The 1990s in Ireland saw a series of highly successful theatre productions in which actors played a multiplicity of roles. This has often been attributed to the economic exigencies of the times, but it also depended on the availability of flexible actors with the physical and psychological capacity to embody a wide range of identifiable characters within the one production.
This second of two posts considers the acting techniques required for this style of performance in relation to the differentiation of one character from another. The discussion will focus primarily on my own empirical exploration of the demands multi-roling places on an actor through the direction of recent revivals of Mojo Mickybo for Belfast’s Chatterbox Theatre Company (2013) and Bedlam Productions (2015).
Having established a psychological rationale for the multi-roling process for the actors, it was then necessary to find an effective way to allow the audience to differentiate between characters. We began with establishing a “strong, simple and well formed” Psychological Gesture for each character (Chekhov, p.76) and developed these through improvisation into “an imaginary body” (ibid. p. 79). An early workshop with actors who had trained at the Lecoq school introduced the idea that when transitioning between characters, that there should be an intervening neutral state. The following rehearsal illustrates the actors’ early exploration of this process, including the conscious moment of transition between characters.
This proved a valuable rehearsal technique, but as the action became more assured and fluid, these neutral intervals were elided, becoming imperceptible to the audiences, while still affording the actors a high degree of control.
Because the action often involved more than two characters, it was also necessary to find some robust mechanism to allow the audience to keep track of one role when an actor made the transition to another. As can be seen in the following scene in which Mojo and Mickybo encounter their arch enemies, Fuckface and Gank the Wank, we achieved this by keeping track of the positions of unseen characters, which the actors evoked by maintaining a kind of virtual eye contact with these invisible presences, as the following performance extract shows.
By tightly framing the action and keeping transitional moves to a minimum, it proved possible to maintain a remarkable continuity of action. By basing the imaginary bodies of the bullies on animals (a bear and a snake), the actors found a way of integrating these two characters in a way that facilitated fluid transitions from role to role.
In addition to the physical flexibility that the actors brought to the process, they also demonstrated an extraordinary capacity to hold onto the psychological journeys of every character, which seems akin to a grandmaster playing multiple simultaneous games of chess. Members of the audience also commented on the ease with which they too were able to keep track of temporarily invisible characters, a process facilitated partly by the commitment of the actors, but also, I would argue, through kinaesthetic empathy. As McConachie and Hart have argued:
Notions of the spectator as reader, which generally derive from language-based theories of performance, have limited our understanding of audience response. Cognitive science suggests that empathy and emotional response are more crucial to a spectator’s experience than the kind of decoding most semioticians imagine. (pp. 4-5)
As the cognitive research alluded to suggests, ‘mirror neurons’ trigger those parts of a spectator’s brain that would fire, if the spectator were themselves involved in the action. This helps explain the visceral sense of reality invisible characters can assume in the spectator’s mind, as evidenced by the response of one member of the audience for Stones in his Pockets:
The two things that struck me most about the dance was the level of energy and the fact that they were able to incorporate the various characters we had come to know and love throughout the play into this dance. Every one of the characters came out so clearly… There were only two actors but it felt like the stage was packed with people. (White, p.41)
While the effectiveness of this dance, in which the play’s entire ‘cast’ of characters participate in a frenetic ceilidh, can partly be attributed to the gestural signs used to differentiate character from character, the intensity of the experience seems to derive in large measure from a phenomenological engagement with the shared experience of action. While this could be said of all live performance, the effect is complicated (and arguably heightened) in the case of these multi-role two-handers because the actors must project not only an embodied sense of the characters they are playing at any given moment, but also the invisible trace of the characters whose continuing presence they and thus the audience must be able to imagine. Interestingly, attempts to film this dance sequence for promotional purposes proved problematic, arguably because viewers of the filmed extract were unable to establish the empathetic connection with the full range of characters described by the above witness.
