There are as many different ways of creating characters as there are actors who create them. One of my pet peeves, though, as a performer, are actors who refuse to leave their characters on the set or the stage during a run.

The intensity of diving into a different personality is fantastic. It’s a rush, a high, better than any drug. When one inhabits a complex, often unlikable individual, it’s sometimes hard to snap in and out of it.

In a theatre piece, it makes sense to use half hour to get into character and to sustain that character for the two and a half hours of the performance. However, if you’re completely unaware, as yourself, of anything going on around you, it’s harder to deal with glitches. Theatre is live — something will ALWAYS go wrong. Your performance can be brilliant, but if something goes wrong and you can’t rise to the occasion, you cheat both your fellow performers and your audience. A set piece will get stuck; someone will go up on his lines; a costume piece will rip; a bat will fly across the stage. HOW you meet those challenges says a lot about you, both as a performer and a human. If you can think on your feet and make it work within context, everybody wins. Your fellow performers will roll with you, and the audience gets the delight of the unexpected. If you storm offstage and start screaming about how “it” — whatever the “it” was — destroyed your performance — you look like an idiot, you hurt your colleagues, and you cheat the audience.

Film and television sets are a lot more insulated than theatre. You’ve got additional takes. You’ve got a huge crew to lean on, and dozens of underpaid Production Assistants running around to cater to the “talent”. Being out on location is a lot more uncontrolled than in the studio, but you still get to retreat to your trailer.

But refusing to “be” anything but your character once the camera stops rolling or once the curtain comes down hurts. It hurts you as a human being — you can’t divide yourself like that indefinitely, be possessed by someone else, and retain your sanity. It’s not an indicator of Great Art — more like Great Ego. Giving yourself a break, reminding yourself what it feels like to be YOU, you rest and then can come back to the character refreshed and full of new ideas.

I’ve been on stage when another actor (okay, sometimes — it was me) went up on lines. I totally forgot where I was and where I was going. Total brain fart. I’ve had actors look at me with contempt and just let me hang there; I’ve had actors jump in and guide me back to where we were. Believe me, the latter is far preferable to everyone. Six seconds can seem like six weeks when there’s dead space on stage. I’ve tried to help other actors get back on track. I’ve had a piece of scenery never show up, and, thank goodness, the other actor in the scene and I had a good rapport, so we could stay in character and cover.

I’ve worked with actors in film who are very determined to “live” the role for the duration of the production. They never step out of character. I did a film once where a co-star played a vicious, nasty individual. He WAS that person off-screen as well as onscreen, and it was a nightmare for all of us. You know what? The performance didn’t work. It just wasn’t that good. I’ve worked with co-stars who played the same type of role, but the minute the assistant director yelled, “cut”, that guy started joking around and keeping it light. He knew everyone’s name on the set, including day players. He knew when to leave the character behind and be himself, and how important it was to the overall tone. Not only was the atmosphere on set much better, but the overall performance was better. We weren’t always walking on eggshells around him.

The worst is when the director manipulates and isolates the actors to “get the performance.” We’re professionals. If you’ve cast us properly and give us guidance, we can give an excellent performance without being manipulated or abused on set. The personal cost is too high.

Next time you watch something, take a minute to wonder what it’s like behind-the-scenes. You need a good script, good actors, a good director, and a good crew — but a good atmosphere also enhances the final product.

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