Creating a Character: Theater Magic

Into the Woods
Into the Woods

My “how to watch a play” class recently watched a London production of Into the Woods, the Stephen Sondheim fairy tales mashup. It was an excellent lead-in to that week’s discussion on creating a character, because the show is stuffed with them.

Course leader Adam Immerwahr, artistic director at Washington DC’s Theater J, described the process of creating a character as a collaboration between actor and director. You see this collaborative process in action in the comedy Noises Off, about a play-in-rehearsal that goes terribly wrong. In the excellent film version, Christopher Reeve plays the part of Gary Lejeune, who badgers his director (Michael Caine) about his character’s motivation. The more banal the action, the more puzzled Gary is (see one of those scenes here).

Character creation starts with casting. Directors are looking for talent, sure, but also for certain personal and physical qualities. They take into account some or all of the actor’s race-gender-age-body type to the extent those matter for specific roles. If they’re casting a musical, singing and dancing ability may outweigh acting chops.

Some productions may need an actor with name recognition (to boost ticket sales) or with specific skills. Juggling. A little soft-shoe. Productions of Top Dog/Underdog require an actor to do a compelling demonstration of three-card-monte. Not just the moves, but also the confidence in handling the cards.

A stage adaptation of the novel Midwives I saw last year included a jarring change from the original book. Black actors played a clergyman and his wife newly relocated to rural Vermont. For me, this casting raised a lot of questions external to the story. How had a couple from the Deep South been received in 99% white Vermont? What propelled them to make such a dramatic change in their environment? Did they choose a home birth because they felt unwelcome in the local health system? Such implications kept taking me out of the drama and made their characters seem opaque.

By contrast, my class was surprised that, in the production of Into the Woods we watched, the cast was all-white. If ever a play lends itself to diversity, that would seem to be it. We did enjoy the actor who played Little Red—plus-sized and a few years older than the usual choice. This Little Red actually lines up better with the script. When the wolf compliments her plump flesh, well . . .

In a great many roles, the race or even the gender of a particular character is irrelevant, and non-traditional casting not only works, it’s refreshing (think Hamilton). No longer do theaters and audiences assume the default race is white. You may recall the flap when the Vietnamese engineer in Miss Saigon was played by Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce.

They say ninety percent of directing is casting, and certainly, it’s the first step in bringing characters to life.

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