It’s been a little too long since I’ve paid 18$ for a cocktail truly worthy—as worthy as any beverage could be—of being 18$ (plus tax and tip). You know, one of those splash-of-this, dropper-of-that, rind-rubbed, delicate-garnished situations that comes in a frosted tumbler with a napkin and a deep bow, which you enjoy in a dimly-lit faux-speakeasy to the sound of saxophones. I miss those cocktails.
But I've been facilitating character workshops this pandemic, and it’s made me really consider where successful, lasting characters come from, and maybe, hopefully, how to make them. As you start to plan your re-entry into performing live, as you entertain the characters kicking around in your soul, I’d love to share with you what I’ve garnered so far.
At first I thought it would be cool to use a cocktail metaphor all the way through. I, who know very little about cocktails except how to drink them, did some research and looked up the components of a cocktail and thought, You are very clever, Deanna, because you will employ a handy analogy for people to think about character creation, AND help everyone review how to make a decent cocktail at the same time.
This self-satisfaction, as you will soon see, did not last.
THE SPIRIT. So the first component of all cocktails is the “base spirit,” which means, Mom, the main liquor. You can see why I was excited about this analogy at first. The SPIRIT of the character! Double meaning! This is already genius!
We all have impulses, lots of impulses for characters. They come from our brains and we think, “That could be funny.” And maybe it could be. But the truth is, the best characters come from who we already are, and from what we know in our own spirits. If your character isn’t originating from deep inside you, it’s just not going to be as good. Like, I sometimes dream about doing a character who’s breezy and moves lightly through the world not giving a shit, but no one would believe me. My characters are pretty much all control freaks, because guess what.
Everyone wants to feel unfettered by who they are sometimes, and sure, live your truth. But I think the characters that really stick with audiences do so because they’re deeply personal. They are valentines that performers have crafted to their own pockets of secret truth, the parts they are shyest to show you outright. So I say, when it’s time to craft your character, go to the top shelf of your personal soul-bar, and use that special-occasion spirit you’ve been saving. The one that tastes so much like you that you’re a little embarrassed by it. You know the one.
THE MODIFIER. According to my extensive 10 minutes of googling, the second element of cocktails is the “modifier,” which adds dimension to the base spirit. This is kinda working for my analogy. I mean, I do advocate modification to your base. Just-the-base-ma’am naturalism is not my particular interest. There are plenty of people who go for that kind of naturalism in their characters, and sure, live your truth. Myself, I like to focus on characters who take cabarets by storm and can hold a room in their thrall for a full-length show—characters who come on stage and everyone immediately goes, Whoa what is THAT. Characters you would either cross the street to avoid, or surrender all your worldly possessions to. Characters who can’t exist in our dumb normal world. Who can only live in our dreams and nightmares.
So if we want to use cocktail parlance, your character is a modified version of your spirit. But I would say that the word modified just isn’t strong enough, that really, it’s a heightened version. This is where the cocktail comparison I was initially so proud of just starts to seem lame.
Heightening starts with physicality. Your character should be Extra, taking up more energetic space than a normal person does. The way you particularly heighten your own physicality is unique to you. When I’m coaching, I like to get a sense of how someone naturally moves, and then see if they can go even further in that direction to the point of riveting watchability. Simultaneously, I like to push someone to move in a way that does not feel natural for them, as sometimes that can end up feeling even more rivetingly watchable, and at the very least be a way to enrich a character’s general movement pattern.
It’s not usually that hard, especially with a performer who has some movement training and sense of their own body, to create a fun movement vocabulary that communicates a lot about a character and is bewitchingly Extra. The challenge is almost always when it comes time to talk.
See, we all talk, talk all the damn time. Talking is normal. And so, it’s sometimes hard for our mouths and voices to figure out how to talk in a special way. But it’s essential that we do that, because just like we want audiences to go whoa as soon as they see us, we want them to go Whoa WHOA WHOA! when we start to verbally communicate. Again, the special way of talking is super unique to the individual performer. Sometimes it’s about enunciating your words more, or going in the other direction to mush-mouthed. It can be finding a different vocal range to inhabit: higher, lower, or a combination. It might be about holding the jaw or lips in a way that changes the way words come out. Someone I know—actually me—has been known to employ speech impediments or difficult-to-place accents. With these, it’s often best to stick to accents or impediments that are personal and based on what our bodies/mouths deeply know.
And speaking of speaking, even when we find a fun way to speak, actually generating text can be difficult too. We are too used to generating text to communicate, we’re too used to being direct, to speaking in sentences, prose. And prose just isn’t special. That is why I advocate poetry when it comes time for a character to communicate. Poetry takes itself seriously, it takes up space on the page, it is unafraid to pause dramatically mid-idea, to be playful with language. And because we’re not used to speaking in poetry, improvising in character, with poetry, tends to produce some deep, surprising things. Our characters reclaim some of that youthful pretentiousness, back when we all thought our ideas mattered. We want our characters to be like that, convinced of themselves. That is a key to their specialness. That might make an audience, full of cynical, self-conscious prose-speakers, sit up and take note.
THE ACCENT/COLOR/FLAVOR. The final element crucial to cocktails has been called, depending on what website you’re on, accent, color, flavor—or flavour if you’re British. This is where I start to kinda regret the cocktail thing. I mean, it’s gotten us this far, so I guess we’re sticking with it. But it’s reductive, it's trite, and I’m a little sorry.
No, you know what? I'm not giving up on this cocktail analogy! I can do something with this accent/color/flavor thing! This can be about style, about aesthetics and world. What world does the character live in? What genre, what decade, what milieu? I often ask people when they’re constructing a fresh character, what movies and music do they love? Sometimes the music or movies that really do it for us when we’re young, for example, can be exuberant, sweetly sincere places from which to build a character’s world.
Also, what skill set or knowledge base does the performer already have, that could make a more run-of-the-mill character stand out? For example, I worked with one performer who was doing a fedora-clad, Sinatra-loving, Rat Pack wannabe kind of dude, who sometimes tossed off a quip about chakras and alignment, because the performer herself happened to be an acupuncturist. That made for a fresh character with some really fun surprises.
So, okay, the accent/color/flavor thing actually worked out fine. Relief.
But according to my cocktail websites, that’s the end of the line when it comes to elements of a cocktail, and I don’t think I’m quite done. You see my conundrum. I’ll just add this one more:
THE SPECIFICITY. There are 10$ cocktails and there are 18$ cocktails, and the difference is in the details. For 10$, they’ll shove a shot of something with a fizzy juice and maybe a slice of citrus and there you go. For 18$, they will have considered the type of glass that will look most comely with your drink inside it. They will have smoked the inside of that glass, or salted or fruited one side of the rim. They will have assembled a bamboo swizzle-stick with several delicate slabs of contrasting garnishes. The ice cube will seem advanced, as if the water from which the ice originated was molecularly arranged for maximum wetness. The cocktail itself will blend several itsy-bitsy amounts of herbal extracts you have not heard of: seductively medicinal, French. When you sip this cocktail, you will feel incredibly expensive, and your mouth and soul will rejoice in one harmonic sounding of pure Art.
Obviously, you want your character to be the expensive cocktail, and so, you have to make choices. More choices, and more after that. One of the pitfalls I see performers fall into sometimes is just that they haven’t made enough choices. They’ve considered the drink but not the glass, and certainly not the rim. So make sure you focus on details when you’re building character. The placement of your feet. The angle of your hat. The way you turn. The more choices you make, the more your audience will feel pampered in artistic luxury. That leads to more applause and more people treating you to, well, at least 10$ cocktails.
But, hey, that’s a real start.