Theatre Information

Recreating Historical Figures On Stage

By • Nov 19th, 2008 • Category: An Actor's Advice

One of the largest assumptions people make about acting is that playing actual historical figures is rather easy. (In this context, let us limit ‘historical figures’ as those of whom photographs and or audio/visual records exist. Say the last 100 years.)

After all, so it is argued, one need only study the tapes or videos and such long enough, and with some make-up or a wig, a near perfect mimicry of the subject can take place. A made-to-order performance.

Tempting. But like many temptations, it is an empty seduction.

It is true that an actor has many reference points from which to work when playing a role based on a real person. It is also true that some people possess a very keen sense of mimicry, as I mentioned. Such folks can replicate just about any person’s mannerisms after being exposed to them for but short periods of time.

But it is that very talent that can lead those unfamiliar with acting into trouble.

Acting is not mimicry. It is invoking. It is bringing to life a representation of a human being. Therefore, merely walking, talking, and smiling as JFK did, even if the result is a dead ringer, may be a performance, but isn’t acting.

Portraying a real person requires a strange dichotomy; a high degree of familiarity with the subject matter, along with a willingness to stand back from it from an objective point of view.

In other words it is a delicate balance that not all actors can strike. (Including, unfortunately, many A-List Hollywood types who have starred in blockbuster biopics.)

When you portray a fictional character, one that exists only within the realm of the play you are in, you have more freedom to create a personality. You do not have this looming, public knowledge of how the real person acted, looked, or spoke. You are free from the pressure of trying to “get it right,” and therefore have more mental and artistic faculties available with which to produce a masterpiece that is in your own image.

That is not to say that portraying real people lacks rewards for the actor. I have done it more than once, and was proud of my performances. But I had been acting for several years before I tried it with any degree of sincerity. I developed my overall craft first, so I could obtain that balance I mentioned, and avoid merely mimicking the subjects.

I would encourage any other new actors to wait before tackling the real people as well.

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is a Maryland native and has been acting for nine years, having studied it at Marietta College in Ohio. He has been schooled in Shakespeare, improvisation, public speaking and voice articulation throughout his career. His credits to date include over 30 plays and readings as well as 2 films. You can also read his blogs (for theatre related thoughts) and (for thoughts on personal success from an outcast). Follow him on Twitter @TyUnglebower.

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