Opposite Character exercise

Purpose: To experience how character is also “received” from the environment, not just invented from within.

Ask five very different people for five adjectives that describe who you appear to be. Ask who you appear to be, not who you are. (Who could know who you really are?) Tell them it is a class assignment, and there will be no discussion. Ask family, friends, and strangers. You are given a few days to collect the words.

Bring in the twenty-five words to class as a list written down one side of a sheet of A4 paper. There may be some words that repeat. This is okay; it tells you something.

On the opposite side of the page, write an antonym for each word. Try to use an active word, not just the “un” form of the word given. For instance, if the word was “happy,” don’t use “unhappy.” Instead, use “sad” or “miserable.” If you are told you are “artistic,” instead of “inartistic,” use “critical,” “practical” “thick skinned” or “businesslike.” The students may help each other in a group. This stage can be difficult and take time.

Use the second list to create a character opposite to yourself. The character should be both believable and unrecognizable as you. It should succeed in disguising who you are, while allowing you to operate in the real world as a real person. As you develop the character, stay in touch with the teacher and other students to make sure that the character you develop is an interesting “stretch” for you to do. The character should be complete from boots to biography, from handkerchief to hobby. Costume items can be borrowed from friends, from a theatre costume department, or bought in second hand stores.

IMPORTANT: Don’t create a character who cannot communicate, or you will not receive the benefit of the exercise. Please, no catatonic introverts sitting in the corner sucking his or her thumbs! Acting students tend to be extroverted and good communicators and may think their list of opposite characteristics can only be interpreted as a brain dead zombie. Please don’t fall into this trap. Maintain a flexible approach to the list; this is not an engineering exercise. There may have to be a leap of creative synthesis. Let the character eventually lead the way.

The evening before the exercise, place the character’s costume at the foot of your bed. Make any special arrangements that might be necessary, such as ordering a taxi, dying your hair, shaving your beard, or finding a cover story so your roommates can participate in the fiction. From the moment you wake up, you are the character.

You may not break character. If anyone you know recognizes you in the street, ignore him. You can apologise later.

It is open house at the theatre school and you arrive (more or less) in time for training. The public is welcome. Register at the office. The Culture Ministry needs the information for their statistics. Your character may have its own reason for visiting a theatre school.

After a couple of hours of drama lessons (!) you will be encouraged to go back out into the town, for instance to allow those who are new to the area to become familiar with the shops, take care of accommodation, etc. This is the important part of the exercise. With the character you have created, you present a mask to the environment. (We are back to the question of appearances.) Strangers respond to the mask differently from the way they would respond to you. You will find that their expectations have a way of pulling you deeper into character, increasing your concentration and expanding the nuances. Try to go to those areas of the city that your character would frequent, and try to be accepted by people similar to your character. For instance, hang out in the train station, try on jewellery, go to church, or check the prices of new cars, houses or life insurance. Please use your common sense. Although what people don’t know (that you are an actor) probably won’t hurt them, don’t cause any disturbances and don’t get arrested. If you meet another character at the school that is compatible with yours, you may go out together but avoid groups that will stick out in the real world. Get out there and communicate with real people.

At the end of the day, your character returns to the school for another “acting class.” As part of the class, the “guests” learn to give each other a group massage. During the massage the individual’s clothes are loosened, ties, earrings, body padding etc. are removed and the actor drops out of character. Perhaps you will need to have left some normal clothes at the school the day before, so you have something to wear home.

A more hard-core version is to stay in character until you go back to sleep at night.

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Jonathan Paul Cook © 2010