Offstage characters

TSDC scripts include characters who are referred to, but never seen or heard from. These characters have included case workers, building superintendents, difficult relatives, employers, cashiers, security personnel, people who have helped on-stage characters in the past, and people who are engaged in drug dealing and sex trafficking. We made a conscious decision not to have community performers represent these characters on stage. Our reasoning was two-fold:

  • On a practical level, the number of performers in each show are limited and they are generally not trained as actors. It would be difficult for them to jump from one character to another, especially given our relatively short production periods.
  • More importantly, we want the play’s focus to stay on the kind of community members who are less often represented (and often misrepresented) in public debate. While we want to show their interactions with others, we want the audience to see these relationships from the point of view of the community members whose version of what happened is rarely heard.

So how do we deal with these unseen characters? In three different ways:

Representing unseen characters

Representatives of social roles such as case worker, landlord and their representatives, cashiers and so on:

Performers speak to a spot on the stage as if this person was there. They establish what the invisible character may have said or asked through their responses to them. Here’s an example from We Need to Talk!:

“So, what’s in the bag this week? [pause as if listening] White bread, pasta, candies, a dented can of tuna. But I told you, I’m diabetic. I can’t eat these things. Can you substitute something else?” [pause] “No. Well I guess I’ll just take the tuna. Yeah. See you next month.”

Someone an onstage character has an emotional relationship with:

We often use phone calls, where the audience hears only the onstage character’s side of the conversation. This allows the performer to demonstrate the emotional effect the unseen character is having on them while also conveying information that may be important to the play’s narrative. For instance, in this scene from When My Home is Your Business, ‘Alice’ talks to her brother, who has once again come to her apartment building drunk in the middle of the night:

“Well I hope you’re happy. You come in here drunk, crashing into the walls all the way down the hall and banging on my door in the middle of the night. You woke up all the neighbours and now they won’t even speak to me. Don’t you ever embarrass me like that again!”

People whose interaction with an onstage character is important to the plot:

Their actions are often described by one character in the play to another. For example, in Choose Your Destination, while sitting together on the bus, ‘Amelia’ describes to ‘Snow’ how a really nice customer she met at work who has beautiful clothes and a fancy car invited her to a party at her home but told her to come alone. When the play’s other characters overhear the conversation, they recognize the address as belonging to a ‘trap house’ and suspect that Amelia’s ‘nice’ customer may be luring her into a sex trafficking situation. On the other end of the spectrum, in All of Us Together ‘Sapphire’ describes an older man who believed in him and helped him in his youth and how much the memory of that still means to him.


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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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