You probably know the answer to this question already. Ish. Like “action“, “arc”, “motivation” and “objective“, “given circumstances” is a phrase so intrinsically linked to acting—so fundamental a set of tools in our craft—it’s easy to forget exactly what it is they are, or how useful they can be.
Given circumstances are a set of dramaturgical tools an actor might use to determine the wider context of a character or scene. Often posed as the “who”, “when”, “where”, “why” and “how” questions, they develop an actor’s understanding of a script’s context. This then allows the actor to create a more considered and nuanced performance.
Given circumstances require balanced measures of imagination and detective work. Yes, it is up to you to create a detailed backstory or a rich, inner life for a character that might not necessarily be on the page! However, given circumstances should always be informed by what the writer put down on the page: make sure you can justify every one of your choices, and ground them to the reality of the world of the script. In this article, we will talk about the origins of given circumstances as teaching tools of Konstantin Stanislavski, and how they have been further explored and improved by practitioners such as Uta Hagen.
Konstantin Stanislavski Given Circumstances
Stanislavski’s work on given circumstances can be traced back to his early days at Moscow Art Theatre, and are subsequently explored in his book An Actor’s Work. He thought of given circumstances as the environmental and situational modifiers that might a sway character’s actions within a scene.
Interestingly, Stanslavski puts given circumstances in the same category as the “Magic If” as “products of imagination”. However, through a process of script analysis (or simply reading the script) it is often within an actor’s grasp to wrest cold, hard facts from the text.
Uta Hagen – Given Circumstances saved me.
I’ve recently gone on a bit of an Uta Hagen/Given Circumstances binge. This binge has brought me back from the edge. I started thinking that I couldn’t act. That the combination of bringing a character to life while telling a story was too much. I was a step away from throwing in the towel because I had turned acting into a concept. A convoluted concept filled with metaphor and intellectualisms which made the whole process stressful. Then my friend flippantly mentioned Given Circumstances. Queue my lightbulb moment. Uta Hagen’s Given Circumstances was the real world solution to my excessively cerebral acting process. It’s not dumbing your work down, it’s grounding it in real life.
Here are Uta Hagen’s essential questions for understanding your characters Given Circumstances:
Who am I? Answer as many details about your character as you can including name, age, address, relatives, likes, dislikes, hobbies, career, physical traits, opinion, beliefs, religion, education, origin, enemies, loved ones etc.
What time is it? Answer these questions for every scene. Century, season, year, day, hour, minute. Discover the significance of time for you characters. How does the time of day influence your mood?
Where am I? Country, city, neighbourhood, home, room, area within a room. Is it your home? Your enemies kitchen?
What surrounds me? Discover all the animate and inanimate objects around you. Be specific. How does the presence of a knife change the scene?
What are the given circumstances of the past, present, and potential future? As an actor your research needs to be specific so that your performance isn’t generalised. Detail the past, present and potential future so you can play in the moment.
What are my relationships in the scene? Define for yourself your relationship to the events, other characters, and objects in each scene.
What do I want? This one is really closely related to actions/objectives. Be specific about your characters needs, immediate and longer term.
What do I do to get what I want? This is what rehearsals are for. Try different tactics to try and achieve your character’s objectives. Test which tactics work. Find a few options and play in the moment. Stay reactive.
When I first started acting I would intentionally blur my vision so that I could imagine everything that was happening around my character in the story; the story I had constructed for myself while reading the script. The only problem was it had the opposite effect. I couldn’t see what was actually happening around me. I couldn’t respond to what the other performers were giving me because I was trapped in my own world. Being specific with my given circumstances and sharing my ideas with other cast members and making decisions as a group got us all on the same page. Uta Hagen’s work saved me then, and it has saved me now.
I highly recommend it as a foundation for your work on stage and screen.
Exercise: Pack Your Bags
Let’s put the concept into practice with a simple exercise—one you may very well have done in drama school.
Start by miming packing a bag.
If you’ve roped somebody into watching you do this, you might want to check in with them as to how thrilling it was (it wasn’t). And if their response is less than enthused (it will be), consider applying some given circumstances: where are you going? Why are you packing this bag? Who are you, this character who is packing a bag? What do you want by packing this bag? Where in time are you, what’s going on in your immediate vicinity?
A police officer going on holiday to Hawaii will pack a bag differently than a distraught woman trying to escape a tornado. Or packing for a funeral. Or packing precious cargo. Or drugs you’ve been told to smuggle through an airport if you want to see your family again.
Applying different given circumstances can be extremely useful in adding life and depth to a simple narrative of packing a bag. Imagine what you can do with a full-length script…
Give it a go!