10 Tips on “Playing Crazy”

Everyone loves to play a crazy. From Hamlet to Hannibal, Lady Macbeth to Blanche DuBois, some of the meatiest, most iconic roles in theatre and cinematic history have been a few Crayolas shy of a box. Actors love to play them, audiences love to watch them, and the Hollywood Foreign Press likes to celebrate them with nominations and awards.

But how to nail the nuances of insanity? Bringing honesty and specificity to a role that demands an unbalanced brain can feel overwhelming, especially when the parameters of the psychosis are not clearly defined in the script. So for anyone who aspires to the lofty heights of lunacy, here are some quick tips to get you started:

1.  Don’t Play Crazy.  This is more about intentions than anything else. If you set out to play crazy, that is all you will achieve: a hollow collection of ticks and mannerisms that describe your own preconception of what “crazy” should look like. Approach the character like you would any other.

2.  Research the Disease. Get super-specific in your research. While characters (especially those in classical texts) are often painted with the broad strokes of general madness, use context clues to try to pinpoint a specific mental illness. Then get to know that illness inside and out. While the depiction of mental illness in film and theatre is often inaccurate or highly symbolic, having a scientific foundation for your performance will help ground you.

3.  What’s it Like Inside Your Brain? To expand on the previous point, use your research on the neurological implications as a springboard to discovering your character’s perception of the world. How does your character’s particular brand of crazy affect the way he views his environment? Is it a consistent perception, or does he have episodes? If the latter, does he “lose time” or retain memory of his actions? Less literally, what does it feel like to view the world from inside an altered brain? This one is for you as an actor. If it helps to imagine a warped lens that describes a heightened reality, go for it. If it is as simple as paranoia, great. Just get a handle on the point of view.

4.  What is the Emotional Origin? In many ways, this is more important to the story than the physical or chemical side to your mental malady. This is what makes good storytelling. Claiming Blanche DuBois has a certain anxiety disorder is great if it helps you create a specific character, but what an audience will grasp is her history of abandonment and trauma.

5.  How Does it Manifest Physically? This is the fun part that everybody loves! Does your madness come with physical ticks? If used in moderation, these can either be realistic, or, as in Lady M’s famous sleepwalking scene (in which she traditionally rubs her hands in a vain attempt to clean away blood), a metaphorical expression of inner turmoil. Choose carefully the answer to the question, and make sure the tick is justified. Make sure it helps to tell the story, otherwise it will look frivolous and self-serving.

6.  What are Your Triggers? Choosing specific triggers for your madness will help provide structure for it within the context of the script, as well as communicate meaning and origin to your audience.

7.  Don’t Forget the Lucid Periods! It may be that your character never has lucid periods at all. But likely she will at least have times when she is as close to “normal” as she will ever get in the script. These times are important because they provide contrast to the fits of hysteria or what have you. They also give the audience a point of reference, a window of accessibility, and clues to what makes your character tick (and perhaps what drove her out of her mind in the first place).

8.  What is the Arc of the Crazy? As with everything else, crazy needs levels. You can’t be at a plate-throwing, mouth-frothing, curse-screaming ten the whole time. Some scenes you’ll have to dial it back to a two. The important thing is to track the progression and arc of your madness within the arc of the play, and (you guessed it!) they should ideally align and compliment one another.

9.  What are the Stakes? I’m going to go ahead and say there are two levels of stakes when you’re playing a character that is a little out there. The first is the real-life stakes. What does your character risk? Isolation from loved ones? Loss of a job? Institutionalization? How these risks different from his or her perceived stakes (which could be anything from death to alien abduction to social humiliation). You as an actor always need to know what both sets of stakes are, and perceived stakes should be played with all the honest fervor of real life risks.

10.  How do You Advance the Plot? Your character was written the way he was for a reason, and that reason was probably not to win you a Golden Globe. Figure out how your character’s madness plays into the arc of the story, and how it supports the other characters. Use your position to forward the plot, rather than treating it like a showcase.

11.  BONUS: Maybe Try Your PC Cap On For Size. Remember that you never know how this will resonate with your audience. Even if your character is written as a caricature, mental illness of any degree might hit home in different ways for different people. Depending on the type of script and the message involved, this may or may not affect your performance. But it is good to keep in mind, especially during rehearsal. Consider treating the topic less irreverently than I have in this post. Do as I say, not as I do.

Playing any degree of mental variation from the accepted norm can be great fun. Moreover, it opens up so many opportunities. You may get to give voice to those who often lack representation. You might get to portray the human condition in ways that break conventional acting laws. You are allowed poetic license of expression. Treat your “crazy” characters with as much love and seriousness as you treat all your others. In the end, it is just another character. The tactics may change, but the objectives will probably be rooted (however deeply or obscurely) in the same basic human needs. So fight for what you want, you basket case.

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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