kill.”
Facts don’t tell you anything about the emotional tenor of a relationship. If you discover nothing else on your lifelong journey to learn acting, you need to uncover the buried treasure that is realizing the power of finding the emotional tenor of relationships.
The Grasp Slippery
Of course, you need to know whether the other character is your wife or your sister, but you can’t stop there. It’s your job to figure out exactly what the nature of your relationships to the other characters are during the particular time in which the scene takes place. And that relationship may be completely different in the next scene, even if the next scene only takes place a few minutes later. Because of the fluid, surprising nature of emotions and their slippery grasp on relationships, it is quite simply never, ever enough to be satisfied with a factual description.
As an example of this, let’s use a really extreme situation. The factual description of our two characters is this: one character is the President of the United States and the other is a 10-year-old boy. From this description we would probably expect that the President will be more knowledgeable, in control of his emotions, and the dominant member of the relationship.
But what if the scene took place after the crash of Air Force One into a dense forest area? The President is the sole survivor and as if that weren’t bad enough, he has a broken leg. The boy is the first person to the scene and the only hope the President has of making it out of the woods. Now what is the relationship between these two? How has the expected emotional tenor of that relationship changed? Who is more likely to be in control of their emotions? Has the 10-year-old become the dominant member of the relationship? Keep in mind that the factual description of relationship between these character has not changed one single bit. Would you be prepared to tap into your emotions to play the scenes if all you drew upon was that factual description?
The Never-Ending War Story
Your dream to learn acting is doomed if you don’t become fully aware of just how little the facts of a relationship tell you about the emotions involved in that relationship. Relationships and the emotions that drive them are characterized by a constant give-and-take and daily — perhaps even hourly — struggles for control and power. Sometimes one person has the upper hand and the next day that power has shifted to the other person.
Because of the time constraints inherent in storytelling, emotions and relationships are even more unstable. That shift of power that might have taken course over a year in real life may play out over the course of a week on the screen or over the course of a night on the stage. Simply knowing the facts of the connection between your character and others will be of little help when it comes to tapping into the emotions driving the erratic nature of those relationships.
Where to Go From Here
Rather than thinking of relationships as this solid structure built around a fact, why not start thinking of them in terms of ever-shifting emotions revealed through role playing? Creating a character is a process of role-playing within role-playing, in a way that taps into the real emotional core of a scene. That process is best facilitated by an experienced acting teacher, who can help you tap into a full range of emotions.
Ready to get started? Find an acting teacher near you here!
Timothy S. teaches writing online. He has his B.A. in English from the University of West Florida, and was twice named to Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers. Learn more about Timothy here!
Photo by vancouverfilmschool