Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Creating Characters

Imagine being at work and listening to your office mate lapse in and out of a German accent.  Or what about being downstairs and hearing your mother talking so loudly and lively in her bedroom that you think she has company up there.  Or observing a tall bearded man clumsily twirling around with arms in the air.  Or noticing a woman staring at every man she sees in public.  What do these things have in common you might ask?  They are just some of the things that the actors in The Carol Burnett Show: Your Favorite Sketches are doing to develop their characters for the production.

One of the challenges of acting in the show is that all of the actors play a variety of roles and characters.  So, unlike a regular play in which an actor usually plays only one role and develops the character throughout the rehearsals, in this show, each actor is playing at least 3 different characters. Along with the scripts for the sketches came a note from Carol Burnett herself on how to play them.  In it she says that in a sketch “the actor has very little time to establish his character and situation.  He must be ‘broader,’ his timing a little sharper, his pacing a little faster.  But, above, all, even in the most slapstick, farcical situation, he must be truthfully motivated.  He must maintain in his approach to the characterization basic good reasons for doing and saying what the script calls for.”  She also tells us to “extend from life.  The naturally funny physical things that people do should be exaggerated into the ridiculous.”

There are so many elements to creating an interesting character… a particular voice, an accent or dialect, a body posture, an attitude, a mannerism….  Take for example the actor playing the “Carol” role (aka Marion) in As the Stomach Turns.  The person playing this part says she is patterning the character a little after her mother who was ‘that person’ that others would go to in order to talk about their problems, as “Marion” is in the sketch.  The only variation is that, as far as she knows, her mother was not smitten with door-to-door salesmen like her character, making her, the actor, feel like she’s playing a split personality.

One of my challenges is that I play a character that changes from female to male multiple times during the sketch… speaking of multiple personalities!  I’ve got the hang of being female fairly well but acting male, which I apologize ahead of time to the opposite sex is sometimes overdone and stereotypic, creates more of a test for me.  I find myself exaggerating some of the female elements of my character… higher voice, leg crossing, primping… to provide more of a contrast to the male characterizations.  To research the part, I frequently stare at men in public places, watching the way they stand and move, not to mention having had most of the men in the cast model some male stances for me.  I’m not ready to give away my manly secrets here…. you’ll have to come to the show for that.

The actor who plays Mama says “I am trying to work on body positioning, as well as my 'hick' accent.  The accent is coming, but I find that facial gestures are more difficult to hold, so I usually use a prop as a distraction (shot glass, fly swatter or wrap).”  She tries to keep her negative attitude befitting the character portrayed through her mouth and eyes.  She says that having two daughters at home helps her understand how the battling back and forth goes, so the onstage reactions to these parts of the sketch come directly from her offstage role as a mother.  She adds, “not that my own conversations with my own two daughters resemble this sketch, but I CAN imagine how they would play out, for sure!

Stay tuned… another post coming soon with more from the actors in the show about developing their characters!

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