Characterization Games for Theatre

By Martha Mendenhall

Updated September 22, 2017

Offer suggestions like
i Photodisc/Photodisc/Getty Images

Creating a character is the fundamental job of the actor. The actor must embody the physical and vocal qualities that bring the character to life. In addition, the historical time period in which the character’s life is set will influence characterization choices. Seasoned actors can use characterization games to hone their skills, while beginners and students begin to develop characterization skills through simple exercises.

Physical Characterization

Physical characterization includes how an actor walks, how he uses his body and what facial expressions he makes. An easy game to introduce this concept is for each actor to enter, cross the playing space and exit the space while physically embodying the character. Each actor should be given a scale of one to ten to work with, with one representing the actor in his own neutral stance and walk and ten being the most exaggerated physical representation of the character he can manage. The actor’s task is to enter at level one and exit at level ten. Once each actor has made his cross, the observing actors should describe the characteristics that they saw physically embodied using adjectives such as silly, mean, aimless, sad, angry, etc.

Vocal Characterization

For this improvisational game, each actor sits with another actor posing as an interviewer and answers questions about his character’s life, opinions and feelings. The interviewer should ask general questions, such as, “Where did you grow up?” and “Was your childhood happy?" Questions that relate specifically to the circumstances of each individual character, such as, “How did you come to be king?” if the character, for example, is Macbeth, or, “Why didn’t you tell your parents you married Romeo?” if the character is Juliet, are also useful. The actor being interviewed should focus his attention on creating the vocal rhythm and pitch that best suit the character, while the actors observing should offer descriptions of the vocal characterization they heard after each interview.

Historical Characterization

Creating characters for historical plays often involves royal characters and servants, which requires actors to consider their character’s status in creating an accurate characterization. Characters of high status will look other characters directly in the eye and demand a wide berth on stage. Characters of lower status might keep their eyes downcast and make sure to follow behind those of higher status. High-status characters speak with firm deliberateness, while low-status characters might stammer or whisper. Ask the actors, three at a time, to draw a number from a hat – one, two or three, with one being highest status and three the lowest. Each of the actors then represents the status he has chosen, observing the other two as they do the same. The observers then guess the actors' "pecking order."

Characterization Games for Beginners

For beginning vocal work, participants begin by standing in a circle. Each participant should be given a simple line of text, such as, “To be or not to be, that is the question,” and should speak this first in their regular voice. Next, they should be offered vocal characterization suggestions to experiment with, such as “cartoon character,” “drill sergeant” or “sexy movie star.” The actors should speak one at a time, allowing their voices to change pitch and rhythm to suit their idea of the suggested character. For beginning physical character work, the actors should move through the space normally, and then using the same characterizations that they used for the vocal work, here trying to create the rhythm of movement of the suggested character.