YOU’VE BEEN CAST in your dream role, the lead of your favorite musical. You sit patiently waiting for your director to hand you a script. When you scan its pages for the first time, it’s like opening a portal to a new world. There are endless possibilities. Dreams come to life with every page turn and every line you say.

Then reality sets in. You freak out about how many lines you must memorize, the number of costume changes you’ll need to make, and all the props and blocking that go into putting on the show. You wonder how you’ll keep up.


The answer is found in character development. Character development often seems elusive. It’s so personal and has endless paths. But all these paths filter into two categories: Inside-Out and Outside-In.

  • Inside-Out is the process of determining the inner world of the character and using that information to inform how your character walks, talks, and interacts with others.
  • Outside-In is the process of exploring how your character walks, talks, and interacts with others and using that information to create your character’s inner world.

To develop a fully realized character, you must know your character inside and out. You must understand every action they take, from both a physical and mental standpoint. Without connecting the two, you end up with a one-dimensional character.

If you just develop your character on the outside, you’re simply emoting ― displaying emotions without intention or action. If you only develop your character internally, the audience will never see the intricate inner world you’ve created. You need to know which questions to ask so you can identify the important given circumstances and stakes. Dramaturgy helps you start.

The national cast of Hairspray at the 2008 International Thespian Festival.
The history of segregation informs acting choices in Hairspray. Photo of the national high school cast at the 2008 International Thespian Festival by R. Bruhn.


The classical definition of dramaturgy is the theory and practice of dramatic composition, which drums up images of old college professors paging through decaying books. Another and more exciting way to define dramaturgy is the excavation of the story hidden inside each script. Dramaturgs connect the text of a play to the world in which the play exists, then connect the world of the play to the real world we inhabit.

As an actor, your job is not to make all these connections, but the connections you need to make are the most important in the process. You must discover who your character is by understanding both their world and their role in that space. Making this connection creates the inner world for your character. At first glance, this seems daunting, but don’t worry. You don’t need to read 50 books or write a research paper to create your character’s inner world (unless you want to). Instead, you can use four relatively quick dramaturgical questions to guide you.

In what period does this show take place?
Time periods are different from calendar dates. A time period encompasses the political and social movement of a chapter in history. A dramaturg’s role is to have a deep and expansive understanding of the time period. As an actor, you just need a snapshot.

For example, say you have been cast in a production of Hairspray. America in the 1960s was tumultuous and complicated. You could spend years researching and writing about this period. As an actor, you need to ask yourself what is important to know for the stakes of the story to be clear. To start, it is crucial to understand the history of segregation, specifically in Baltimore, where Hairspray is set. It is not enough to know segregation happened. You need to know why it happened, how it manifested in communities, how it impacted the Black community, and how people protested and tried to dismantle it. Depending on your character, you may need to research the Women’s Liberation Movement and conflicts among generations. Since music is also important to the show, it may help to look at music styles prevalent during this time and what impact they had.

Again, you don’t need to be a historian. Strive instead to be an informed actor.

What were the social norms of this period?
Imagine 30 years from now that you are in the audience of a play set in Summer 2020. There’s a scene between a group of friends and, as they enter, they all hug each other and sit in a tight circle as they converse.

If any of the actors (or the director) in this hypothetical scenario had researched social norms of 2020, they would very quickly have learned that close physical contact was not widely accepted and, in fact, dangerous. Understanding social norms allows actors to make choices aligned with the world of the play. Looking at trends related to dating, gender, family dynamics, class, and religion or spirituality are just a few places to start your investigation. When you know more about social norms, you can make informed decisions that highlight a play’s themes.

Is your character a conformer or nonconformer?
The time period gives you an outline. Social norms give you a palette. Now, you decide what colors you’ll use and how you’ll use them.

A rule of thumb: If you are in the ensemble, you fall into the conformer category, and if you are a lead, you’re a nonconformer. Stories revolve around conflicts that arise when a character challenges the status quo. The status quo represents the general social norms held by a larger community, so that philosophy is generally represented by the largest group of characters onstage: the ensemble. The nonconformer is the loner fighting for change, which is not always good. (See Billy Bigelow in Carousel.) The conformers fight to keep intact the world they stand for or that benefits them most.

In musical theatre, this is why the ensemble sings the same words, with a similar sentiment. The nonconformer’s voice gets lost in the sea of status quo voices and must break free to be heard, also known as a solo.

Ask yourself: Would your character use the palette to complete a beautiful composition by coloring inside the lines? Or, would they create original work by disregarding the outline and drawing over its top?

Are there historical figures or real-life humans you can use as inspiration?
If you have a hard time determining how all the research you’ve collected would shape a human, you could use a real person from the same period as the show for inspiration. Maybe you’re finding it difficult to connect to Enjolras in Les Misérables. Researching student revolutionaries and learning more about who they were might be the jumping-off point you need.

Of course, if your character is based on a real person, you need to research their life to ensure your character reflects reality.

Parkland High School Thespians researched the real people who inspired their characters for the International Thespian Festival performance of 26 Pebbles.
Parkland High School Thespians researched the real people who inspired their characters for the 2019 International Thespian Festival performance of 26 Pebbles. Photo by Susan Doremus.


All the research in the world won’t do you any good as an actor if you cannot translate it into action. You must get your head out of the books and into a creative space. There is no right way to accomplish this, but you want to find something that bridges the worlds of research and character development. Below are suggestions.

  • Journaling: Use mundane, everyday events to dive into your character by writing a journal as your character. Let the research you gathered inform your character’s thoughts, decisions, and experiences. Don’t leap first to the exciting events of the play; instead, explore the everyday life of your character that audiences don’t see onstage.
  • Character collage: Use images and words to create a collage that represents your character. It could include their dreams, a visual representation of their inner or outer world, or both.
  • Character box: Imagine your character has a box under their bed. What items would they keep in it? Would it be a photo of someone they love? A meaningful card from a family member? A trophy from a competition? Fill the box with items important to your character that help you discover more about them.
  • Character playlist: Create a playlist of songs your character would listen to. Include songs that speak to them or highlight their inner thoughts, dreams, or struggles.

When you create a strong character, it can be difficult to detach from them. You should never put yourself in a situation where you are unable to delineate between yourself and your character. Not only is it emotionally draining, but it also is mentally dangerous.

It’s important to develop rituals to help you get in and out of character. You might play a song on the way to rehearsal that helps you get into character and play one of your favorite upbeat songs on the way out. You could create character statues you perform immediately before rehearsal (or before going onstage) to get into your character, then personal statues you perform after rehearsal to get back to yourself. Finally, you might keep a “grounding” object ― such as a stone, feather, or button ― in one pocket that you touch when you need to get into character and another in the other pocket you touch when you need to come back to yourself.

Little about acting is easy. It is never just saying the right lines, hitting the right notes, or remembering the choreography. Each time you step onstage, you are being courageous in telling a story that can change people’s lives. It may make them laugh, make them cry, or encourage them to call someone. Our charge as actors is to create experiences that allow audiences to see themselves ― the good and the bad ― reflected through our performances.

Do not simply perform skillfully. Instead, be a storyteller who changes lives through the stories you tell … and the rich characters you create.

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