Playing Multiple CharactersPosted: Wednesday 2 April 2014 | |
Last week, during one of our Q&A sessions, a question came up about playing multiple characters:
“how do we do it, why do we do it, and is it better than playing only one character?” We gave a brief
(though hopefully satisfactory) answer, but it was a question that I have subsequently returned to,
and one that I aim to shed more light on.
Why play multiple roles?
During Shakespeare’s lifetime, acting troupes were usually comprised of 10-15 men (remember
women weren’t allowed on the stage!). These troupes worked in repertory – meaning they would
perform a cycle of different plays, depending on what was popular, or demanded. For example,
they may play Julius Caesar one day, then Henry V the next, followed by Much Ado About Nothing.
It wasn’t uncommon for a cast of this size to portray upwards of forty roles, collectively. This
amount of doubling was required entirely for economic and logistical reasons, rather than artistic
The actors who performed in a company such as The Chamberlain’s Men (the company to which
Shakespeare belonged), earned a modest wage, but a wage nonetheless. Therefore, in an effort to
keep costs down, and to make the theatre owners wealthier, the number of actors in the company
was kept to the bare minimum. In fact, not a lot has changed in modern theatre. In Julius
Caesar, for example, there are nearly forty named parts, not to mention all of the senators,
plebeians, attendants, etc. If you were to mount a production with one actor playing each role, the
cost of wages alone would ruin the company. So financial accountability was of the utmost
To bring it to a more personal level, we use doubling in the Actors At Work shows, not for
financial reasons, but for logistical ones. Because we are touring all over Australia, the
teams need to be particularly mobile. It is far easier to move and accommodate four people than
fourteen. But this, of course, forces us all to play multiple roles.
How do we play multiple roles?
I can only speak for myself here, as all actors will approach this differently. But for me, the most
important thing is having a clear and distinct shift between any characters you may be playing. This
means that regardless of costume, the audience should be able to identify which character you are
playing. The way I go about creating this distinction is vocally, physically, and with different
energies and intentions. What do I mean by that?
Well, vocally is pretty straightforward – use pitch, rhythm, and breath to give each character a
unique sound. Physically is pretty straightforward as well – find different ways of moving. Are they
old and stooped? Is the character young and energetic? Are they clumsy, or graceful? There is
always a lot to play around with!
In terms of energy and intention, what I mean by that is how the character relates to his or her
world. What is the attitude that the character has to all the different stimuli in a scene? I will use an
example from our play Such Sweet Sorrow.
In this play, I double as Mercutio, as well as Old Capulet. So to begin, vocally, I lower my voice
for Capulet, to give him a sense of authority. For Mercutio, I use more range and pitch, because I
want to emphasise a more playful side. Physically, for Capulet, I am more economic with my
movement to give the idea of age and a higher status. Whereas Mercutio moves all over the place
and is far more free. Finally, in terms of energy, Capulet is very direct with whomever he is
speaking. He is not used to having his authority questioned, so in his world, what he says, goes.
Mercutio, on the other hand, is far less direct. He talks in circles, riddles and jokes. His energy
drifts from one idea to the next, laughing one minute, crying the next. He is definitely the joker in
This is a very basic outline of the process, and indeed, it is only my process. I’m sure the others
do things very differently! But without going into a lot of serious acting jargon, I hope it gives you
some sense of how to approach the doubling of roles.
Is doubling better than playing one role?
Personally, I really like it. There are certainly merits to investing yourself in one role alone, and for a lot of modern-day actors, that is the only way they work. But for myself, I love the challenge of creating different characters, and then switching in and out them. It’s like changing hats! Also, because doubling is such an old tradition in the theatre, there is a real sense of history to it. And it makes me think of all the actors that have gone before, and all those that are yet to come, and that we are still telling stories through the ages.
I will finish with a quote. Not from some lecturer, or scholar, or acting guru, but from The
“Perhaps we are all a little mad. We who don the cap and bells, and tread beneath the
proscenium arch. But tonight, you will all be transformed from glassy-eyed suburbanites, into
white-hot grease-fires of pure entertainment! Except you… You’re not working out. I’ll be playing
your part.” Llewlleyn Sinclair, ‘A Streetcar Named Marge’, The Simpsons, 1992