Theatre Information

Character or Show?

By • Sep 16th, 2009 • Category: An Actor's Advice

In my last column I addressed the notion of trying out for a show, even if you are not in love with every single aspect of it. To review my reasons, see my column from two weeks ago.

While I of course stand by what I said, at some point in time once you are committed to being in a show, a decision must be made. I actually consider this one of the most important decisions an actor has to make. Not merely in any given show, but in one’s approach to acting in general.

It boils down to this often-controversial question: Should you be more devoted to your character or your show?

Two schools of thought are applicable here. One that says every moment you are on stage is designed merely to move the specific plot forward. In this viewpoint the actor on stage is a means by which a specific end is reached. (See also, David Mamet’s school of acting.) In this view, the show as a whole takes precedence over your feelings for your character.

The other school of thought dictates that any given moment the only thing an actor can control, the one thing he can own, is his character. It is the aspect of the show that he will spend the most time with, get to know the most, and of course will bring to life. Productions are symphonies of coordinated individual performances brought into harmony by a good director, and universal desire on the part of the cast. In this view, an actor’s particular character, and his relationship thereto reigns supreme. Call this the Laurence Olivier school. Or, in case you have not guessed it by now, the Ty Unglebower school.

Indeed, I am of the character based persuasion in such a “showdown.”

Even if you love the whole show you are in, I maintain the importance of giving your character a bit more attention and affection than the entire arc of the production. An audience can afford to invest everything into the entire experience. The actor while in that show, cannot.

Why is this? It’s because I feel an actor should ignore the overall success of the play. On the contrary, every actor should have the success of the show as a priority Yet the best way to achieve that goal is to focus on nurturing your character, because no play is just one story. A play is a collection of individual stories, about individual characters. Any given character’s story may not be the focus of the play, or even of a given scene. Their story may not even get mentioned in the script, but their story exists to be told, if to nobody else but the actor portraying him.

I’m reminded of that ancient theatre story of the man who is playing a torch bearer in Romeo and Juliet. His friend asks him one day what the play is about. He answers, “Well, it’s all about this servant he runs around carrying a torch all night.”

Theatre may or may not be realistic, as compared to life. But it should at least be familiar. Even a farce should represent elements in humanity that we can relate to as an audience. This, I argue, is only achieved when, as in life, each character is empowered to control only his own circumstances, motivated by what he wants or needs. If an actor is constantly focused on how his actions and performance will set up some payoff five scenes from now, the performance loses something.

An actor should be aware of both the power and responsibility of assuming an identity not his own for two hours. This cannot be done when he considers himself a mere cog in the turning machinery of a larger vision. His story must be incorporated into that vision, not held hostage by it. As in life, tension between people, good and bad, makes things happen.

By no means is this view universal, and as I mentioned, this can be a controversial topic among theatre people, amateur and professional. Actors and playwrights and directors. Yet I have always believed in the old adage that the stage is an actor’s medium. I don’t shy away from that now, and I hope that you will not either.

(For further consideration of both of these “schools,” I recommend True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor by David Mamet for one side, and On Acting by Laurence Olivier for the other.)

This article can be linked to as:

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.

3 Responses »

  1. Bravo Ty, well put and said. The actor, I believe should be dedicated to both their character and the play/production as well. Giving 110% to both. The production falters if the character faulters. Recently I completed directing “Dearly Departed” for the Port Tobacco Players. One thing I told the actors was that the production will not be believable and will fall flat if the character they are portraying is not believable. Be the character, live the character and tell your story even if you are only in one scene with no lines. Your character comes alive and then the whole productiuon comes alive and the audience is transported into the “real world” of the characters within the production.

  2. Ty I can see why we disagreed before. we come total oppisite ends of the spectrum when it comes to acting.

    But I do like reading your stuff.


  3. Thank you both for your comments. (Belated as my response may be to them.) I am glad you enjoy reading my work, even if you do not agree with my approach to the craft. Indeed, I feel that is the strength of the craft, that there are so many options to arrive at the same place.