Acting Your Song: Character Development
Answering fundamental questions about the character singing your song leads you to some specific details about how to portray that character when you’re alone onstage.
You want to uncover the facts given in the lyrics. Some basic questions to answer include these:
What is the character’s name? The character in a radio song is you.
How old is the character? Your character’s age and physical condition play into how you interpret the song. Young characters move differently than older characters.
What is the character’s occupation or station in life? Knowing that your character is the local sheriff means that he dresses, carries himself, and behaves differently than the town drunk who lives in the alley behind the gas station. The drunk may slur his words, but the sheriff may be well spoken.
What does the character look like? Knowing the character’s occupation gives you your first clues to how the character looks and carries himself. The town drunk probably is disheveled, with wrinkled clothes and a red face from too much alcohol. The rest of the details you can glean from the text.
If you’re in a theater production, often the other characters in the show say things about your character, and you can use this information to help you further decide what your character may look like.
Who are you singing to? If your song is from a musical or opera, you usually know who you’re singing the song to. With songs on the radio, you generally get to decide who you’re singing to — even if that person isn’t in the room. You simply imagine that the person is in the room and pretend that you see their reaction.
All those conversations that you have with people who aren’t in the room — such as when you argue with your boss while you’re brushing your teeth — use the same kind of visualization you do while you sing your song. You pretend that your boss reacts and you reply. Same goes for your song: Choose someone to sing to and decide how that person reacts to what you say.
What do you want from the person you’re singing to? Do you want him to leave you alone and move out of the apartment? Or do you want him to forgive you for something you said or did?
How does your character change during the course of the song, and what stage is the character in during this song? Eliza Doolittle changes drastically during the course of My Fair Lady. By knowing the story, you know what stage of character development she’s in when you sing her song.
If your song isn’t from a show, do your detective work to determine the facts from the lyrics, and then choose what you think should happen during the course of your song. Keep your scenario simple.
Where does this song take place? Knowing where the story takes place can also change how you sing a song. If the setting of your song is the middle of a hot summer afternoon, that’s very different than singing a song as you watch a blizzard outside your window.
Marc Cohn sang “Walking in Memphis,” which gives a clear picture of where the song is taking place. Even if it’s not spelled out in black and white, make a choice about where the song is set and picture that place in your mind.
Knowing your character’s background gets you to dig for the basic information available about your character. Allow yourself some time to digest the lyrics as you’re working on the song. See the big picture first. Summarize the details and then move on to the smaller details. You want to know about both the inner and outer lives of the character.
If you know this basic information about your character, you know whether this person is similar to you or the exact opposite. Enjoy playing characters who are opposite from your own personality. What better way to live a secret life?