Personalizing The Role

The most attractive performances are refreshing, original and daring. They take risks. They are nuanced. Similarly, the most watchable actors are those who embrace the subtleties in their characters. They show that every character is a unique individual with a new and different worldview (and in some cases, very unlike their own). Still, they see universality in human experience and with that knowledge; they are able to find themselves in their characters.

As actors, we want to always avoid the trap of playing clichés. Generics are just intellectualized acting – they can be boring to watch, much less appreciated on a visceral level. We need to put a little bit of ourselves in our performances, and we do this by personalizing the role.

So what is personalization and how do we do it? Simply put, personalization particularizes every relationship, object, event, obstacle and motivation in the script. In order to do this, we tap on our past experiences, private imaginings or personal analogies to navigate the circumstances in the plot. We draw similarities between our own lives and the happenings in the scene in order to evoke in ourselves authentic emotions towards certain specific behaviors. Doing this, we are able to then connect to our characters in a meaningful and individualized way.

Konstantin Stanislavski, who created the Stanislavski’s system of acting, believes that it is impossible to “borrow” your character’s emotional life because it is not your own. To conquer this, you have to then tap on your own emotional sensitivities. From there, build a repository of emotional expressions which you can access to color your performances. Referencing the exercise, ‘Personal Point of View’ by Eric Morris, ask yourself: how do you feel about everything in your surroundings? (What about that new wallpaper? How about the weather today?) As you do this frequently (or better yet, on a near daily basis), you will find yourself building up this repository consisting of your personal experiences and your responses to them.  

The danger here is that some actors can get so involved in their personal experiences that they forget about the fictitious world of the scene. To prevent this, you must always remember to project your emotional response to the situation on stage, such that it will also allow the other character(s) to respond in a meaningful way. When you personalize in rehearsals, your first reactions will not usually be the ones that you are looking for. Still, keep searching and choose the responses that work best for the play’s structure.

Note that because of the natural differences in relationship dynamics in real life and in the play, you can look for a scenario in your life that is different but still reminiscent of the events in the play. For example, you might not have an abusive mother like your character, but you may have encountered people with violent tendencies in school. Use his personal responses towards these people to relate better to your character, creating a performance that resonates emotionally.

Here are three common questions that actors ask about personalisation:

Q: “But am I supposed to substitute imagination for personal experience?”

A: “No. Both imagination and personal experience are equally important in acting. Imagination is fun and encourages empathy for the character. It is pliable and frees you from your personal past. Meanwhile, with personal experience you are able to quickly relate to the emotional life of the scene. Experience brings truth. Imagination inspires possibilities.”

Q: “Do I always have to fall back on personal experience when I act?”

A: “Remember that personalization is a technique and a tool for you to get into your own vulnerabilities to relate emotionally to the character. Some actors need it, and some actors don’t. Know yourself and the script well enough to determine if you need to use personalization to create organic responses.”

Q: “What are the limitations of relying on imagination alone?”

A: “The limitations will differ with every actor, depending on how much the actor has honed his imaginative faculties. Some of the general restrictions of the imagination, however, are that it takes longer to access and using it requires diligent practice. If the imagination is underdeveloped, it will produce work that feels unconvincing.”