THE 3-LEGGED STOOL OF CHARACTER ANALYSIS


I know. I’ve heard it before many times. You're an actor, so you want to act. You want to get on stage or in front of the camera and act. The last thing you want to do is sit down and study or work on some academic analysis of the script. I mean, why can't you act off your instincts and skip all the "book-learning" stuff. Teachers have always told you that you need to trust your instincts and to stop thinking; that...


ACTING IS DOING


...so is there really any value in doing character or script analysis? These are comments that many of us fellow actors have thought about over the years, but the reality is this: there is no excuse for not doing your homework, doing your research, spending time with script in hand, with a cup of coffee/tea, and a good old fashioned notebook and pencil. Without a full understanding of your character prior to (or at least alongside) you working to bring him/her/they to life, you open the door to creating someone unrecognizable to the playwright/screenwriter - potentially someone that was never intended to live in this imaginary world with the other characters. It is your distinct responsibility as an actor to serve the script. Your obligation is to honor the writer's intent and in order to do that...


YOU MUST DO THE WORK OF ANALYZING THE CHARACTER!


Now that we've got that established, what do you actually need to do? How do actors actually and pragmatically do Character Analysis? What is it? And what do I do with the information I gather through the Character Analysis? All great questions. Let's jump into this critically important topic.


There are many approaches to Character Analysis, so you have to find the method/system that works for you. I will share with you here one of the most effective processes I've come across over the last 30+ years exploring the craft. It boils down to the 3-Legged Stool.


1. What Do I Say About Myself?

2. What Do Others Say About Me?

3. What Do I Do?


Let's explore all of these.


1. What Do I Say About Myself?

Start on page 1 and read the script with a pen/pencil and notebook in hand. Or for you young folk, I suppose you can type it into the notes on your phone or into a document on your laptop. (Man, I'm feeling old). What you are looking for during this read through are any lines where your character describes themself. What does your character say about themself in terms who you are, what you do, where you live, who you're related to, what your emotional state is, how you treat others, what you look like, how you move, how you feel, what your mental state is, what your political beliefs are, what your religious beliefs are, and on and on and on. By the end of the read-through, you should have many notes written down (or typed out). This will give you a concise view of how your character sees themself and what they think about themself. It is their personal perspective on themself; their self-awareness.

(If you want to try a parallel exercise just for fun, write down how you describe yourself. Write down everything you can think of about how you describe yourself and then set it aside.)


2. What Do Others Say About Me?

In this second read through, you want to focus only on writing down lines where other characters describe your character. They may describe you with a lot of adjectives. They may describe you by talking about how you treat others, what you do for work, how you behave, what you look like physically, if you can be trusted, if you're the kind of person people go to for advise or the kind of person people fear, what your voice sounds like, and on and on. You can also do some research outside of the script for this leg of the stool. Perhaps the playwright wrote some commentary about the character that gives insight into who they are. Perhaps some theater or film critics wrote an article on a previous production and shared their thoughts about the character. This is all valuable information and you will now have a second data set to consider.

(Remember that parallel exercise above? Now ask someone to describe you like the characters in the script described your character. This will start to give you insight into yourself that you may never have expected.)


3. What Do I Do?

In this third and final read through, you want to look for all lines that give insight into what you do, how you behave, your profession, if you donate to charity, if you rob stores late at night, if you always tell the truth, if you lie, if you protect your family, if you abuse your children, if you collect the garbage, if you run a Fortune 500 company, if you obey the law, if you cheat on your spouse, if you stand up to bullies, and on and on. This is the third leg of the stool, the third data set for you to leverage when making decisions about how to bring the character to life.

(And once again back to the exercise about you. You should write down everything you do and have that other person write down what they believe you do. You'll be amazed at how much you learn about yourself.)


NOW WHAT???


Now that you have all 3 categories (3 stool legs) documented, you look at them side by side and start to ask yourself a lot of questions.

  • Does your character describe themself the same way that the world sees them?

  • Is there alignment or does the outside world see your character and describe your character vastly different than how the character sees themselves?

  • What has your character learned about themself?

If there are similarities between how your character sees themself and how the world sees them, then you can comfortably say that your character has a high level of self-awareness and that when you bring the character to life, you can rely on those similarities to help you make smart and consistent acting choices.


However, if the way your character describe themself is different from the way others describe them, YOU, THE ACTOR, MUST BE AWARE OF THIS because if all you're doing to bring the character to life is using aspects of how your character see themself, and NOT how the outside world sees them, then when the other characters say those lines describing your character, the audience won't understand what they are hearing and seeing because that's not how they are experiencing your character from you. So, you must be smart here and ensure that you bring to life all aspects of the character, not just your character's limited vision of themself.


It would be like this...If I describe myself as a faithful, honest, trustworthy man, but others describe me as deceitful, arrogant, and violent, but I only behave on stage or in front of the camera like a good-boy, then the negative side of me never seems to ring true to the audience. I have to be faithful to all aspects of my character. And that also includes all the things that I do, how I behave. I must incorporate the third leg of the stool on my development of the character.


Let’s say my character is a motorcycle mechanic and he describes himself as a street-wise rebel that takes no crap from anyone (I'm thinking about Jeremy Allen White's character Lip from Shameless - such an awesome show). It’s with certainty that I would approach the job of being a mechanic in a way to expresses the way I see myself. On the other side, if my character describes themselves as a submissive, quiet, conservative and obedient employee, I will fix the motorcycle physically different than the badass version. How my character behaves is a product of how they see themself and how the world sees them.


Now that you have all the data from the 3 legs of the stool, you have a foundation to make informed decisions. Combine this deep character awareness with the amazing acting craft tool you have learned along your journey (and inside the Toolbox), and you can bring to life a version of what’s on the printed page and that person you lift from the pages will be based on a faithful and honest interpretation of the scriptwriter’s intent.


1. What Do I Say About Myself?

2. What Do Others Say About Me?

3. What Do I Do?


Start there and you are on solid ground. If you don’t…if you only do 1 or 2 legs of the stool, well you know what will happen. The stool will fall over. And what that means is that your character will have unintended flaws, missing parts and never truly resemble the character the scriptwriter intended.


Now, grab a script, a pencil, a notepad and get to work!

I hope this post has inspired you in some small way. I look forward to reading your comments.

Bye for now,

See you inside the Toolbox.

Email: actorsapproachtoolbox@gmail.com

Website: www.actorsapproach.com

Linktree: https://linktr.ee/actorsapproachcrafttoolbox

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