The majority of my recent trip to Disneyland involved standing in line for thrill rides and waiting to meet my favorite childhood (and adulthood, who am I kidding) characters. Or rather, I waited to meet actors portraying those beloved characters. To be honest, I sometimes forgot there was an actor in that Mickey Mouse costume, or that there was an actress who put on makeup to look like Cruella DeVill and made it her mission to terrorize children.
The character actors hired for Disney parks are under strict guidelines because they are representing possibly the most well-known brand in the world. They cannot break character for even a moment; that often involves feigning ignorance at the simplest things or interacting with people in outrageous ways. While it’s always implied in the world of theatre that you cannot break character, I’ve never seen it so heavily enforced as I have in the Happiest Place on Earth. It’s the perfect illustration of the importance of staying in character.
The best example from my own experiences would be my first time performing in a pantomime. One dark and stormy night, my scene partner and I were wandering the stage telling exaggerated and punderful jokes when an intoxicated patron decided to start heckling us and (at one point) threatening us. I’ll admit, our jokes weren’t noteworthy but the man’s calls and accusations where not only disturbing the audience around him but it disrupted the scene entirely. I opted to ignore the man’s insults but my partner took what the man was saying and made it a part of the scene. The audience loved it and the man calmed enough to let us get through the scene.
What was the correct way to handle this situation? Is there a correct way? Do you acknowledge the loud obnoxious guest or do you simply power through it?
One of the many jobs an actor has is to keep the dream alive; to maintain the illusion of the story no matter what. Whether it’s donning an incredibly mousy voice to ask how much pixie dust it takes to get to Canada or keeping an audience distracted from the ogre in the front row, you can’t break focus for even a moment. And that requires a very specific skill set.
Even in high school drama class, I hated improvisation. It is my least favorite part of choosing a career in the performing arts. I never realized how much improv is involved in an average rehearsal or performance simply because of an on stage mishap or an unruly audience member. Through the broken set pieces, flubbed lines, and missed quick changes, the number one thing you’ll hear is: “Just improvise”.
It’s a skill I’m working on every day (out of necessity) but being surrounded by these actors who absolutely cannot break character, I’m developing an appreciation for the value of improvisation.