Respect your character?

I seem to have a problem.  I get cast in a role, large or small.  I begin rehearsals full of excitement and trepidation.  I learn the words and movements.  And before long, I realise just how much of an idiot my character is.  Once upon a time, I would defend my characters. I offered a sociological justification of Torvald Helmer’s actions in A Doll’s House, for instance, which absolved him of all blame for the play’s ending, and I even managed to find a motivation for most of the things that Roger got up to in Grease.  But no longer.   I simply can not remain blind to my characters’ shortcomings…

Last year, I played Gerald in Me and My Girl, who is, by most standards, a complete idiot.  He may be devoted to his darling Jackie, but this comes under the heading of ‘deluded’, particularly since she’s an utter cow who’s only really interested in men for their money, if that.  He burbles, but then I burble as well.  He really has no idea about the real world, he’ll allow anyone to walk right over him, and although it may be possible to like the chap, you really can’t respect him.

And now I’m rehearsing the smaller role of Ralph, the stage manager in Kiss Me, Kate.  As rehearsals have gone on, my opinion of his skills as a stage manager have sunk to an incredible low – I rather hope I’ve reached a nadir here, as I can’t see me thinking any worse of him. 

  • His primary mode of communication is to yell.  He yells at the man in the fly tower, the stagehands, the juvenile male, the chorus, the leading man, the leading lady and the stage doorman.  Some of the time this yelling is a response to people making too much noise backstage, when he is surely responsible for more noise than any other character. 
  • He has no control over the goings-on as people tread the boards.    He is conspicuously absent when the dress rehearsal winds up in chaos during the opening number, when a good stage manager would have seen the multiple pile-up of dancers, actors and stage crew coming.  He doesn’t realise that anything is wrong between his leading players until the leading lady calls him on to stage.  He doesn’t notice a couple of gangsters turning up in the show and threatening the cast with a gun live on stage.
  • He abandons his duties.  He spends the entire interval singing and dancing with the chorus and crew rather than getting ready for the second act.  He later takes time out to tease the juvenile male rather than monitor the action on stage.

Hardly a shining example for the stage managers of the world.  There are some qualities about him that I do like, such as his refusal to pander to the leading man’s unnecessary demands for medical attention, but it’s very hard to respect someone who is so obviously bad at his job.  Yes, he’s stressed, and yes, he has one of the most dysfunctional casts imaginable to work with, but the stage management team should be able to overcome such problems to get a show running smoothly.

I’ve had a hard time respecting some of my walk-on parts as a member of the ensemble before, as well.  Perhaps my standards for fictional characters are too high.  Or perhaps spending so much time ‘with’ these people just highlights their flaws.  Whatever the reason, I have realised that it doesn’t really matter. You don’t have to like or respect your character to be able to play them, you just have to try to make them real in some way, warts and all.  Perhaps one day I’ll find a role I genuinely respect.  And it’ll probably be the most boring performance I ever give!

  1. That’s interesting. I’d never thought that while it must be fun to play an out and out villian, it would be harder to play someone who just has ordinary petty foibles. Your comment sounds like the sort of thing someone who is maturing as a performer would say, if that doesn’t sound to pompous…

  2. I really, really want to play an out-and-out villain. And I do hope I’m maturing as a performer. If I ever stop trying to be better than I am, that’s probably when I should give it up!

  3. Poor (or silly, depending on your point of view) Ralph sounds like me! I would love to see you play someone really nasty. That would be fun. Torvald Helmer just makes me cross.

  4. I have a similar reaction but different perspective regarding characters and entire shows. One of my least favorite musicals in the whole world is “Carousel”, which is a real shame because it contains some of the most beautiful music and tunes in the genre. But the story is very irritating. Having had to sit through it innumerable times as a member of the pit orchestra, I got to the point where I would look out at all the weepy audience members at the end and want to shout things like “What on earth did she fall in love with this loser for in the first place and what in the H*** is she thinking telling her daughter that if you love someone enough it doesn’t hurt when they hit you. So I can completely understand how living with a character can make you really hate and disrespect him/her.

  5. Oh dear, yes there are some bad things about Carousel. But the songs are great.

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