Character Status: What It Is, And How It Changes Acting Choices

These days, when we think of the word status, we tend to think in terms of facebook. Then we sheepishly put down our smartphones, remember we are actors, and our minds leap to classical theatre. When there are kings, queens, lords and ladies neatly filling their roles in the context of a court, it is easy to identify each character’s status and see how the resulting hierarchy supports the plot. But status is just as pervasive in contemporary film and theatre. Think about what determines status in modern American society, for example. A person’s job, income, education, physical appearance, and abilities are all factors that play into perceived class. If the idea of status ever starts to feel archaic, think about the societal difference between a White House Chief of Staff and a small town auto mechanic.

Knowing the nuances of your character’s status within his or her world can dramatically affect your choices as an actor. With that in mind, here are some questions to ask yourself when getting to know your character.

What is my character’s status?

Let’s start with the basics. As previously mentioned, sometimes your character’s status is given to you in the form of a title, or job description. But sometimes we have to dig deeper. Get specific. Ask yourself what is your character’s status within the context of her workplace? Her town or city? Her family? The answer might be different for each, and that could be a clue to your character’s psyche. Depending on the script, one might be more important to the plot. Figure out which is most important to the world of the play, and which is most important to your character.

How did I achieve this status? (And how long have I had it)?

Knowing how your character achieved his status is every bit as crucial as knowing the status itself. It makes a huge difference to your character’s development. Was he born into his status, or did he have to fight for it? Think about the Disney movie Aladdin. (If you are unfamiliar with classic animated Disney, I apologize. Go watch them all. My blog posts will make more sense and you will be filled with richly-conflicting emotions regarding gender and racial stereotypes pitted against the sweet opiate of whimsical romance. You’re welcome). Jasmine, born into royalty, took her status for granted, and thought nothing of chucking it away for a day without considering the consequences. Having been given everything she needed in life since birth, she saw no problem with giving an unpaid-for apple to a passing child. On the other hand, Aladdin, a self-professed “street-rat,” was intimately familiar with the implications of status. He had entire musical numbers dedicated to stealing a loaf of bread and feeling disenfranchised. Once his status was dramatically altered as Prince Ali, he readily fought for it with lies and betrayal, and used his new-found power with reckless abandon. The overnight magic used to achieve his heightened status and the lack of time he had to accustom himself to it both altered the way he treated his position.

How hard to I have to work to maintain my status?

Rolling with the Aladdin example, (because that ticket was one-way), let us examine Jafar. Higher on the status scale than Aladdin, but not as privileged as Jasmine, he was acutely aware of his own status. Clearly he had needed to achieve his status at least partially on his own merit, and likely had made the laborious ascent up the political ladder. His struggle to maintain and improve his status defines his character. Think about all the intricacies of maintaining one’s status, and the implied follow-up: do I want to change my status? Does your character have to dress differently, make connections, attend events? Does she have to monitor herself at work and/or at home? What kind of toll does that take on her?

How important is status to me?

This question is seemingly covered under those above, but it is good to check in with yourself. How much does your character care about his status? (And does that answer change over the course of the script)? If he cares a lot, where does it rank in his priorities? If he doesn’t care at all, is he aware that others might care? What kind of frustrations might arise from that? Furthermore . . . do I want to hide or flaunt it? Obviously in our example, there were times when Jasmine wanted to hide her status in order to escape the many super hard demands of life as a Disney princess. But it can be more subtle than that. Think about the way high school athletes wear Varsity jackets, or the way a girl with crooked teeth might smile with her mouth closed. We all make behavioral modifications to hide or show off our perceived status.

How does it affect those around me?

Much of this is going to be the decision of your cast mates and scene partners, so a more specifically useful question might be: how am I USED to it affecting those around me? Jasmine, for example, is used to people treating her with deference and accommodation, while Aladdin is used to being disregarded and thought of as inadequate. How each of these characters is accustomed to being perceived affects their tactics throughout the film.

How does my status affect my physicality?

This is probably one of the more addressed and instinctive effects of status. How you carry yourself and the way you move (including pace, tread and gestures) can convey status to an audience before you ever open your mouth. But now that we are status-experts, it’s time to add nuance. It’s not enough to ask yourself, “how would a heart surgeon at a dinner party move,” you must integrate all the other questions. Your particular heart surgeon’s experience, her level of comfort with her status, and her desire or lack of desire to maintain or change her status will all dictate the particulars of her physicality in that scene.

How does my status change my vocal choices?

We’re in the nitty gritty now. There are the more intuitive vocal modifications such as volume, pace, enunciation, even pitch, that are determined by your character’s current status and his confidence within that status. But consider backstory too. If your character came from a low status to a higher one, perhaps he has had to overcome a regional dialect. Is your character trying to mimic those of a desired status? These are factors that can help you find the voice of your character.

The world is filled with divisions. Throughout history, every society has crafted its own hierarchies that evolve and shift with geography and time. Having a finger on the pulse of that evolution is just another tool to help us fine-tune our storytelling.

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Rachel Rachel Frawley is an actor living in Atlanta. She holds a B.F.A. in Theatre from Michigan State University (with cognates in Music and Professional Writing) and is an Apprentice Company graduate from the Atlanta Shakespeare Co. She also works as an education artist for local theatres, which have included the Shakespeare Tavern and Aurora Theatre. For more information, visit her website at www.rachelfrawley.com