Behavior is character, choice is acting…
Hard to dispute that behavior reveals character. I frequently hear from actors that what they look for in developing a character is what the script says the character does, which of course is a perfectly acceptable first stroke of beginning to paint the picture of who this person really is. But far too many actors stop there. The thing that takes the character off the page and gives it dimension in performance is all the behavior that an actor creates and manipulates throughout the scene, play or film.
I recently saw a production of Equus (Love it or hate it, it’s one of the important modern plays of our time. If you’re not familiar with the play, find it, read it. It’s written by Peter Shaffer who’s other plays aren’t too shabby either.). Throughout the play there are a series of scenes that take place between the main character, a male psychiatrist, and a more minor one, a female judge. Their relationship begins as quite friendly and over the course of the play becomes more and more strained. The two actors who were in the production that I saw were both wonderful but it was the actress playing the judge, although in a smaller part than her scene partner, commanded your attention.
I didn’t know exactly why at the time. But later as I thought about the show I realized what it was. Her performance was filled with behavior. And behavior that was not on the page, it was acting choices. Lots of small choices. From small things like how she checked her blouse as she entered to the way she kissed her host good-bye with a flirty double-peck on the cheeks and a subtle lift of her leg. Later as the events of the play become more intense, each of her scenes played out markedly different. Although the action was frequently similar, the behavior was distinctly different. For instance, when, at the end of first act, she leaves and didn’t kiss him good-bye. Now that may sound simple but it was the timing of her changing behavior that showed us how her emotional state was changing. And this choice in her character drove the dramatic action as the actor she was playing against reached for the kiss and when she didn’t respond registered the loss.
The other thing that behavior gives us as actors or directors is a device to reveal character arc. Even in small roles, how a character is changed within a story is shown to us in the difference of how they behave now versus how they did before.
And what’s really cool is there is so much space to fill in a character with behaviors. It’s why two actors can play the same part so differently. So, any part, no matter who has played it before can become your own.
You choose. You create.