Characterisation and 'The Iceberg Principle'
'The Iceberg Principle' applies to many aspects of life. I remember years ago being awestruck by the skill of a sleight-of-hand magician. This wasn't someone on the TV this was an 'in your face' experience at a restaurant in a busy tourist area on the Gold Coast, Australia.
The magician moved from one large group of people to another doing the same amazing routine and walking away with a significant amount of money; freely given, without coercion, from each audience group that rewarded his consummate ability. The performance at each table probably only lasted 10 mins. One could easily jump to the conclusion that this was 'easy money'. For very little effort he would have been making several hundred dollars per hour. The reason we were mesmerised, however, was because of the years of preparation that had gone into those precious 10 mins.
Great performers apply 'The Iceberg Principle'.
They may not call it that. They may not even understand that is what they are doing but the outcome is the evidence. Take for example Judi Dench's flawless performance in the movie "Philomena". What sets her apart from many other actors is that, when she performs, 'Judi Dench' disappears completely. On screen is Philomena and until the credits roll we are completely caught up in the life of that character. Very few actors can achieve this level of characterisation. There are many outstanding performances on film or stage but normally, as we watch, we catch glimpses of the actor performing the role.
When I was a young man I worked for a period as an assistant-stage-manager then later stage-manager on a number of professional productions. I loved it because it allowed me great insight into the world of theatre. I saw the production process from the beginning to the end in the hands of experts and learned so much in a relatively short period of time. One of the things I observed was that there are two categories of actors. There are those who are ego-driven and perform because they love to be seen; and feed on the applause and adoration of the audience. Then there are the artist-actors. They act because of an absolute love of the craft. Of course they want to hear the applause but only as an indication of their success in creating a memorable and believable character in performance. They are highly focused individuals who totally immerse themselves in the role they are playing. They don't have time for narcissism. There is a quality to the performance that sets them apart from the others. An audience may not know the difference when they are watching but they will 'feel' the difference.
As a drama teacher I am not interested in creating an environment for egos to be massaged.
There is no real value in this for the student. A student who becomes dependent on recognition and acceptance from an audience is vulnerable. The world of the theatre is fickle. Fame and the attention it brings can evaporate as quickly as it came. An artist-actor knows before the audience applauds that they have 'nailed' the performance. They have already experienced the incredible 'high' that comes from the actualisation of the intense preparation and hard work they have gone through. Audience applause is merely the 'icing on the cake'.
Creativity is the highest order of thinking.
According to Bloom's Revised Taxonomy of Cognitive Educational Objectives, Creativity is the highest order of thinking. To take students through the process of creating a character, if done correctly, develops their ability to think creatively. That is a life-long learning skill that has boundless applications and as an holistic educational objective, is priceless.
So how do we introduce students to 'The Iceberg Principle'?
Although I explicitly teach it in a unit on characterisation, it is actually embedded into the whole drama program. I have devised drama curriculum in a number of different schools and I have always applied the 'Backward Design' approach. I know what skills and knowledge I would like my year 12 students to attain and plan the program towards achieving this from the beginning. This is 'The Iceberg Principle' operating in the area of curriculum development.
What we are focusing on in this blog, however, is how the 'iceberg principle' is applied in developing a character.
Characterisation is a basic aspect of drama and although we look at aspects of characterisation in every unit of work throughout the curriculum, I like to focus on character development in more depth at some point in the overall program. I normally tackle this at year 11 level because I want students to be absolutely grounded in it before tackling the work in year 12. The aim is to have the 'iceberg principle' embedded in their thinking by then.
There are many ways to approach character development and the last thing you want is to give students a formula for it. What I do is look at the development of characters from a few different angles and show how a character can initially be developed very quickly in improvisation. With improvisation what you want is to lay foundations for a more intuitive, organic process to take place in the creation of a character. In scripted drama what has been learned in improvisation can be incorporated in the development of characters but students need clear guidelines.
Ideally I would not tackle a specific unit of work on characterisation with any group unless I felt they were ready for it. It requires an ability to focus intently for prolonged periods and requires the right level of maturity. It's not a matter of chronological age or skill development, rather it has to do more with your working relationship with the group and their working relationship with each other. In an ideal world, where curriculum is not unitised and required to be delivered at a specific time in the school year, it would be best to tackle it after an "a-ha!" moment. That is when you intuitively know that you should do this unit of work at this time. You are unlikely to have that luxury but, if you do, choose the time to introduce it carefully.
For a full outline of my unit of work on Characterisation download the e-book "Organised Chaos: A Very Practical Guide to Drama Teaching".
