How to Get Into Character: Given Circumstances in Acting

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Drama is the recreation of life onstage, along with all of the additional circumstances that life entails. Characters in musical theater and traditional drama productions alike are shaped by given circumstances, such as where a person is from or when a play takes place. Learn more about given circumstances and how they can influence your acting style.


What Are Given Circumstances?

The given circumstances are the who, what, when, where, and why of any character you intend to play. They serve as a backdrop for a character's personal situation, informing how an actor should perform the play's emotional and physical actions in light of the character's fictional past.

Using these given circumstances to more fully create and inhabit a character is a key component of the Stanislavski acting system, named after Konstantin Stanislavski (the Russian acting teacher and author of the book An Actor Prepares).


Who Was Konstantin Stanislavski?

Konstantin Stanislavski (1863-1938) was a Russian theater practitioner and acting coach. Stanislavski, as the founder of the Moscow Art Theatre, created a cohesive system for performers to act to the best of their abilities (featuring such concepts as given circumstances, the magic if, and affective memory).

Stanislavski's system continues to have an impact on the performing arts, informing the method acting approach of some of today's most successful performers. His teaching style influenced many other notable acting coaches, including Sanford Meisner and Lee Strasberg.


Given Circumstances to Consider for Your Character

When you start a new role, take some time to think about your character. To do so, keep the following factors in mind:

1. What they want: Give your character a clear motivation based on what you can learn about them from the script. It's just as important to know what your character wants, what they'll do to get it, and why they want it as it is to follow stage directions and blocking instructions. Use the play's script as your main source of inspiration, but keep in mind that you can also incorporate some personalized elements into your character.

2. When it is: Depending on the time period in which they lived, humans have faced very different circumstances. Previous actions in a person's life have a large influence on how they will behave in the future. In fact, the time of day can cause a person to act differently than they would have just an hour before. Consider all of this temporal data when creating an identity for your character.

3. Where they come from: As you plan your performance, keep the world of the play in mind. Consider your character's literal environment (where they come from geographically) as well as their social environment (where they come from culturally, socioeconomically, and so on). Create a map of your character's relationships to other characters in the play as well as the larger landscape in which they find themselves.

4. Who they are: Use all of the given circumstances of a character's time, place, relationships, and motivations to arrive at a holistic understanding of who they are. If you can't find anything specific about your character in the text, try following questions about them through to their logical conclusion. Make a list of the core characteristics that your character possesses as a unique individual and strive to embody them.


3 Given Circumstances Exercises

There are numerous approaches that can be taken to arrive at the given circumstances for a specific character. To supplement your theater education, try the following three exercises:

1. Make up a scene. While an actor's primary job is to perform scripted material, improvisation can help you better understand how to create a character from a few given circumstances in a limited amount of time. Request scene ideas, as well as a who, what, when, where, and why for each character. Create a short drama with your scene partners based on these circumstances.

2. Read a monologue several times. Try to find a monologue that is relatively neutral in the sense that the character speaking could come from a variety of different backgrounds. Assume you come across a monologue about someone leaving their hometown. Perform the monologue as if you're a graduating high school senior, then as if you've lived in the same town your entire life. This will demonstrate how drastically acting techniques may need to change due to a few circumstantial character elements.

3. Consider thinking about a well-known character. Analyze the situational circumstances of famous characters from drama, fiction, or real life. Consider how Alice's upbringing in Victorian England may have influenced her behavior in Wonderland. Inquire as to why Hamlet's background in the royal family of Denmark led him to seek revenge on Claudius in the manner that he did. Seek out a diverse range of characters and observe how different circumstances cause people to behave and act differently.

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