This week Fiona Lindsay talks about creating characters and character actors...
The wonderful actor Harriet Walter once said to me that “acting is what I do with who I am,” which I think is a brilliant way of expressing the alchemy of transformation that occurs in the fusion of the actor’s self and that of the characters they play.
It’s a dark art in many ways and often performers shy away from discussing the process upon which they embark when lifting a character off the page and bringing it to life on stage. Over the years, however, I’ve managed to persuade some of them to share their secrets with me.
The creation of character for performance is something that’s fascinated me for as long as I can remember. When I was a child, a faded yellow plastic laundry basket held cast-off clothes from my mum and grandmother’s wardrobes. This was an eclectic mix of hats, scarves, overly sequined ‘70s maxi dresses, platform-heeled boots and elbow-length satin gloves (you get the picture), and my sister and I spent endless hours picking and mixing combinations and becoming the make-believe people we were fashioning.
Another memory is of my mum leaving the house each day - over a two-week period when I was about 11 – as herself, telling us to do our homework, to go to bed on time, not to argue etc. and returning several hours later with her hair piled high and wearing a diaphanous red chiffon dress (which later made the yellow laundry basket), having spent the evening performing as the famous Egyptian queen in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra.
Actors have always captured the public’s imagination and are a constant source of fascination and curiosity. What makes an actor? Are there particular character traits that define them? What skills do they draw upon to deliver performances? How do they draw upon aspects of themselves to become someone else?
The brilliant Alison Steadman is considered to be one of the country’s leading character actors and has played a roll call of very different wonderful women over her 50-year career. At the end of last year she gave me an insight into her background and how she approaches the job of transformation.
Born within spitting distance of Anfield, Alison became the family entertainer at an early age and attended youth theatre as a young girl. However, taking it seriously wasn’t encouraged and, after training as a secretary, Alison worked in a probation office. She couldn’t tell anyone of the auditions she’d arranged at a number of London drama schools and had to pretend to be visiting a friend during her two days off work.
RADA was intimidating and felt too posh but at East 15 she was asked to improvise from character to character, situation to situation and, after a knockout impression of Cassius Clay, she secured her place. From that moment, through her training and beyond, Alison Steadman has continued to fine-tune her ability to inhabit the lives of others with forensic precision.
There is no one way of bring a character to life on stage.
Alison found that the key to unlocking the guitar playing Candice-Marie inNuts in May was through her voice: “it needed to be full of possibility and be light and floaty; listening to birds chirp helped”. The status-obsessed Beverly in Mike Leigh’s iconic Abigail’s Party was created by “spending a lot of time lurking around the make-up department of Selfridges, trying not to look suspicious as I spent hours watching a particular sales assistant. I had to pick up lots of free samples.” It was a line about a panda crying that helped her to understand the largesse of Pamela in Gavin and Stacey.
From my observation, although there is no one way, there is perhaps a necessity to be to be curious, to be playful, to be able to look and listen carefully enough to absorb minute detail. This, and giving respect to the dialogue that your character’s been given by the writer, is what helps performers to wear other people’s shoes and walk in them for a moment.