How to Personalize a Role

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If you're not personalizing when acting, chances are you're playing a generic character, a cliché, an attitude — that is, an intellectualized idea of how your character should feel, not an authentic, impulsive response to actual circumstances.

In Living on Stage (Back Stage Books, 2004), Walt Witcover defines personalization (a term "used and promulgated by Lee Strasberg," he notes) as using "private personal analogies, recalled or imagined." That covers a broad range, because it implies the use of analogies, substitutions, transferences — whatever you want to call them — to particularize every inanimate object, relationship, circumstance, obstacle, and objective that the script presents.

In order to personalize, you must find people, places, objects, events, etc. in your own life that parallel the characters and situations in the script and evoke in you emotions and impulses toward specific behavior. The parallels needn't match the script literally, and they might exist only in your unique, idiosyncratic imagination. Their job is to help you connect to your character in a meaningful, individualized way.

Uta Hagen called this technique "transference." Actor and teacher Austin Pendleton, a Hagen disciple, explains that she changed the term from "substitution" for her second volume on acting (A Challenge for the Actor, Scribner, 1991) because she wanted actors to avoid the trap of immersing themselves so completely in "substitution" that they take themselves out of the world of the play. We've all seen that happen — actors who are clearly in an emotionally absorbing world of their own that seems to have nothing to do with what's happening on stage. Personalizing, says Pendleton, is about taking something from your own life and transferring it to the situation on stage or screen — "as opposed to your eyes glazing over and you're thinking about your mother, or whatever."

Richard Brestoff, who teaches at the University of California, Irvine, reminds us that Stanislavsky said you can't borrow or rent someone else's emotional life, not even your character's. All you have to work with are your own true feelings. That's why you need to probe them in depth. "The more you explore the full range of emotion of which a human is capable," Brestoff says, "the more you can claim it, and the greater expressive territory becomes yours."

He adds, "The uncommon thought on a common matter — that's personalizing. Catching that first impulse, which could be a thought, a feeling, or both combined. That's what keeps you away from cliché."

In a chapter in A Challenge for the Actor, Hagen explains in detail how to personalize a role. Using Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire as an example, she goes back to Blanche's earliest life experiences: You may not have been born in Laurel, Miss., she writes, but maybe you've traveled in the South and can imagine growing up there. If you didn't have a younger sister like Stella, maybe you had a younger cousin or friend with whom you had a relationship similar to Blanche and Stella's. Hagen goes through every aspect of Blanche's painful past (losing Belle Reve, and so on) and present circumstances (arriving in New Orleans, meeting Stanley, Mitch, the poker players, etc.) and suggests ways to cull items from your own background and fantasies to make Blanche's life real and personal to you. "Everything in the place must be made particular," she points out. "Although the set is dictated by the writer, designer, and director, you alone can make it real to yourself." But she warns that finding a source for a transference is not an end in itself but a stimulus. Its purpose is to generate behavior.

Says Pendleton, "The important thing is that after you locate something that you can use, that you then put it onto the situation or character in the play and take in the other person with that in mind. You always have to respond to the other person, allow the other person to evoke a response from you."

'Substitute' Teaching

Pendleton also elaborates on the concept of nonliteral substitutions. "You can be wide-ranging about what you look for," he says. "In so many circumstances, the dynamics of our [real-life] relationships are different from the relationship in the play, so the relationship in the play keeps on not working, and we push and pull." Rather than straining to make a substitution fit the text, look for a different relationship in your life that affects you in the same or a similar way as the relationship in the play. Your character may be dealing with her mother, but you can substitute (or transfer) a teacher, a student, a policeman, a pet cat, an inanimate object — whatever works. You can use two or three different personalizations for a single relationship and "mix them up like a stew," he suggests. "It could be totally illogical, the gender doesn't have to match, and often the most potent [substitutions] are not very literal."

Pendleton recommends beginning the process of personalization by allowing your unconscious to do the work for you. First, he suggests, read and reread the script and assimilate all the details. Figure out the situations; see if they affect you unconsciously. If not, then look consciously for substitutions. It's a good idea, however, not to do a whole lot of substitution work until rehearsals begin, he says, because it's during rehearsal that a certain aspect of a situation may begin to affect you and produce spontaneous reactions. "That means you're having a response based on your history and makeup; you don't know exactly what it is," he says. "Leave it alone!" That is, let it work on you in its own mysterious way.

However, if you don't have those personal reactions, or if they wear out over time — in the course of rehearsal, a long run, or multiple takes — then you must search your memory bank and imagination to connect the dots. It's a good idea to have a backlog of provocative personal material on hand.

Brestoff gives his students personalization exercises. He says their point is to help actors access their own vulnerability. "It's about connecting with your own emotional life and revealing it in public," he explains. "Our art is public!" For many actors, learning to personalize involves finding ways to allow themselves to cry, laugh, or express anger. "If you can't express those feelings in public, a whole area of creative expression is closed off," he says.

In his book The Actor's Wheel of Connection (Smith & Kraus, 2005), Brestoff describes some of these exercises, which for maximum benefit he recommends always doing in relation to text, not as standalone exercises — an approach he learned from his own teachers, Peter Kass and Olympia Dukakis. "The difficulty with Strasberg and [Sanford] Meisner [exercises] sometimes is that when actors get to the text or the play, the personalization had a tendency to go aground," he says. Keep in mind, though, that as you're exploring ways of personalizing, your first reactions won't necessarily be the ones you'll keep for performance. "We're trying to catch that first impulse, show deep emotion," Brestoff says. Later, you'll want to pick and choose which personal response works best in terms of the play's structure.

In his book Acting, Imaging and the Unconscious (Ermor Enterprises, 1998) teacher Eric Morris describes a "Personal Point of View" exercise — a daily regimen in which you ask yourself how you feel about everything in your environment. This type of practice, he writes, "starts you on your journey to becoming aware of the things that affect you and cause you to feel and behave." It's all grist for the personalization mill and provides you with that handy backlog mentioned earlier.

Some may think personalizing leads to a performance that's all about you, not the character. If your substitutions don't lead to behavior that's useful in telling the character's story, Brestoff says, you've gone astray. "You're never playing yourself, but you're always using yourself in service of the character's story," he emphasizes. If you don't personalize, he adds, audiences may admire your technique, but they'll remain unmoved by your performance.

Pendleton cautions against discussing your personalizations with others. In the same way that some cultures believe having your picture taken robs you of your soul, sharing a deep personalization can sometimes render it impotent. Don't take the chance.

Hagen writes, "Finding the source for a transference...should not lead you into private feelings and reveries when...on stage. [It] is incomplete until the original source has become synonymous with the material in the play." Still, "making everything true to yourself remains the actor's job."

Finally, Pendleton reminds us not to forget that personalization as a technique is, like almost everything else, a tool. If you don't need it — if you personalize automatically, deeply, and unconsciously — lucky you!