Characterisation – The Naked Truth

Some of you will be aware that I do musical theatre. I’ve performed in many shows through the years including Chess, Blood Brothers, Jesus Christ Superstar and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. My latest role, however, is making me feel rather vulnerable. You’ll understand why in a minute, but first let me take you back a few weeks.

Last month I auditioned for a show that was A VERY BIG DEAL. This was no well-intentioned but mediocre “community theatre” production. No sir. This was a biggie, to be staged at the famous Civic Theatre right in the centre of downtown Auckland. I very much wanted to be involved, so I dutifully prepared, rehearsed, sweated profusely and got absolutely no sleep the night before my audition.

Well, it was the most awful, nerve-wracking, unpleasant ordeal I’ve experienced for a long time. I left the audition hall feeling deflated and humiliated. I hadn’t performed very well; my singing had been mediocre and I just couldn’t summon up the energy to “put myself out there”, as they say. Still, a small glimmer of hope prevailed – the director knows me, he knows how I sing and act and move, he likes me. Perhaps I might still get the part? – but that was promptly snuffed out by the “Thanks, but no thanks” phone call a couple of days later.

I was disappointed and embarrassed and felt like a big fat failure. But to be honest I was a little relieved as well. The pressure would have been immense, and I don’t think I’m up to that anymore. Or maybe I’m just not willing to be up to it. Anyway, I decided my bruised ego needed some tender loving care. I vowed that my next part would be a nice easy one with no pressure to “put myself out there” and no potential for humiliation. That decided, I promptly auditioned for a role that would require me to take all my clothes off on stage.

I got it. I’m in the wonderful Tim Firth play Calendar Girls, and I am one of them. Miss July, to be precise. And not only do I have to be 100% starkers, I have to sing and play the piano while I’m at it. No worries about the singing, but I haven’t played the piano for so long, my fingers feel rusty (as do other parts of my anatomy, but perhaps that’s a little too much information.) The difference with this show is that I am working with a lovely, supportive group of women and a great female director, the little theatre is tucked away in a quiet back street, and I’m having FUN. (And the audition process was gentle and enjoyable and I nailed it. So there, Mamma Mia! juggernaut.)

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A previous, professional cast of Calendar Girls. Mick Jagger’s ex-wife was in it. See the woman at the piano? That’s Cora, my character. I do not look like that. At all.

I have written before about how I prefer writing to performing now. You can read that post here. But being cast in Calendar Girls has made me remember how much I adore everything about theatre. The early rehearsals in cold halls, the scribbling and highlighting on dog-eared scripts, the camaraderie with like-minded “theatre people” (we’re a strange bunch), the nervous anticipation of opening night, the smell of the make-up, the heat of the lights, the backstage whispers and stifled giggles, the magic of those last few rehearsals when everything finally starts coming together (or not), the unique connection you form with an audience that loves live theatre as much as you do. The tea and biscuits at half-time aren’t bad either.

Boy, it’s taken me a while to get to the point of this post. (But hasn’t it been fun?)

At the first rehearsal we were running through Scene One (fully clothed), and I was struggling to get a handle on how my character, Cora, would sit, or speak, or react to the other characters. I couldn’t quite get a “feel” for her. Unsurprising perhaps, given it was the first rehearsal, but I don’t have a lot of patience and I hate feeling (and probably appearing) vacant on stage. I need to be centred and confident of my portrayal.

Driving home, I started thinking about Cora. Who is this woman? What motivates her? What is she afraid of? How would she stand? How would she walk? How would she react in a group situation? (As an intriguing aside, Cora is described by the author as a 40-something, university educated ex-rock chick, daughter of a vicar and mother of one. She sings and plays the piano. I am a 40-something, university educated daughter of a vicar and mother of one. I also sing and play the piano. Not sure about the ex-rock chick thing, but… Clever casting? Or startling coincidence? You decide… Cue Twilight Zone theme music.)

And I suddenly realised that the actor’s journey is much like the writer’s, particularly when it comes to characterisation.

Knowing how Cora should react in each scene will depend on how well I get to know her. By that I mean, I have to create a back story for her. What was her childhood like? What were her parents’ names? Did she have siblings? At what point did she start to rebel against her religious upbringing, and why? Why did she fall in love with her daughter’s father? Why did they break up? Who are her closest friends, and why? What’s her favourite book? TV programme? Food? I’ve got the playwright’s notes to help me, of course, but Cora has to come from within me as well. And that’s the wonderfully exciting part about acting: you can create a character to be uniquely yours.

And once I really know her, I won’t have to question how she would react, because I will just know. When it’s time to pose for my nude shot, for example, I’ll know exactly how Cora would look down the lens of the camera (that is, if I haven’t run from the stage screaming, trailing a flimsy chiffon scarf and the desperate whiff of self-tanning lotion in my wake).

Creating characters in a novel is no different.

A fellow author gave me some excellent advice about this. We were discussing whether my novel was plot driven or character driven. I wasn’t sure what to say. It does have a rather complex plot, but ultimately what I want readers to remember are the characters and their emotional journey. I want the characters to stick in their minds long after they have finished the book, like old friends to whom they are unwilling to bid farewell. And I told my friend that I was often unsure how to move from one plot point to another. He said this: if you are unsure what happens next, make sure you know your characters well enough so that when they come to a fork in the road, you know instinctively which fork they would choose.

And you know what? It works. I sat down one day and wrote a page and a half about my main character – his parents, their relationship, how it affected him, his early years, what happened to him at school and university, what he looks like, what he drinks, what he eats. None of this is actually spelt out in the novel – but it influences every line I write. All of this character groundwork, this deep certainty about who he is, is determining what he does every time he reaches a fork in the road. Sometimes it is even determining the plot itself.

Let me give you one quick example.

Near the end of my novel there is a climactic confrontation between my main character, Maurice, and his nemesis. I could not for the life of me figure out how to write the scene to bring about victory for my character and failure for the “baddie”, because this particular baddie is so much stronger and nastier and more capable in every way. After some days of tortured rumination, I finally “sat down” with Maurice and wondered about the sort of person he was and how he would be feeling at that particular moment.

And then I remembered the back story I had written for him. I remembered a key event from his youth that had impacted hugely on his life, and I imagined that in this moment of terrifying confrontation he would no doubt be thinking of that event. And all of a sudden, I knew how to write this particular chapter because I just knew what Maurice would say and what he would do. Knowing him had enabled me to know how to drive the plot forward. Oh, it was marvellous. I had a massive glass of wine or five to celebrate.

Fellow writers: if you ever find yourself at an impasse wondering, “What on earth is going to happen now?”, try counter-intuitively stepping back from the plot, and turn instead towards your characters. Take the time to get to know them. Let them tell you their story. Listen carefully. You may find that simply by virtue of being themselves, they will tell you what should happen next.

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