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@The Arts Unit Art Bites – Characterisation – 08. Internal influences

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JANE SIMMONS: Hi, everyone. I'm Jane Simmons from The Arts Unit, the Drama Performance Officer for the Department of Education. And this is episode 8 in our characterisation series. So we've covered stereotypes and stock characters, melodrama acting, status, leading body parts, movement practitioners Rudolf Laban and Jacques Lecoq.

Wow, that is a very impressive resume of character development. Essentially, we have looked at lots of external influences in how we could approach characterisation. And now, it is time to look at internal influences. It's time to get deep. Remember when we spoke about the cerebral and the somatic? So while some practitioners use somatic practises to create characters, in other words, using the body and physical world as stimulus, today and into our next few episodes, we're going to examine the psychological and cerebral ways to develop a character.

And that leads us to another practitioner, Russian acting legend, Constantine Stanislavski. Stanislavski was born in Russia in 1863. Now, we know from previous episodes in this series that melodrama was a popular form of theatre back then. But let's also consider other things that were happening in the world at that time. Because context is everything.

Just like we understand each other and our characters better when their backstory, researching social trends and events that occurred when major theatrical shifts happened helps you understand one of the big questions we ask almost as soon as we learn to talk, why? In order to grapple with how, we need to understand why. So let's go back in time to the mid to late 1800s, back in time, back in time.

Karl Marx saw an unfair distribution of wealth coming out of the Industrial Revolution and proposed a radical view of social and economic organisation. Charles Darwin's theories of evolution made people rethink our own social importance and journey. Man was no longer a creation from the metaphysical world, but evolved from the apes, more animal than angelic.

Sigmund Freud created a form of psychology that examined man's repressed desires and responses that he theorised dictated our behaviour. Technological advances and science started to change the way people lived and saw the world. The invention of transportation, such a steamboats, the locomotive, automobiles, communications such as the telegraph, telephone, radio, and cinema meant that information goods and services and people moved at a pace never before seen. The world was more accessible than ever. And science and technology was developing a quality of life that had never existed before.

Vaccines, hygiene, antibiotics. So society was coming to understand more than previous generations about humanity and our world. And it was science that was leading the way. So it's no mystery that realism as a movement or dramatic form was connected to science. Late 19th century theatre was based on natural rational explanations from their understanding of heredity and environment. And man was worthy of scientific study through the medium of art.

You've heard the saying art reflects life. Well, that's what I mean by context. Almost every period in history can be seen in the art forms that emerged at the time. And realism does that exactly. It was a reaction to and against what was happening in the late 1800s and into the new century, the 1900s. And here was Stanislavski recognising that popular theatre lacked any relation to who we were at all.

And playwrights, such as Anton Chekhov, George Bernard Shaw, Nikola Gogol, August Strindberg, Henry Gibson, they all strove to create characters based on real life, three dimensional human beings. But as yet, there was no acting style that would do justice to their plays, no lifelike dialogue or vocal delivery, settings, costumes, or staging. So it was Stanislavski who created a system that allowed for truth and belief to be a fundamental skill of acting.

He also emerged as one of the first directors of theatre. Up until then, actors mainly directed themselves. Or they had a theatre manager who took charge. So that's right. Realism as we know it is a really young dramatic form, if young is around 120 years old. FYI, the Greeks had been performing theatre since well over 550 BC. And that's almost 2,600 years ago. So that makes realism pretty young in my eyes.

Oh, man, that's so much information that my enormous brain of theatrical and social history it just hurts. So context. Realism driven by playwrights, the new role of theatre director, and a style of acting burst onto the scene as a reaction against melodrama.

And it was driven to explore the psychology and the essence of man as influenced by Darwin and Freud in a world of social upheaval, and science, and technology, and re-imagining how we lived. Get it? Got it? Good. So that's the why. And what we're going to do now is explore the how and start our practical exercises in the Stanislavski system. This will take us a few episodes. Because we're going to try to cover things like the fundamental questions, or the given circumstances, subtext, emotional and muscle memory, the magic if, the super objective, objectives, intentions, tactics, the throughline of action.

Of course, he would start with breathing and vocal exercises, body stretching, movement warmups. And that is a great place to start. But that's a whole separate module that's also available on Art Bites. So I suggest you watch it. But because this is a series about characterisation, let's jump to there today. One of the things that Stanislavski was keen for his students to do was to dive into the intentions of a character. So that when they said they dialogue the meaning of how the word was said was just as powerful as what was said.

So we're talking about subtext here. Subtext refers to the meaning and intention behind a word. So let me show you. Just using the word no I'll demonstrate some of the ways I can say the word no. And you'll see how the same word can be interpreted differently. No? No. No! No! No. No. No! It's the same word. But you can hopefully tell from my Oscar winning performance that there was a different meaning or intention behind the word.

It also affected my body. Because that intention is stronger than the word. It comes from within. There's a physical and vocal response attached to intentions and meanings that requires you to immerse yourself into the delivery of dialogue. That's realist acting. And without it, you might be just reciting words with no meaning at all. Oh, and that is the most boring type of theatre there is. It's like, you know when people do PowerPoint presentations and then they proceed to read every slide to you in that monotonous tone? And then I just want to yell, I can read it. I don't need you to spend the next hour reading it to me. And I'm back.

So intentions need to come from within and find their way out. So that by the time that you say it and you hear it, you believe it. It looks real. And it feels real. So to help us do that, we might break up the script into units and beats and write in each section of the script our intentions or what the subtext might be. For instance, when I was giving my Oscar winning performance with the word no, I wrote down the subtext of each meaning I was trying to convey. I had confused, or surprised, or I don't care, or angry, or exhausted. Or I can be persuaded for sure.

Another great exercise to do with your script is to rewrite your dialogue and perform what you really mean and then transfer that meaning back into your script delivering the lines as they are originally written. Subtext is an actor's best friend. It's a discovery of meaning that allows you to reveal the character's thoughts and feelings without having to directly tell the audience or other characters what you're thinking or feeling, like they did in melodrama.

So now, you try. Your word is hello. So I'm going to give you your subtext behind the word. Always use the word hello, but try to convey it using the subtext or intention that I give you. All right, first one.

Say the word hello with the intention or subtext of I'm nervous. I'm confident. I don't like you. I really do like you. You are so late. Oh, it's you again. Let's make mischief.

What makes you think you can come and talk to me? I have not seen you in such a long time. Please think I'm beautiful. I don't have time for this. I am going to hurt you. It's kind of funny, isn't it? And you can tell that hello can be given and received in lots of different ways. So now, I'm going to give you a phrase. And your task is to practise saying it as many different ways is possible without changing any of the words. Now, you can write down a few different intentions if it helps you. Or you can just improvise. It's up to you. Remember you can press play or pause at any time.

So your phrase is, I'll be there first thing in the morning. I'll be there first thing in the morning. Now, you can press pause and spend a few minutes playing with that phrase. And then when you're ready, press play.

How did you go? Are you becoming a superstar actor? Uh, is my Oscar being threatened right now? If you are studying a text or working on a scripted work as a performer, always consider the subtext and the character's intentions. Ask yourself, what do I want? Because the next question is, how do I get it? And that's what's going to take us to our next lesson, tactics.

So if you have a text and you wanted to play with it, go for it. Otherwise, on the next slide and also available to download is a short contentless script I created. And maybe with a partner you can play with intentions and subtext. I'll even include a few different intentions on the script for inspiration if you're stuck for ideas. So go for it. And I look forward to seeing you again next week. Goodbye, everyone.

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