From The Ground Up – Creating Characters


Have you ever felt you are creating a character from literally nothing? Sometimes, especially in a musical theatre chorus, it can feel impossible to find who it is you are portraying – especially if you are left to your own devices to create it or are given a subset of actions that don’t seem to make sense. Here is a little method for creating something from the ground up to help you bring the best you can to every role.

Now before we begin keep in mind that you may have multiple different roles within one show and you may need to repeat this process multiple times to build them all. Sometimes performers forget what a demanding and important part the chorus plays in creating a show. You are likely what makes your show most different from one elsewhere. You have different characters to juggle and this may be hard work but it is also a lot of fun and can be the difference between an interesting show or something that is very static.

So first list your characters or at the very least where you play different people even if you don’t fully know who they are. You want each of them to be as much a developed character as anyone written in the script even if you are the only one who knows their full intricacies. You would be surprised how much shines through to the audience. It is also a good idea to become familiar with the show and when it is set and the general story. These things will all be helpful in building your different characters.

The first step is to accumulate what you “know”

  1. What do you know about your character from the script? Write a list of all the things you have been told are certain by the script. For instance you might know that you are playing a police officer because everyone in the scene is a police officer. You may know your name because someone has a scripted line calling out to you. You might have an action written into the script (but be careful as sometimes directors may change these). You might not have many instructions from the script that can be very daunting especially early in rehearsal. If you are playing a more mentioned role you may find you can pull more from the script and build this way. [see Character Building likened to Facebook]
  2. What do you know about the scene from the script? Who does your character interact with in this scene? Does your character affect the main flow of what is happening because you interact directly with a main character or part of the set? For instance does the police officer catching the robber prompt the main character to say their line?
  3. What do you know about your character and place in the scene from the director or choreographer? You should have been given some basic instructions about where you need to stand or go. You might need to start a dance in the back corner or walk across the stage with another character. Your directions may not have been as clear as you would like. You may have been simply told to pretend to be running late or to look interested in what is happening. Always ask your director to be as specific as possible if you feel you are uncertain so you feel comfortable. They will usually appreciate the opportunity to assist you so you follow their vision for the scene. You may want to do this after rehearsal if you don’t feel comfortable approaching them in front of everyone. If they still are not specific they may be happy to let you make some decisions and direct them later. This can be a little confronting but can also be really fun if you do some preparation. For instance the director might say all they want is for you to be standing at the rubbish bin when the robber walks past and might not mind if you walk there slowly or quickly or from a certain point on the stage. They might think it more natural if they let you decide your character’s motivation for following their direction.

What don’t you know? (that you will need to find out to progress)

  1. What don’t you know about your character? Most likely this is a LOT. Because normally a lot of this is up to you. Think about some base things your character should have that you don’t know yet. Name, birthday, occupation, age, gender are usually some important starting points. What interests them? What is their favourite colour? Where did they go to school? Do they have any abilities? You don’t necessarily need to answer these questions now but decide what is important for your scene. For instance not knowing if your character is a good dancer could make it very hard to pretend you are auditioning for a dance show. It will change their mood, their attitude and even their physical movements. This is something you don’t know and will need to find out so make a note.
  2. What don’t you know about where you fit in the scene? You may know where you have to be but you may not know how you get there. You might not know who you interact with on the way. You most likely won’t know WHY you are doing any of the things you have been instructed to do. Finding a clear path on and off the stage and to all your directed spots as well as giving a reason to yourself for doing it are both important. These are things you do not know and will have to find out. Some of these questions about how might need to be checked with the director but a lot of the why will be up to you.
  3.  What don’t you know about your character’s journey? How are they feeling? What are their motivations? What is their importance to the story? How do they interact or relate to the other characters on stage?

What can you create or assume? Now that you’ve done the thinking – make some decisions

  1. Start with you. Most of the time you can assume your age, gender and basic physical characteristics based on what you already bring to the table. You have likely been assigned a role because you already embody some of what they are looking for. Try to make your character more real by keeping most things believable in regard to yourself unless you particularly are requested to play a different age or gender etc. If you want to stray from what you most clearly present it is probably best to discuss it with your director.
  2. Create your character. Decide on all those things you didn’t know about your character and go further if you want. Think about how they would introduce themselves in front of a classroom. Think about what they might do in their day. Sometimes a good trick is to try some of these ideas for getting into character. Write a paragraph describing your character.
  3. Find their interactions. Decide how your character feels about other people in the scene including the main characters. How do they know each other. Sometimes it helps to make a flow chart connecting you to everyone else in the scene. Making these decisions might make it easier to decide your motivations. For instance if your character is best friends with someone else in the scene it might explain why they meet up centre stage to talk.
  4. Map your scene. Know all the positions you take and how you get there. Know what prompts each change like someone speaking or music starting.  Map this out on a piece of paper so you remember the decisions that you and your director have made.
  5. Decide your motivations. Now that you know your character you should be able to get in their head a little. Decide why they are doing what they are doing. Where were they before the scene started. Where are the going? What do they want to achieve? How are they feeling? Are you doing something else while you are following your direction? (Some directors may change your decisions if they become too distracting but sometimes they will really like original ideas. If you are really worried you may want to discuss your character with the director before rehearsing the scene. Most likely they will want you to show what you have come up with and even if they have minor changes they will appreciate your hard work.

If you do all your preparation the task will seem a lot more fun and manageable. Remember that your director is there to make your performance the best it can be for you and the show. Trust them to help you and respect their decisions but also give them something to work with. Just because they change something doesn’t mean you are wrong – it just means they have something more or different they want to get out of you. And enjoy the opportunity you have to create something magical and exciting. I know for me I love to see how the chorus of a show lights up and brings the stage to life. It can be the most amazing part of a show when you see a really enlightened and interesting ensemble.

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