We do so much work getting into character, but how do troubleshoot that moment when you “drop out of character”. Getting back into the flow of things, physically, mentally and emotionally is difficult, especially when there’s a live audience watching you do it. Let’s investigate some ways that we can stay in character throughout performance!
Picture This Scene:
You’ve rehearsed a play for four weeks. Dress rehearsals have gone well, all the tech elements of the show are in place and you’re now standing backstage with your other cast members listening to the audience shuffle into their seats. Your costume is on and you feel in the right headspace to do what you need to do. Nerves are high, your heartbeat is up, but you’ve done the work. You’re physically, vocally and intellectually warmed up, now all that is required is to take the dive into your character. You make your entrance. The scene is going fantastic and everyone is doing what they need to do.
All of a sudden, however, something happens. Maybe you stumble on the set, maybe you see the face of someone you know if the audience, maybe a line gets delivered to you in a different way to what you’re used to. Whatever it is, you feel yourself being pulled out of the artifice. You become all too aware of yourself in this artificial environment. The people around you are no longer astronauts on the CALYX-12 Spacecraft, they are just your friends and fellow actors. The set around you ceases to hum with vibrancy, and you realise that the flashing red light is not an alert for an incoming asteroid, is just a light which Dan the set designer fashioned from stuff he’d bought from the hardware store last night. The clothes you wear, too, have lost all meaning to you; this isn’t a space suit, it’s just spray painted overalls! And worst of all is the feeling you get about the person in the overalls: you. No longer are you Captain McTavish, Scottish scrapyard worker turned deep space explorer. No, you’re just you, standing on a wooden platform in front of a bunch of people wearing clothes that don’t really fit you.
Uh oh. You’ve dropped out of character.
Let’s have a chat about what we can do to prevent this situation, and what we can do to get back in character if we’re in need.
Changing the Framework
To begin with, I think it’s of value to us to shift the framework a bit. Many of us are concerned with the question of staying in character, like it’s a mask we wear for the whole duration of a performance, or a body of water we dive into, remaining completely submerged until the curtains come down or the director calls “cut”. I tend to agree that this is the ideal feeling to strive towards, but I’d also like to free us from this obligation a bit.
Let’s look at a visual representation for the situation I’ve just described:
Looking at this graph, the red line is this idea we spoke about before, your ‘dive’ into the character. Everything above the horizontal line is you, feeling as you normally do in your day to day life. Everything below the horizontal line is you in character, thinking and feeling and doing as the character does. The letter A is the start of the show, B is the middle, and C is the end. (Where this conversation treads into the territory of ‘method acting’ is when we extend A – C from the beginning of rehearsals to wrapping on the final day of the shoot. Dangerous territory.)
This is the ideal, right? We all want to be submerged completely then let it all go at the end of the show/scene/ take. Well, not necessarily. Obliging ourselves to this model can actually be quite constrictive, and if and when we do get taken out of the moment for whatever reason, we can start to stress because we are no longer dropped in. Fixation on this model can start a downward spiral. Let’s look at an alternative structure for our time as the character:
Now we’re talking. This red line is a model for character immersion which I feel is both more accurate to our experience and more sustainable for us. We must accept that we will come in and out of character frequently. We’re playing make believe, and no matter how hard we force our minds and imaginations to believe in the truth of the story, we’re going to have moments where we come back to reality. This is natural, and taking it one step further, this is important.
Some of you may disagree with me, (please disagree if you like, it makes for more interesting conversation!) and feel that coming out of character like this is bad non-truthful acting. My argument is that acting a character is like driving a car. The vehicle is the character – taking us on the journey and seeming from the outside to function autonomously. But the vehicle is nothing without us behind the wheel. We are driving the character, and it is up to us to develop our skills to be able to drive the character in an ever more sophisticated way. It’s the ‘duck on water’ analogy: the duck glides effortlessly across the surface of the water, causing barely a ripple, but underneath the surface its webbed feet are working tirelessly to get the job done.
If we allow for the fact that we will inevitably have moments where we come out of character, then everything is fine and going to plan when it does happen! We can then breathe through the experience and use some pre-planned tools to get us back in the zone.
Let’s move on now to some tried and tested techniques for building a strong connection with our character, to prevent dropping out and allowing us to stay in character as much as possible.
The strength of our ability to stay in character corresponds to the quality of our preparation. This process begins from the moment we accept a role, not just on the first day of rehearsals. All the work we do in the lead up to rehearsals and throughout rehearsals themselves contribute to the depth of our performance and character, but there are a few additional techniques you may not yet have considered which assist this process.
Physical entry points, in my experience, are the best way to develop a strong connection to a character. If I feel as though I ‘am’ the character physically, I’m far more likely to stay dropped in. So how do we create a physical connection with the character? There are a number of ways, here are a few examples:
Identifying the character’s movement centre:
- Figuring out how your character moves begins with identifying where your character moves from. This may seem like an odd expression, but at its most basic form a movement centre is simply a place in the body where movement originates. This can be in the form of energetic centres such as Chakras, or specific points on the body such as the forehead, chin, hips or shoulders.
