Defining characters

After we’ve done several initial scene improvisations, each performer often begins to spontaneously play a relatively consistent character. At this point, we shift attention to collectively defining each character. This process allows us to think about how characters will appear to others, not just how the performer/character might understand their own actions. Collective character defining activities also provide individual participants with additional resources they can use to develop their fictionalized characters.

We start by working through one of the initial scene improvisations. This time we ask each performer to give their chosen character a fictional name.

Giving characters fictional names:

  • Makes it easier for participants to think in terms of what a person might do in a given situation without feeling that they have to decide whether they would personally do that, or not.
  • Makes it easier to hear suggestions for change without taking them personally or as criticism.
  • Creates a clear distinction between the performer and the character, which is important because during the performance it discourages audiences from taking a voyeuristic attitude and intruding into the personal lives of the performer-advocates.

Here’s a documentary-style character development exercise we like to use that Catherine learned from the Théâtre Parminou and the Théâtre du Campus.

Character development exercise

  1. Ask for a volunteer to offer their character to start us off (For purposes of this description, we’ll work with the character ‘Jude’.)
  2. Place a chair at the front of the room and explain that we’re going to proceed as if a documentary filmmaker or a television reporter is doing a story about Jude. The filmmaker/reporter is going to interview people who know Jude to find out more about them and what people appreciate about them.
  3. Ask the group, “Who, aside from the other characters in the play, might know Jude?” A best friend? A former roommate? A boss? A former teacher? A coworker? A brother or sister?
  4. Together, choose one of the relationships the group suggests (let’s go with Jude’s boss).
  5. Explain that, everybody in the room, including the person who has been playing Jude, will take a turn at playing Jude’s boss for the purpose of this exercise.
  6. One by one, ask participants to sit in the chair and, speaking as Jude’s boss, to say 1-3 sentences about Jude. Remind them to keep in mind the things we’ve seen Jude do and heard them say in the initial scene improvisations. This ensures that there is a logic to the character.
  7. Repeat until everyone in the group gets to occupy the chair and the role of Jude’s boss. Remember, it’s important to make sure that the person who usually plays Jude is also invited to speak about Jude as if they were Jude’s boss.
  8. When everyone has had a chance to play Jude’s boss, we choose another of the suggested relationships and repeat the exercise. Depending how long this takes, we might even choose a third relationship, but it is important to leave enough time to ensure that the group is able to discuss all the characters. This often takes the better part of one workshop session.

Defining characters through this kind of fictional and collective process discourages an emphasis on personal psychology. Instead, it encourages the group to imagine the characters they’ll be performing as people who have an impact on the world around them. We come to know the characters as people who are part of, and involved in public life, and public discussion. This is an important step towards facilitating the kind of inclusion in public debate of people whose voices are rarely heard that TSDC performances seek to encourage.

It needs to be made clear, however, that the performer playing Jude doesn’t have to take everything that’s said about the character to heart. This too, reflects the nature of public discourse. After all, sometimes people say things about a person in public that aren’t true, or that represent a misunderstanding based on the speaker’s perspective or agenda. It’s worthwhile, though, to encourage performers to think about how they could use some of the things they’ve heard to give their character a certain depth, while drawing on their own personal story only to the extent that is comfortable for them.

There are ethical dimensions to this approach too. Through this process, participants are invited to create characters that include some characteristics of their own (if only their physical appearance). They are also invited to include characteristics that are not true of them. The goal is to make it impossible for the audience to feel sure that they know what might be true about the performer and what might be purely fictional.

The main intention of this exercise is to develop a deeper sense of how characters might function in the broader world and the kinds of relationships they might have. Sometimes, though, things come out of these exercises that contribute in significant ways to the play’s narrative. In When My Home is Your Business, for instance, someone described how one of the characters (Emma) purchased flower seeds for other tenants in the building. The interviewee explained that even though Emma had very little money, she bought the flowers because she hoped they could work together to beautify their surroundings. This became an important plot point. It allowed us to show how, despite constraints, neighbours can work together for everyone’s benefit. It also led us to include in the script an invitation to the audience at the end of the play to think about what they might want to plant in their community.


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Transforming Stories, Driving Change Copyright © by Helene Vosters, Catherine Graham, Chris Sinding is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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