Essentials for the character-driven play: Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

At risk of leaping on the current Bowie bandwagon, the character-driven play is all about ch-ch-ch-ch-changes. For want of a better phrase, ‘the world of the play’ at the end must be considerably different from the beginning – otherwise why should we expect an audience to commit themselves to seeing the experience through? (And we can’t all be like Brecht, deliberately frustrating the audience so they may take action in real life, driven by his characters’ inability to forge change in their lives in his plays…)

We know in the classical Western theatrical tradition we all go on a journey – the characters as well as the audience. This can be literal, but more often it is symbolic or metaphorical. There is an event, a visitor, a letter – something new, a trigger or inciting incidence which knocks the character off her usual routine and into unknown territory. In Shakespeare these are grand, life-endangering quests – a glimpse of the love object resulting in the pursuit of romance amongst warring clans; a walking phantom prompting investigation into a mysterious death and the seeking of revenge, to outline two. Contemporary plays are often smaller in scope and more contained, but the emotional territory is still as large. Something happens – a death, a change in the pecking order at work, a child entering their teens, a diagnosis, an infidelity, a crushing doubt or suspicion, etc. There is a change in our protagonist’s life and she is pushed off onto a journey of discovery.

This journey may be a physical, but usually it is emotional and psychological, rooted still in the familiar physical world. The newness of the situation she finds herself in is important, for this enables the audience to see the character dealing with challenges and obstacles, acquiring new skills. We can observe her trying and failing and potentially succeeding in the new situation, and this makes her a valid protagonist, worthy of our attention.

She is active, taking decisions, and this live decision making, usually under pressure, reveals her character as well as defining the direction the story will take. Her actions dealing with the new situation further the plot and we can see that character is plot. A different protagonist with their individual foibles and weaknesses, strengths and experiences might react differently, and so create a different outcome. This particular character, with all her wants, objectives, tactics and decision-making drives the story. A character without motivation and concrete wants in each moment is inactive and dull. A changing dynamic and a character responding, growing, learning and therefore changing is central to keep the audience engaged and alert and the plot rolling forward. The play is alive and moving and so is the character, even if this movement is internal: changing opinion, politics, allegiance, belief system; falling in or out of love.

The character at the end of the play has changed owing to the experiences she has had, the decisions she has had to make and act on (and making no decision is still a decision, with consequences). The journey she has gone through has changed not just her, but her interactions and relationships, and ultimately had a transformative effect on her world. An audience emerges at the end of this character-driven play satisfied, and perhaps changed too in their thoughts and opinions about subjects central to what they have just seen.

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