Updated: Apr 11, 2021
What is the difference between a live performer and a live performing artist? There are lots of fundamentals to live performance. Actors learn lines and blocking, dancers learn choreography, musicians learn music. Those take up a lot of time, and they are what creates a performance. But they are not what creates art. Art is more elusive. It takes more inward action than outward, something that is contrary to a performing artist’s nature, which is usually pretty gregarious.
I believe the fundamental thing that creates art is characterization. Actors are probably most familiar with this technique. But I think other performing artists can benefit too. I think the often repeated advice to “just be yourself” when onstage is misguided. The point really is to be someone else. It’s obvious that a musician singing a love song would do well to sing as a person in love. A dancer portraying a choreographed fight would do well to dance as if angry. So if we take that further, and actually create and become that character in the song or the dance, we go beyond performance and into art.
So let me share with you the method I learned from acting school that will help you do just that.
1. Become a blank slate. This is really hard. We all walk around with our inner thoughts constantly chattering in our heads. We know who we are and we’re pretty comfortable being that way. How can we step out of that, especially when we have to remember lines, notes, steps, technique, etc? Well, if I were to give you a sub-task for this step, it would be this: Practice your craft. Practice it so much that it becomes instinctual. Something you do automatically, without thinking. Only then will you be comfortable enough to step out of yourself, delegating your skills to muscle memory. This is the foundation of bringing your performance to the next level.
2. Figure out who you want to be for this performance. Actors have most likely, but not always, been assigned this. Other performers will need to create this from the words of a song or already-determined choreography. What you need is a basic sketch of a person, as simple as “a person in love” or “a person who is angry.”
3. Flesh out your character. You can go as deep as you want here. The more detail you put into it, the more complete your character will be. You can start with “Who is this person in love with?”, then “At what stage is this relationship?” Is it in the beginning stages of euphoria, when everything is a discovery? Is it an established relationship, when both people are as comfortable with each other as when they are alone? Is it after a breakup? Is the character feeling relief after the breakup, or is there regret? Now move into specifics. How did they meet? What is it that attracts them to each other? Did they both fall in love quickly or did one of them pursue the other?
4. Dive into your character's history. What events in your character’s childhood might have influenced his personality? What mistakes and triumphs have been a part of shaping her character? How old is your character? What tragedies and joys has he experienced?
5. Find the things that make up the surface of your character. What hobbies does your character have? What is his favorite color? What are her parents like? Anyone in his life have a great influence on him? Favorite TV shows, books, etc? Anything can apply when you are creating a character.
6. Do your research. Read, read, read. The psychology of relationships would be a research topic for this example. Read about other relationships in literature. Watch actors portraying relationships. Talk to people who have experienced a similar relationship. If you are portraying a historical figure, learn as much as you can about that person. Be prepared to take a field trip. When I portrayed Martha Jefferson in a production of the musical 1776, I visited Monticello and learned tons from the tour guide there, including a lot about her marriage to Thomas Jefferson.
7. Draw on your own experiences. Yes, I told you to become a blank slate. But chances are you’ve experienced an emotion that can be applied to your character, even if the circumstances are different. You have to take that core emotion that you’ve felt and strip it of the story that went with it in order to apply it to your character’s story.
8. Try to experience some of what your character has experienced. If your character’s hobby is tennis, try playing tennis. Every day that you learn something new is a day that you grow as an artist.
9. Now put all of your research, experience, and emotion and apply it to your blank slate. Then practice. You have to practice being that person. You have to practice reacting to your environment as that person.
10. Go back to your script, song, or choreography. For each situation that your character finds himself in, decide what immediately happened before that moment. That will determine your character’s reactions. Then decide what your character wants in that moment. As humans, we always have a motive for everything we do. You need to know what your character’s motive is. Complete the sentence, “I want…” as your character.
11. Lastly, apply your character’s inner monologue. What is she thinking versus what is she saying? Do those two things complement each other or do they contrast each other? Is your character even thinking about what he is saying at all? Maybe he’s thinking about what he wants for dinner when he’s having a conversation about a homework assignment.
Now, this may seem like a lot to do for whatever you are performing. That’s why you get to decide how far you go with it. But remember, the further you dig into your character, the more depth you will bring to your performance. And that is what will take you from being a performer to being a performing artist.
If you know some things I might have missed, visit the forum post for this article. The forum is for members, but you can join for free if you're not already one.
CATT Center is a free social media format designed specifically for creative artists to collaborate and share knowledge for the benefit of the arts in all of our communities.