- Chakras can be a fantastic way for us to drop back into character. If, in rehearsal, we identify and then practise which chakra the character moves from, we have then created a ‘trigger’ of sorts to tap back into in a time of crisis. Different characters will ‘move from’ different chakras for different reasons.
- Highly intellectual characters may move primarily from the crown, empaths from the heart and instinctual characters by the Sacral or root. It’s up to you to find the nuance of this practise, but identifying this movement centre can be really helpful for staying in character.
- If you want a more specific movement centre, pick an area on your body and experiment with moving from that place. Perhaps the character moves ‘from the chin’ or ‘from the knees’. See how this affects the rest of your physicality, experiment with degrees of intensity of this movement centre and then naturalise it for performance. Now, in times of dropping out of character, you can reconnect with where the character moves from to drop back in.
- You may like to explore animal work in rehearsals and preparation for the role. This is a technique which some actors love and use frequently, and some actors avoid at all costs. It’s up to you, really. It’s your job to build your own process and figure out what works for you.
- Animal work breaks down into three simple areas: Study an animal of your choosing which you feel is connected to the character, (spirit animal, and animal with similar physicality or pace or tone, you decide.) Next, work through an exploration in a space of adopting the animals’ physicality. Explore the space as that animal, use its physicality to analyse how it makes you feel emotionally. Next, humanise the animal. Return to human physicality gradually, whilst still holding onto some elements of the animal, whether it is physical, pace based or emotional.
- Now you have a new access point to your character- an animal which you can connect with to tap into a role.
- What can you add to the exterior of your character as a device you can use to drop into character? Does the character have some kind of physical uniqueness, ailment or trait which you can manually adopt as a new access point?
- Let me expand on this by giving you an example. A few years back, I played a challenging role in a production of the epic war drama, Journey’s End by RC Sherriff. This was a near 3-hour play where I was on stage at least two thirds of the time. I spent a lot of time on stage in front of an audience, and I certainly experienced many moments where I felt I came out of character. One thing I used to mitigate this was to give my character, Stanhope, a tick. He was a soldier suffering symptoms of PTSD, and the text suggested that he had a slight tremor in one of his hands. I explored this tremor and connected with it. I had to build it artificially, feeling what it felt like to have my hand slightly shaking a lot of the time. Eventually this became an ingrained part of the character, but what it also allowed me was an access point for when I felt like I was in my own head or out of character. I could manufacture this hand tremor – manually, (like the pilot of the vehicle) get my hand to shake, and then miraculously I would start to drop back into the role. This process worked well for me, it could be worth exploring for you.
- NB: It’s important that these ‘prosthetic’ choices are derived from the deep work and understanding of your character. Giving your character a limp for the sake of it can end up being distracting for the audience.
Ultimately, one of the core elements of staying in character is taking the focus off ourselves. Whenever I feel like I’m pulled out of the role is at the times when, for whatever reason, I’m in my head and self conscious. We need to take the focus from ourselves and our increasing fear of dropping character, and place our attention on the world, people and things around us.
This process can be called personalisation or connection or a number of different terms, I like to think of it as endowment.
Learn to pronounce:
verb: endow; 3rd person present: endows; past tense: endowed; past participle: endowed; gerund or present participle: endowing
- provide with a quality, ability, or asset.
We need to establish a connection with everything around us. We need to endow the world with quality, as per the above definition.
Every object you touch on the stage, your character will (should) have a personal connection to. This mug your character is picking up: have they held it before or is this the first time? Do they like the mug or is it cheap? Do they remember when they first held the mug? Was it given to them by someone they love or now despise? The questions go on and on. It’s your work in rehearsals to endow these objects. In doing so, you now have a new access point for the character. When you’re feeling lost, you have the ability to use a prop to drop back into the role.
Again, take the focus off yourselves. Look around you, and see what the character sees. They do not see actors on a stage, they see human beings. And towards these human beings the character feels and thinks a thousand emotions and opinions. The work you do in rehearsals needs to include the personal development of relationships your character has with the other characters. Spend time with your fellow actors, build backstory between your characters, create imagined memories for you to have access to. This tool can be incredibly valuable, as it will not only allow you to think and feel freely as the character does when in the same space as another, it will also allow you to have something to reconnect with mid scene to stay dropped in.
Similarly to the objects and people around you, the world around you is brimming with detail which makes the character feel or think certain things. Build all the details of the world whilst in rehearsal. Use your senses to imagine this detail. What does it look like; think about colour, shadow and texture. What can your character smell, taste or hear in the world? What does the world make your character feel? Hot or cold? Nostalgia or fear? We, as humans, are constantly shaped by our environment. Allow your character to be shaped by theirs, too. Taking your focus off yourself and any feelings of ‘dropping out of the character’ and placing them onto the world around you will suddenly allow you to remember where you are and what you’re doing.
If you’ve read some of my other articles, you’ll know I’m not the biggest fan of the word ‘Objective’. However, ultimately I’m speaking about the same idea when I speak about what your character wants or needs. Whatever term we use, it is the clear intention and desire of the character we must connect with to submerge ourselves into a role.
