How to Work on Playing Status as an Actor
Status is something that is present in every human interaction, yet often ignored in our acting work. Understanding status and being able to effectively integrate this concept into your acting process is very powerful. Each month I review monologues and scenes as part of Stagemilk Drama Club, and one of the most common notes I give is about a lack of acknowledgment of status. The acting is likely to be very naturalistic and truthful but there is no power dynamic within the scene. Whether you are playing Oberon, the King of the Fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or the Truffaldino in The Servant of Two Masters, understanding and playing with status can seriously elevate your acting.
What is Status?
Status is the difference in control or power in a relationship between two or more characters. A high-status character has the power or control over the lower status character or dominates, in some way, the relationship. This status could be blatant like in the relationship of king and servant, or could be more subtle in a domestic relationship. It’s also important to note that status in this context is not just based on social rank. A father isn’t necessarily more high-status than a son, and in my example of king and servant before, you can certainly have a high-status servant—who might on paper have no power—but wield all the power in the scene you are working on (Lear and Fool in King Lear are a classic example of exactly this.)
Status can also be ephemeral, and alter over the course of a play. Elizabeth in Stephen Jefferies’ The Libertine is a great example. She begins as a very low status failed actor and by the end proclaims “I am not the sparrow you picked up in the roadside, my love. London walks into this theatre to see me”—once she has reached the maturity of her acting ability. In her final monologue, she is still technically a low status character (actors at that time were not high in the social standing.) And yet: she stands up to an Earl! Whenever I watch a student work on this monologue I always talk about status. She is so high-status at this point, and if you ignore that the entire story collapses.
The Goal of Working on Status
Exploring status gives you options. Most actors generally bring their own level of status into their acting, but that is very limiting. It’s most common that I see young or inexperienced actors struggling with status. It’s hard to take up space and be in charge, and to embody rulers, or generals, or famous actors is tough!
Status helps an audience understand a scene and story. It brings a human edge to a scene, as it illustrates the underlying desire many of us (or all of us, if we’re honest) feel to jostle around for a more powerful or desirable place in the pack.
It also helps with comedy. Some of the all-time classic comedy duos are clear status relations: Falstaff and Hal, Basil Fawlty and Manuel, Rick and Morty.
Status is always present whether we like it or not. There is always a sense of the status between two or more individuals. This may evolve or even reverse during the course of a story, but it is always present.
Playing with Status as an Actor
Our voice is the number-one giveaway of status. A high-status character generally is always “on resonance” (they speak with their full voice). They avoid mumbling and uncommitted vocal choices. Generally speaking, they speak slower and with more assurance. Low-status characters often have thinner, higher voices or, as mentioned previously, have a more disjointed or broken quality to their voice. Because low-status characters are often afraid to be truly heard, or afraid of what other think of them, their words often fall short of reaching the other character or can have a drooping energy.
Depending on the status of your character, think about how you breathe as well. Deep, centred breathing is a great indicator of status. And finding that deep breathing will also manifest in a stronger more intense vocal presence.
Beyond voice, physical work is the most obvious place to explore status. With high-status characters, we almost always have a tall spine. The term spineless, a common mark of a low status character, may hunch or contort their spine. So definitely playing with posture is important.
Think also about the centre of your character.
Do you open out your chest to the world or concave away?
From which body part do you lead when you walk across the room? Head? Chest? Hips?
Also, how you interact with other actors? Think about handshakes, touches. Confident, and open.
Have you ever had a conversation with someone that holds a ridiculous amount of eye contact? They are either a little mad, or incredibly high-status. The ability to be able to truly engage, listen and maintain solid eye contact is one of the main displays of a high-status character. They are also very purposeful with their eyelines (Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now is a master of status-led eye-line work.)
Low status characters can barely hold eye contact or, at best, are scattered and unassured. Play with darting eyes, or constantly shifting gaze away from the person who you are speaking to. Where does your character feel most comfortable looking in a room, especially with higher-status people?
Many of you are reading the above ideas and thinking “I know some people who I really look up to who are very high-status but have the worst posture, terrible voices, etc.!” Well, that’s because attitude trumps all of this! If you walk into a room with ease and confidence, your status smashes through. That is why all the physical work in the world is not going to get you over the line if you are striving for monstrous amounts of status!
High confidence = high status and arrogance. Think Obama (or Trump, if you must.)
One other great way to get inside the status of your character is to think about how others see you. When you are low-status, you walk into situations assuming people will see you that way. Or if not that insecurity, something else (or worse!) “Everyone thinks I am stupid, or ugly, or all the above” When you are high-status, think about how people admire you, respect you, fear you, love you. Use their energy and feed off it!
It would be an unhelpful simplification to say high-status characters are less emotional. Most stories involve the very opposite notion: a high-status character is knocked off course and becomes very emotional as a result. But lead roles in film, tv and theatre are all heroes of their tales. No matter what they have been through, there is still an attitude of hope: a drive to pursue their objective and ‘win’ the day.
Low-status characters, on the other hand, are often defeated by problems. They fall more easily into a victim mentality and complain. One example is in the recent TV sensation The Witcher. Geralt, the titular Witcher, is a very high-status character who follows to the tee almost every indicator above—strong physicality, slow and clear speech in a deep register and a certainty in all he does. On the other hand, his comic sidekick Jaskier is far more of a low-status counterpart. He is full of worry and complaints, and every problem they face seems, to him, insurmountable.
Your character’s personal history impacts your relationship to other people and the world. In story, we are often playing leaders or other great people. Whether they have achieved fame, or financial success, or even notoriety, they have usually done a lot with their lives. I often say to actors who are portraying top lawyers, or businesspeople: “What is it like to early $2000 an hour? What does it feel like every morning to wake up in a mansion?”
In your own life, your personal history informs how you hold yourself and interact with others. Even me with StageMilk. If you find an article I wrote seven years ago, when no one knew StageMilk and I was just randomly blogging whilst studying acting at University, my articles were full of self-deprecating remarks and other insecurities. And even though some of those uncertainties remain, the fact that millions of actors read StageMilk, and I work with actors everyday, has transformed how I write and interact when giving acting advice.
So think about the history of your character. And play imaginatively with what that does to your character and the way you hold yourself.
One final word on status when playing especially with other actors. Status is magnified when those other actors endow you with the qualities of a high- or low-status character. Encourage your scene partners to work with you on this. If you are playing a character that is “intimidating” or “powerful”, their relationship to you will be as powerful as the way you react to them. Acting is always a team sport and how you interact with other actors will help an audience with status.
Practical Section: Questions to Ask Yourself
Hopefully, above I have outlined some of the major areas to investigate when developing status. But I wanted to give you some simple questions to reflect on when you next explore a character. Remember, there are no right answers! Simply explore the questions and see how they inform the work:
- Is my character high- or low-status?
- Was that status thrust upon them (i.e. a prince or king) or did they work for it?
- Is status important to my character?
- How does my status affect the above areas of my characterisation (voice/movement/relationships)?
If you are currently working on status within your acting, I hope this has been a helpful overview. As I mentioned earlier, it certainly needs to be acknowledged, because it is always there whether you like it or not. There is a power dynamic in every scene, and understanding that dynamic can be the key to bringing the story to life. Let status and the investigation of status inform your choices. Because it is a gateway into understanding the character and how that character interacts with the world.
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