While the use of ‘invisible characters’ emerged as a key performance strategy in my own production of Mojo Mickybo, a variety of approaches were used to facilitate the moments of transition from role to role. In many cases, the classic conjuring technique of drawing the audience’s attention elsewhere worked well, allowing an actor to have assumed a new role by the time the audience were again aware of them. In other cases (as in the moment when the actor playing Gank holds onto the other actor’s back allowing himself to be swung upstage from his stage left position towards stage right and into position to play Mojo), a more cinematic approach was adopted as described by Conleth Hill in an interview about the creation of his role in Stones in his Pockets:
Sometimes when we were changing scenes, Sean would walk across me and then I would become someone else and hold the focus and then he was able to become somebody else… it’s called a swipe. (White, p. 20)
Most often, however, as the action progressed and the audience became accustomed to the multi-roling conventions of the production, the actors simply adjusted their physicality from role to role. To begin with, I encouraged the actors to imagine a mental ‘click’ at the moment of transition to mark the moment of neutrality we had used in rehearsal, but we came to realise in performance from the audience’s positive reactions that this was unnecessary. Much as an audience can filter out the presence of puppeteers on stage and become aware only of the puppet, the level of artifice achieved a kind of transparency that rendered it imperceptible.
To sum up the special challenges of this kind of work for actors, let us contrast this sequence of multi-roling two actor plays from the 1990s with two other contemporaneous examples of multi-character performance. In 1999 Dublin’s Barrabas Theatre Company enjoyed similar success to the productions discussed above with their radical reimagining of Lennox Robinson’s “well-made play”, The White-Headed Boy. This Abbey Theatre classic normally requires a cast of twelve, but Barrabas performed it with just four actors – one to play the central protagonist, with all other roles (including his extended family) being performed by the other three actors. Of these, Mikel Murfi and Raymond Keane had experienced a highly physical training programme in Paris; while Veronica Coburn owed much of her experience to the Dublin Youth Theatre. The production was memorable for the physical precision of these multi-roling performers, with clearly delineated characters reminiscent of the Commedia dell’Arte, each identified by their bold physicality. One especially effective sequence involved Murfi crossing upstage of the main action deftly switching from one character to another in breathtakingly rapid succession so that the audience was able to ‘see’ each member of the family in turn.
By contrast, Jim Doran, in the Belfast-based Dubbeljoint Theatre Company’s one-man-show Des (2000) – a biographical play about West Belfast’s visionary champion of community arts, Father Des Wilson – evoked many of the characters that peopled his story, but in a way that made it clear that this was how Father Des himself might have represented them had he been chatting to us on a street corner. Unlike The White-Headed Boy, it was clear to the audience watching Des that they were not expected to believe in the separate reality of these other souls.
Having directed both Frank Pig Says Hello and Mojo Mickybo it is now clear to me that these plays of the 1990s demand a style that falls somewhere between the physical precision of Barrabas and the relaxed story-telling of Des. By contrast with The White-Headed Boy’s conventional dramatic structure, the characters in all these two-actor plays can be traced back, albeit at several removes, to one or two primary narrators. This requires actors to be able to keep track of multiple layers of performance. Very often, actors are playing roles within roles like Russian Dolls, where one character is a projection of another character, who is in turn being projected by another, and so on back to the core narrator. Actors evoke the presence of the missing characters through careful attention to eye contact. They must always know where everyone is meant to be. Differentiation of character is often less rigid and precise than in Commedia dell’Arte inspired work, being more similar to the way in which a traditional story-teller will adopt a voice and posture to suggest a character without purporting to become the character. A recent Dublin production of a new two-person play, Leper and Chip (2015) is reminiscent of Disco Pigs and suggests a return to multi-roling in Irish theatre, perhaps as a result of the economic downturn. But the lack of interaction between the actors in what were really no more than two interlocking monologues suggest that the multi-roling techniques developed in Ireland in the 1990s may need to be relearnt.
Chekhov, Michael (2002). To the Actor (London: Routledge)
McConachie, Bruce, and Elizabeth F. Hart (eds.) (2010). Performance and Cognition (London: Routledge)
White, Irene (2003). Building with Stones (Queen’s University Belfast: unpublished MA Thesis)
Director: David Grant (Queen’s University Belfast)
Actors: Chris Grant and Seamus O’Hara