I’m not going to elaborate on the method of developing your character’s objective here, I’ll instead direct you to another one of our articles, How to Find Your Character’s Objective.
Whether you decide to apply a want/need/objective to each scene or two the whole ark or LIFE of your character does not necessarily matter. What’s most important is that you develop something which you can deeply connect to and hold onto whilst you are performing, in order to keep your character submerged in the moment.
If you’re noticing that your objective doesn’t keep you in the moment but rather gets you in your head or takes you OUT of the moment, it’s worth pursuing your curiosity about what your character truly needs further. Explore your character deeply to find the seed in their soul, the one thing that drives them from their deepest point. This could be something as simple as a hug from their Mother, or a pat on the shoulder from their best friend.
A really fun way of staying in character or tapping back into character is to have a secret. This can be whatever you want it to be. It can be something your character knows about another character, something your character wants to/ is going to do or already did, an object they are concealing or a desire they have.
The best thing about building a secret for your character is that you own it. You, the actor, can and SHOULD keep this a secret from your fellow actors. Having this little thing hidden away can provide a surprising amount of energy and inspiration for you as the character, and it is SO. MUCH. FUN. Let me give you an example in case this isn’t clear.
In drama school (the place for experimenting with all the craziest acting techniques) I played the character Soliony from Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters. Soliony was brooding and mysterious. He felt he was misunderstood by the world. As an access point to my character I had two main techniques. The first was endowment: Soliony rubs perfume on his hands frequently, a fascinating gesture exposing some real physiological activity – I needed to understand where this gesture came from, then carefully endow my own little perfume bottle and it’s scent with substance. The next was my secret. Soliony, at the end of the play (SPOILER ALERT) shoots and kills another character in a duel. My secret was that I had a small (very fake looking lime green) water pistol in my belt hidden under my costume. No-one else could see it, no-one knew I had it. Having this water pistol which I had endowed with the danger and capacity to inflict harm, I could stay deeply in character by connecting with that object and secret frequently. The object itself had many additional benefits, it would affect the way I would stand, sit or move, and the knowledge it was there would influence every interaction I had with each of the characters on stage.
NB: I’m sure this goes without saying, but your secret should NOT be something which could in any way impact another actor’s performance. If it is noticeable and distracting for them, if it is not derived truthfully from the story or character or it is in any way dangerous, it is a selfish and harmful process which should be discarded.
Let’s move now from the time before your performance in rehearsal or prior preparation to game day. It’s showtime. You’re on set or you’re backstage ready for your performance. What are some additional things you can do to stay in character?
What do you do before a performance, other than your warm up, which allows you to drop into the character?
Developing a specific process or ritual which you are able to repeat pre-show can deepen your connection with a character. Do you spend time connecting with the space, an object or your costume? Do you reignite the flame of a memory or your characters need? Do you listen to a piece of music? Whatever the device is, doing something personal to you and your character and having that as a part of your preparation process for performance can be essential.
Tapping in and out
This process is often used when dealing with high intensity acting, such as scenes of violence or of a sexual nature. I find this process useful for tapping into a role as a whole.
Tapping in can be an action or a gesture which you do by yourself or with another actor to signify that you are now ‘in character’ as opposed to being yourself. It signifies that it is now time to work. Waiting for the director to call action or for the lights to come up on you on stage is too late to be dropping in. That process needs to have already begun. The process of tapping in allows for the behaviour of your character to come to the surface, removing the barriers of typical social conduct. In short, it can free up the air of the awkwardness associated with playing make believe as adults. By tapping in, you and the ensemble agree that, “For the next little while, we are the characters. All the things we’ve rehearsed and agreed upon as an ensemble in terms of our characters behaviour and actions is now permitted.”
Tapping out at the conclusion of the performance is equally important. This signifies that the performance of a character has now ended, and we are now ourselves again. This allows us to start the process of recovering and resting between performances as early as possible, so we have as much energy as we can for the next time.
This process establishes a clear break between us and the character, allowing us to take a step into the character clearly, rather than stumbling unclearly into the shoes of our character in scene or take 3.
You now have all of the above tools, triggers and access points at your disposal for staying in character during a performance, or dropping back into the moment if you are suddenly lifted out of it.
In the moment you feel yourself coming out of character, one crucial tool is your best asset for keeping your cool: Breath.
Breathe through your experience. Taking a breath rather than tensing up and trying to control the experience and force yourself to stay in character will only strangle your performance. Breathe when you feel disconnected from the role. Allow yourself to be in that place, knowing that you anticipated this would happen eventually. Drop back into your character step by step, prioritising breath and relaxation over speed and force.
The audience, 99% of the time, will not know when you have dropped out of character. Your feelings will most likely remain internal – so before they reach the external, you now have a process to connect with to work your way through your experience.
Staying in character is a moment to moment result of a process which began long before you stepped foot on stage. Setting yourself up for success by creating effective triggers and access points to your character and allowing for the wave-like experience of immersion in your character will see you having the most enjoyable time in your performance.
This is Captain McTavish, Spacecraft CALYX-12 Pilot, signing off. Good luck out there!