What Would You Do?
This is a fun game to play all by itself, but it can also be very useful for helping young actors learn to more fully inhabit their characters. It's incredibly simple on the surface, but it's not easy to do well.
Play the Game
One actor plays at a time. The others can take turns "narrating."
The player chooses a character. This can be the character he is playing in a current production, or a character from literature or life. (Be careful though--don't let students choose characters they will be tempted to lampoon.)
The "narrator" (it should be the instructor, at least at first) begins to narrate in second person simple events in a person's daily life. Start simple. "You get up in the morning, and it's a beautiful day. You make breakfast."
The player simply follows the instructions, but he reacts in character.
The "narrator" may begin to add some surprises. "You're walking down the street when a man bumps into you."
The player must react to whatever happens in character. In most situations Hamlet would react very differently than, say, Benjamin Franklin.
Narrator continues the story, adding more and more extreme details. "You come upon a dead body." "It's your mother." "It's floating in midair."
Play stops when the instructor feels it has gone as far as it can or should.
I find this game a great jumping-off point for a discussion of the difference between acting and "indicating." I am frequently asked, when explaining the game, "So, I'm supposed to figure out what my character would do in each situation, and then do it?" I reply, "Not exactly. I don't want you to have to figure anything out. If you are truly inhabiting your character, you will simply react."
It's also a good way of looking at the concept of "playwriting" while acting or improvising. I'm sorry the term "playwriting" is used here, because as a playwright I object to the word's use in a pejorative sense, but in this case "playwriting" is a bad thing. It occurs when an actor consciously tries to push a story in a particular direction that is unnatural, rather than reacting naturally in character. Obviously in many improvisation settings, such as improv comedy, this can be a good thing, but for an actor in role it is dishonest. Because improv games are fun, I often have to remind people not to "try" to be funny when the point is to learn about character.
Obviously when this game is played as a way of helping actors inhabit characters as whom they have been cast, this won't work, but when the game is played "for fun" you can make it into a guessing game. The player who is performing doesn't tell the others what character he has chosen. (You could even have them pull the characters out of a hat.) Then the "narrators" use their narrating as a way of evaluating the character, sort of like the game "20 Questions." They can put the character into specific situations to see how he'll react, and use the answers to gradually zoom in on the character, until they can guess. I like to have them phrase their guess as just another piece of narration, but one that makes it clear that they now know who the person is. (For example, if the "narrator" is pretty sure the player is Hamlet, she could say, "And then your girlfriend comes in, and she's throwing flowers all over the place.")