Since the first day of classes, Belmont musical theater students have been “character building” as they rehearse for their fall production of “Oklahoma!”
“The first step of developing a character is knowing the material,” said senior musical theater major Suzanna Champion.
Champion has been acting since she was three and will be performing the lead role of Laurey in “Oklahoma!”
“Even close to opening night there will always be a few people who still don’t know their lines, and I don’t know how can one be fully into character if he or she is still thinking, ‘what’s my next line?’” said Champion.
Once she memorizes her lines, Champion applies her training in several acting techniques to help her create the character’s mannerisms and motives.
As a student in Belmont’s musical theater program, she was educated about and trained in several popular acting methods, such as the Meisner and Chekhov techniques.
Champion said she mostly aligns herself as a “Chekhovian,” meaning she uses psychophysical exercises and her imagination to create and develop her character.
“During rehearsals, I sit down, close my eyes and picture the character in my mind,” said Champion. “I visualize her height, posture, movements and voice.”
Arik Vega, a junior musical theater major, also uses meditative exercises to get into character.
“My character Jud Fry experiences an extreme amount of loneliness, so to prepare for rehearsal, I find a corner of the theater to be alone and let that feeling sink in,” said Vega. “I try to take all the things that I know about love and bliss in relationships I’ve had in the past and extract them from my brain to amplify my character’s loneliness.”
Champion and Vega, along with the 50 other musical theater majors, attend “Oklahoma!” rehearsals three days a week in the Massey Performing Arts Center. The students meander into the theater and drop their backpacks, dance bags and purses in the aisles. As they release their belongings, they put their own reality on hold to enter the world of “Oklahoma!”
Each performer has a different way of prepping his or her character for rehearsal.
Dance shoes tap on the stage floor and create multiple rhythms as performers practice choreography in groups of two or three. Students warm up their country accent with confidence in colorful leotards, tights, sneakers, legwarmers and long floral skirts. Several students chatter or do cartwheels backstage to loosen up, while others sit quietly in the audience typing on their laptops and phones.
The performers on stage come to a sudden halt as director David Shamburger interrupts the scene to make adjustments. He instructs the students where to go and when. He also encourages them to think about their characters’ emotions and movements.
Nancy Allen, the coordinator of Belmont’s musical theater program, said that Shamburger asks probing questions during rehearsals to help students decide how their characters would act and react in situations.
“There are certain things which drive us all to do certain things, and David helps the students find what is driving their character,” said Allen. “He has them explore motivation by asking the question: is this action developing from the character’s head, heart, gut or groin? The answer to this question will influence the character’s physicality and actioning.”
At times, those questions can be difficult to answer. Senior Michael Karl said his character has been an enigma to him.
“Usually I play characters that have more depth, which to me is easier to analyze their motives and get into character. My character Ali Hakim simply just wants to make money and take advantage of people,” said Karl, who plays a con artist. “Character building is wonderful and frustrating at the same time.”
Karl said each character has his or her own perspective of the story, and in order for performers to fully be in character, it’s critical for them to know their role and purpose within the show.
“Because each character is unique, everyone in the show is so important—down to the last ensemble member playing the role of a tree in the background,” said Karl. “I think part of character building is determining your engagement in the scenes and interactions with others on stage.”
Champion said it’s been enlightening for her to see her character develop from the time she is cast in a role to when she performs the final show.
“It’s a constant journey of finding new things, discovering new tics and saying lines a little bit differently,” said Champion “Sometimes it even takes being in front of an audience to fully know your character.”
She also described how rewarding it is when the audience believes and reacts to her character.
“Anyone can memorize a song, throw some costumes on and get some lights up on the stage,” said Champion. “The audience may enjoy it, but being fully into character so the audience believes you is extremely powerful.”
“Oklahoma!” opens Friday at 7:30 p.m. and has showtimes on Saturday at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. and on Sunday at 2 p.m.
This article was written by Catie Benenson.