• John Vessels

Nailing the Dismount

Actors: My brilliant husband Jay teaches at a university where he changes lives and plays piano a LOT for a LOT of people. He was talking to one of his colleagues who had just finished a pretty big role in a show for which Jay acted as assistant music director and keyboardist--and this colleague was mourning the end of the run (as one does). He later talked to a student of his who said, "They teach us how to take on these characters, but I have trouble moving on from them once the show is closed." Jay asked me if I'd write on the subject of ending a show/saying goodbye to a character. So here are some thoughts:

First of all, it is perfectly natural to mourn the end of a time of concentrated effort in which you created a whole, complex human being out of thin air (guided by words on a page! Actors are made of magic, people!). It is perfectly right that you would miss the companion who resided not just with you, but IN you for while. That's some intimate stuff going on there. And the more work one puts in the creation of this work of breathing art, the harder it becomes to let go of it when the time comes.

And the time always comes. The show ends. We move on to other things. If you are lucky enough to be working a lot, you might be sending one character on his way on Sunday, and opening a new show Thursday with another character who needs to be ready to go. If you do rep, you might be 2 or 3 different people in 2 or 3 different shows at the same time! Throw in a kid's show in the afternoon, and let the juggling begin!

Keep these things in mind:

1. You know the end is coming. Keep that in mind during the run.

2. Consider a ritual way of saying goodbye to the character.

3. Remember it is--in truth--pretend.

4. Get to know yourself.


On the macro, the show will end. But even within a show, scenes end--and you head back to the dressing room. I am a less immersive actor than some when it comes to character development. I find there to be a value in establishing a practical balance between the "Method" we use and the "Technique" we utilize in preparing for a role. There are the things that help us solidify the truth of our given circumstances that are memory driven and certainly more meta-physical than others. But there's another set of tools we have that keep us tethered to our more mechanical brain. I call this concept, "Who's driving the bus?" You--"actor you"--MUST drive the bus. Because "character you", regardless of the vast amount of work you put into creating "character you", is an infant; only as old as the length of time since you first held the script. DO NOT HAND YOUR CHARACTER THE STEERING WHEEL. And it is a seductive prospect to do this. There is no rush like the rush you feel when you are just sitting there watching another human inhabit your body and drive it around like a little car. BUT, it's a precarious business to entrust your time on stage to a newborn entity. You must stay present. You look where the glow tape is. You remember the words when your character can only remember the way the words make them feel. You be in charge of that. Your time on stage is a time of sharing with your character. But you are always present. When you leave stage, go back to you being you--thinking about the next stuff for which you have to prepare. It's a little thing, but if you dismount every time you leave stage, you'll have an easier time for the bigger release at the end of the run.


Have a way you say goodbye. It can be as simple as writing your character's name on a piece of paper and burning it--watching the embers billow away in the wind. You can write a letter of thanks and release to your character. You can keep a memento to remind you of the time--and into which you can concentrate the feelings you have for the character you are letting go. Have a little funeral. Remember, funerals aren't for the dead; they're for those of us left behind to manage closure for ourselves. So a little funeral might help you say goodbye and to move on.


No matter how real you make it, you and the author made it all up. It is a tribute to your splendid imagination. But it is, in fact, imagined. So much of the work of acting is learning to create believable and compelling scenarios and humans. And for it to be successful, the first person we have to convince is us. And humans are phenomenal at creating believable--not true--scenarios. Remember your pretend as a child. You were epic in the things you conjured and believed. You worriers, think back to all the times you created a grim inescapable mess for your loved ones who were 15 minutes late getting home--only to discover they ran into a friend and stopped to talk. We can imagine ANYTHING. Our characters included. So know, when it's time to let go, you are letting go of a shadow you yourself cast.


Look at all the work you do to create a character. Research, study, reading, watching, focusing on every little tick, worrying over every little raise of the eyebrow. You analyse and observe every minor detail to best know the being you are about to portray. What if we applied the same effort and care to self-knowledge? "Why do I hate the word, 'moist?'" "Where do my hang ups come from?" "Am I really as honest with myself as I can be?" Self reflection is an often overlooked aspect in all people. There's a lot of stuff in there we'd rather not know sometimes. There's a lot of baggage we'd rather leave packed. But for actors, self reflection could be the ticket to this question of dismounting from a character. What if . . . what if we worked as hard at knowing our own selves as we do at knowing our characters? Would we then be better able to switch back to that researched self when we have to leave one of our show characters behind. This one is the tallest order of them, I think. You have to be willing to really dig in and know the ins and outs of your own self--the good stuff and the crap. I just wonder if that wouldn't give you a better, less murky place to return once you move on from the character you've been playing.

There is no doubt ending a show requires an adjustment. But the quicker you can make the adjustment, the more adept you will be at getting into the next show or simply getting back into the real life you had set aside for a moment. So mourn as you must, but move on--good things wait ahead!

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