The 'Hot Seat' Monologue
The culminating focus of my unit of work on Characterisation is a 'hot seat' monologue. Students are asked to create their own unique character (they are encouraged to use an actual person or combination of persons as the base on which to build that character), they write a monologue, and perform it for the rest of the class. They must use and demonstrate understanding of the character building techniques they have explored so far in the unit: observation and imitation, finding a physical centre, finding an emotional centre, finding an animal, creating idiosyncracies and identifying underlying motivations. When faced with this task many students 'freak-out'. The last thing most students will want to perform is a monologue. Re-affirm your belief in each one of them, assure them that you will provide them with the support they need to accomplish the task and that it is simply a matter of taking one step at a time. Tell them that this could be the single most important exercise they have ever undertaken in drama.
If you have never done this sort of unit with students before, let me assure you that every student has the capacity to do this. For some it is a really scary thing but once they overcome their fears they normally make some major personal breakthroughs - for some, that may have life-changing consequences. I know that for one student I coached through this exercise it became a turning point in her whole life. I didn't know this until I talked to her parents many years later and was told that the confidence she gained from doing this, lead to a whole change of attitude to school and direction in life. She is now a successful movie producer.
It is during the preparation period for the 'hot seat' monologue that I introduce the keys to characterisation identified in the photo above. Lets look at these general preparation keys that are so important.
It goes without saying that reading and analysing the script is essential preparation for a performance but many students don't know how to approach this. Teach them to make notes on a pad and annotations in the margins of the script as they are going. Get them to identify the areas they need to do research in to create their character. Reading sub-text can be a challenge for some but if you have laid the foundations in sub-text exercises you introduce during a dramatic improvisation unit they will already be primed to look for it.
It is essential and I mean essential that students are warned not to memorise their script and/or attempt to create a fully developed character voice prior to or in the earlier stages of rehearsal.
Memorisation of lines and the creation of the character needs to be done in conjunction with a rehearsal process that does not fix dialogue, character or action until later in the process. Allow time for in-depth analysis, workshopping ideas and for character relationships to be clearly established.
Character development (the fantasy genres excepted) needs to be based on solid research into real people. Everything needs to be done within the historical and social context of the script including, when needed, the actual event/s. Students should spend considerable time, where and when possible, observing real people. They need to spend time reflecting upon and analysing the possible motives of the characters in the script, without drawing any final conclusions until later in rehearsal process
Finding a good balance in the rehearsal process is not always easy. A student cast will often require strong clear direction from a teacher or student director but it is best to allow the actors to have some creative input into the rehearsal process.
Don't 'block' scenes too soon or too rigidly. Get students used to trying out different approaches. Workshopping ideas is not only a whole lot of fun it also produces very creative ideas. Set up improvisation scenarios that help students develop their characters rather than memorise their scripts. (N.B. in case the terminology you use is different to mine 'blocking' involves fixing the positions and actions of characters on stage at any point in time throughout the play.)
Teach students that memorisation is easy when it utilises the brain's way of doing it. Sitting down with a script at the beginning of the rehearsal process and simply memorising lines is the very worst thing that you can do. It produces 'wooden' 2 dimensional performances that are boring. The most effective way to remember anything is to connect it to a visual image or emotional response. That's the way the brain works best. Lines can be memorised a lot easier if they are connected to specific actions or lighting or sound cues or emotional interactions with other characters that create clear visual images. The blocking of scenes, unless there is a severe time shortage, should be flexible right up to the end of the process and be done at leisurely pace so that all action and positioning on stage is related to logical motivations of the characters, rather than just practical requirements.
A 'hot seat' monologue involves the students not only performing solo but, at the conclusion of the performance, for them to answer a range of questions asked by the audience. They have to answer these without hesitation as though they were the actual character. The student's responses to these questions reveals the depth of their research into the character they have created.
This approach is better than a simple monologue because it requires students to do in-depth analysis of the character and create a three dimensional performance. I have seen amazing work produced by students. I only require 5 minutes of monologue but one student I remember, enthralled the class for 20 minutes, not with his performance skills but with his incredible imagination and the depth of research and analysis he had gone into to create the character’s extraordinary life. Another student, who was renowned in the whole class for sloppy, lazy work, totally mesmerised us with his brilliant characterisation. He was vocally, physically and mentally transformed, greatly exceeding his own expectations and changing forever the perception of the class. I have seen incredibly shy Asian girls take on bold western- style female roles and break free of the limitations of their own personalities. I have seen loud extrovert females create a character that was so intense, personal and intimate telling a story of personal tragedy that would take your breath away. I have seen very serious students have the class rolling in laughter from the eccentric characters they created.
Do not miss out on the potential in a unit of work on characterisation to transform student work and take it to a whole new level. Use 'The Iceberg Principle' throughout the drama program; but most specifically in the development of clear, highly entertaining and 3 dimensional characters.