Creating Characters as an Actor and as a Playwright

Adriana Nocco & Anthony J. Piccione

When a new play or musical is being created and produced, one of the most important aspects that will make or break the show is the quality of its cast of characters…or lack thereof. Both its playwright and actors play critical roles in developing these characters and in ultimately bringing them to life. The playwright’s role is to imagine and formulate a world full of people, a temporary sphere of life, inside which the actors will live, breathe and “play” for a limited period of time. The actors’ role is to inhabit said world and figure out how the characters they will be setting out to play fit into it. Just as the skills that are necessary to be great in either of these professions are very different, so are the ways in which playwrights and actors set out to create and develop characters. However, while there certainly are some differences in the way that the approach this task, some might be surprised at just how many similarities there are as well.

A Playwright’s Perspective (Anthony J. Piccione)

It goes without saying that creating characters is one of the first things that a playwright does when he or she writes a new play. Before writing a single scene – much less a single line of dialogue – it must be determined who the central characters are. Not merely who they are, but every small detail that you can think of that may be relevant to the story. Only then can you know what kind of story you are about to create that will eventually be brought to life.

One of the many joys of being a playwright is that I get to create many of my own different characters that will eventually be brought to life by a cast of very talented actors. In each of the plays that I’ve written over the past few years, it is these characters – and their unique emotions and personalities – that have been at the heart of the story, and have helped make them so memorable for the audiences that come to see them. I’d be lying if I said that I knew of too much of a specific formula for playwrights to follow, when it comes to creating characters that are truly memorable and engaging. Every play is different, and therefore, every character that is created for that play will be different in its own way. There are, however, a few basic steps that every writer can that I find help to create strong characters that will help create a strong play.

Obviously, there are some notable differences between writing comedic characters and dramatic characters. For example, in any story that is written, the protagonist and the antagonist are usually among the first characters to be created very early in the process. However, these roles might take on more importance in a drama, where conflict is often the pure focus of the story. On the other hand, comedy – which relies heavily on witty laugh lines – is often the genre of theatre where some of the greatest and most engaging supporting characters can be created. It’s also up to the playwright to decide not only how many supporting characters – if any – will go along with the protagonist or antagonist, but whether there is necessarily both a protagonist and an antagonist, as well as whether those two roles are necessarily the same as the good guy and the bad guy in a story, as many audiences might be used to. As a writer, I often find those things to be fun to think about as I come with new ideas for plays.

Whether it is a comedy or a drama that you are writing, there are plenty of typical character roles to choose from as a writer: the protagonist, the antagonist, the trusty sidekick, the damsel in distress, the list goes on and on. These are just a few common character roles that are good to put into your play, especially if it is your first time writing characters for a play. Personally, with most of the short plays that I’ve spent time writing over the past few months, I tend to keep the focus on one central character that might be considered either a straight man/woman in the story, while surrounding them with supporting characters that are heavy on comic relief. Although I will note that my most recent play includes a central character that was the focus of the story, yet was also practically THE comic relief of the night. For me, however, a successful play – at least as far as comedic plays go – must have one or the other: either lots of funny supporting characters or one hilarious central character.

Having said all this, I should note once again that there is no real playbook or formula that should be followed for writing characters for your play. In fact, one of the main reasons I went from focusing on acting to playwriting was because of a desire for more creative freedom in theatre. As an actor, it isn’t hard for someone to potentially become constrained, in terms of which characters you could do a convincing job at portraying. As a playwright, those sorts of barriers do not exist. You can literally create whatever character you want – regardless of who you are or how different you may be from those characters – in a way that actors cannot.  

However, when you are writing a new character, there is one thing that is required that is also required for any actor that is bringing that character to life. Just as any actor preparing for a role needs to familiarize themselves with that character type, I’ve learned early on that any good playwright has to be familiar with all the types of characters that they are including in their story. If anything, playwrights have to be familiar with more of these characters than actors do, as an actor only needs to know one type of character per show and a playwright needs to be familiar with all types of characters in each show. Whether we are talking about a mythical creature, a teenage heartthrob, a royal king or queen, an uptight military man, or any other character type that I might be leaving out, any playwright must be familiar with those types and their backgrounds. Otherwise, it will show itself in the form of poorly written dialogue that significantly decreases the quality of the play.

Once you’ve created your characters, it’s up to the actors and the director to make sure that the vision that the playwright created for the characters is realized. In the beginning, the playwright is in complete creative control of the story, and that include who the characters are, what their own individual stories are, and how they all fit into one play. Yet at the end of the day, this is also the way in which the playwright provides actors with the tools they need to express themselves artistically by giving them unique roles to portray.

An Actress’s Perspective (Adriana Nocco)

Creating a character as an actor is never an exact science. When a director has cast me in a specific role, I know that the director must have believed there to be a conceivable connection between the character and me, and that I would be able to convincingly portray that character. Yet until I set out to discover, to feel my own kinship with the character through my own creative process, I cannot ensure that my performance will be authentic. I have found that every actor has a different, individualized approach to making personal discoveries about the characters they set out to play. However, with that being said, I also believe that no matter what the specifics of an actor’s individualized process consist of, there are four key components that every good, thorough actor I’ve ever met incorporates into that process without fail. Their processes always involve establishing the script’s given circumstances, conducting research, playing/exploring, and relying on one’s emotional intuition in order to bring a tangible, compelling human being to life.

