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The Arts Unit @home Art Bites – Characterisation – 4. Creating Characters using forms of movement and status

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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. This is part 4 of the series on characterisation. In previous episodes, we've looked at stereotypes and the stock characters of melodrama. Today, I'm going to look at how we create characters using forms of movement and status.

For instance, have you ever seen someone walking on the street and developed a story in your mind about that person on the basis of how they move? Observation is a wonderful skill in assessing people and situations. We might call this 'reading' a person, a place, or event. And, to quote RuPaul, 'reading is fundamental.'

So, here's another example. I bet you can tell the mood of your teacher, or your parents, as soon as they walk in the room. You can decide before they even speak whether they're in a good mood or a bad mood, and whether this is the day to ask for money, or an extension on your assignment.

Observing, or reading, starts at all the nonverbal cues a person gives us. Consider their expression, even how they hold their mouth. Try making your mouth as small as possible without opening your lips. Purse your lips, and make them as thin as possible. Do this in front of a mirror, and see how it changes your whole face and your mood. I bet it changes your mood. That changes my mood.

Contracting your features brings a tension into your body. And, as you try to walk while your face is tense, you see how it also affects everything in your movement and your walk. Now, if you saw someone who walked and looked like that, I bet you can feel or sense that tension. And, our natural impulse tells us, stay away. Something's about to happen, someone's in trouble, or someone's really angry.

It's important to take the time to observe first, and speak second, in this case. Sometimes, before we even see people's expressions, we can see them walking and moving. So, what are the things that you could tell, read, or observe from a distance?

Well, it might be their pace, how they make contact with the ground, which parts of their body move and leads their walk. How do they hold their head or their focus? So, let's try a practical exercise together, so you can see what I mean.

Make sure you've got enough space to move around before we begin. OK? Are you ready? So, let's start with pace and stride. Take really small steps at a normal pace to start. And then, once you've got that, start to move a little quicker. Relax the rest of the body as you move. Let your arms flop. What does your walking look like? And, what does this do to the rest of your body, taking those small steps?

Imagine this person running towards you. Maybe take a little run with your small steps. It doesn't feel very threatening, does it? We might see this as a low-status movement.

So, let's talk status. Status refers to the hierarchy, or the importance, of a person or thing. So low-status people, as a general rule, tend to use very little space. Low-status is almost about trying to be invisible. You don't want to be noticed, and you don't want to be considered a threat in any way.

Another low-status characteristic is frequency of movement. So, try standing on the spot, but shuffle your feet, sway a bit, fidget with your hands or your jacket, touch your face, right? And now, maybe look at the ground.

Can you feel it? It looks like you don't have any confidence. And, we really are uncomfortable being there. So, you don't have to tell us with words. We can see it.

So, let's just play with high-status for a moment. Take a natural stance and keep the body upright. Push your shoulders back, and let your arms relax by your sides. Now, make eye contact, straight ahead. Keep your pace steady. Now stop. Be still, but natural. Keep breathing.

Let the tension leave your body. And, keep your shoulders back and your head up. Look to each side, and then back to the front. Don't try to move any of the rest of your body if you don't want to.

Do you feel the power? Even if you walk like that, you can feel the difference. High-status people have the confidence that they are important, or what they think matters. And, it doesn't matter what you think, so, they don't have to fight for your attention. They know you'll focus on them anyway.

So, think of high-status people you know. Here's a question. Who has the highest status in your household? In my house, it's the cat, and she knows it. You can play high-status as happy or mean. Not all high-status characters have to be master, and all low-status have to be the servant. Think of how many butlers, or celebrity assistants, are the real power of that household.

And remember, we love seeing high-status people who are mean - we love seeing those characters fall from grace. I mean, the mean boss who slips on a banana peel, the person who thinks that they're so cool getting a pie in the face, getting revenge on the bully. Think of low-status characters as clowns or comic characters. They're often the low-status ones in situational comedies. And, think about movies that use status as a tool to make us like, or not like, a character.

Dramatic forms like commedia dell'arte also use status to drive narrative, obstacles and comedy. So, next time you're watching something, analyse who has low-status and who has the high-status, and how do they show this. How do they manipulate us into liking them or disliking them?

So, let's play a status game right now. Imagine you are a teacher. Think of all the ways that you could show that the teacher is in complete control of the class. Show that they have the higher status in the room. How would they walk, stand, look at the students? How did they use their face?

What did they do with their hands? Do they use stillness? Gesture? If I walked into your classroom late, how would you greet me?

All right? Now be the same teacher, but low-status. Maybe it's your first day in the classroom. How could you show your lack of confidence, or your lack of power? How might I, as a student, recognise that I could really take over this classroom, or undermine your authority?

How do you enter the room as a low-status teacher? How do you look at your class? Do you fidget? How do you stand? Where is your gaze or your focus?

How did you go? Is there a status you prefer to play? Now, it's your turn to create a character you can play, both as high or low status. You could create a scene where your character moves from one status to another. In other words, they transition from high to low, or low to high.

'Transition' is another great word for our drama literacy, as it means to move seamlessly from one state or situation to another. If you are doing this as one transition scene, try to have an event or a realisation that would naturally make your character change from one state to the other.

For instance, if I was begging on the street, and someone gave me a million-dollar winning lottery ticket, I'd be changed by that. If I was going to give an important speech to the public and suddenly discovered my fly was undone, well, that would change me, too.

So, create a character who transitions from one status to the other, and then give them a reason for that transition. Your scene only needs to be 2 minutes long at the most. And, you can show it to your family, or to your teacher, or to your class.

I hope you've had fun with status today. In our next lesson, we're going to explore character and movement through Laban's movement analysis. I hope to see you then.

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