First and foremost, it is extremely important to pore over the script that one is working with carefully. An actor must do this in order to uncover crucial, contextualized details about the world of the play and her character, aka one of the people that inhabits said world. Such details have been provided by the playwright, and they must be respected. Where was the character born? Where (geographically and specifically) does the character live during the course of the story? What is the character’s profession? What time period is the character living in? These are just a few of the questions that an actor should seek answers to by searching for the given circumstances that a playwright has incorporated into a script. One must take thorough notes on the script’s given circumstances, and use them as a consistent reference point while moving forward in one’s quest to successfully breathe life into a character. Additionally, one must take note of given circumstances that have been omitted from the script, and keep them in mind later on. In the case of omitted given circumstances, one must work, explore, and use intuition in tandem with the rest of their production’s creative team in order to come to conclusions that make sense in context. However, sometimes, reimagined productions change certain given circumstances for various reasons (occasionally in order to make social commentary), and in those cases, it is necessary to engage in comprehensive, exploratory work and discussions with the creative team concerning the specific production’s new, unique given circumstances.

The next step of the process of creating a character should involve doing detailed research related to the play’s given circumstances, research that will aid one’s approach to that character and help make sense of the character’s role within the world of the play. Take, for instance, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, which takes place in 19th century England. An actor playing Mrs. Lovett, who (as the script tells us) is a widow, owns a meat pie shop, and is therefore of the working class, might ask herself: what type of clothing might Mrs. Lovett wear on a daily basis as a result of the time period and socioeconomic status she inhabits? The actor should then conduct research accordingly. Conducting such research would allow this hypothetical actor to have a complete foundation of knowledge upon which to base her creative work. After doing research, she could then consider, for instance, how the clothing that Mrs. Lovett would wear as a widowed, working class woman living in 19th century England might affect the way she walks down the street, the way she uses a rolling pin, the way she grinds meat into pies, her general demeanor, etc. Research gives actors basic tools, tools that help inform creative decisions later on, and also helps an actor come to conclusions concerning how the way a character inhabits the world of a play might be affected as a result. 

After the necessary research has been conducted, play and exploration (the fun part) can finally begin. During this part of the process, actors play, both on their own and in collaboration with their directors, to bring ways of moving and interacting as their characters, and methods and lenses through which the world of the play can be explored to life. This “play” might be encapsulated by physical and improvisational exercises, games, and/or activities through which ways of making discoveries about and articulating the world of the play and those who inhabit it can be made. For example, as a form of play, two actors might face each other and engage in steady eye contact, with one actor repeating one crucial line from the script while doing specific types of movement, and the other actor mirroring her every move. This play is meant to encourage revelations concerning the way that language, movement, motivations, decisions, and personality, along with the given circumstances and research, will come into play within specific scenes and regarding specific characters. It is also meant to develop trust between actors, to develop strategies they can use to believably play actions later on, and to allow the nature of the relationships between a play’s characters to come to fruition. Remaining open-minded during the play/exploration phase is instrumental to its success. 

Lastly comes what is, in my opinion, often the most difficult part of creating a character as an actor. Having carried out each of the previously described steps, it now becomes the actor’s responsibility to draw upon her own personal life experiences and the emotions she has associated with them in order to be able to relate to the types of emotions associated with the experiences of her character. This is often quite difficult, for it requires actors to allow ourselves to tap into our own vulnerability, which is something that people are frequently socially conditioned to fight against. However, doing this is pivotal when it comes to the process of creating a character, for it is the only thing that truly allows an actor to connect with her character. Often times, actors play characters whose experiences are ones that they’ve never had in reality; for instance, one might be playing a character whose best friend has died suddenly, and may never have experienced that. But even though the actor may never have experienced such a tragic loss, she can still connect to the character by doing some emotional mining and relying upon her emotional intuition. She can bring an experience of hers to the forefront of her mind, any experience that might have caused her to feel deep, intense sorrow and/or complicated grief in the past, and transfer those emotions caused by her own experience into her portrayal of a character. 

Although every person on Earth experiences life differently, there are universal human emotions that everyone experiences, regardless of the reasons why we have individually experienced them in the first place. In fact, they make us human, and thus cause us to be moved by theatre in the first place. Being able to remain in touch with one’s own life experiences and resulting emotions is crucial when it comes to being an actor. An acting teacher once told me “actors are the most human of people,” and this is because (especially through the process of character development) we strive to breathe life and universal human emotion into artificially constructed worlds. By engaging in constant interplay between analysis, investigation, exploration, trust, and the use of emotional intuition, actors are able to create believable, complex, human characters. 

                In Conclusion

From the amount of research they must do to obtain knowledge about such characters to the way in which their personal experiences can play a critical role in shaping those characters, the ways in which both actors and playwrights create characters are far more similar than one might expect. However, at the end of the day, the biggest similarity between the two roles is that without either of them, there would never be such great characters for the audience to enjoy. Without playwrights, actors wouldn’t have such unique characters to bring to life, and without actors, playwrights would never have a chance to see what their characters look like on stage. 

The playwright is the origin, the source from which the artificially constructed world of a play/musical, its structure and backbone stem. He/she/etc. provides a show’s creative team with a moving and thought-provoking story to tell. However, in order for the playwright’s imagined world and story to become tangible and transcend the page, the minds and bodies of the actors and the rest of the creative team must come into play, analyzing and interpreting the vision of the playwright so that it can become an embodied, live universe that compels audiences. The role of the playwright has specific limitations, as does the role of the actor, but both roles are invaluable and crucial to the mounting of a theatrical production. This is why exploring the separate creative processes of these respective theatrical roles, taking note of their intriguing similarities and differences, and examining the fascinating ways in which they manage to come together and complement each other is worth doing.

Photo: Philip Chosky Theater