Physical Qualities of the Character(s)
Most physical differences happen by changing the posture of the upper body. Some positions you can begin with are what we call the Three Basic Character Positions based on the character’s status in relationship to the other characters in the piece.
Position 1 is called Neutral Status
This character stands straight but not rigid. This character is your average human being and is often the protagonist in your story.
Position 2 is called High Status
This character has a higher status and might stand with a rigid straight back and have their shoulders rolled back to puff out the chest, much like standing at attention. A higher status character has power and control.
Position 3 is called Low Status
This character has a lower status and might stand as if defeated. The torso is pulled in, and the shoulders are down and rolled forward. The lower status character has a weakness or vulnerability like age (younger or older), shyness, etc.
We would caution you on students doing too much with their feet. A good practice is to leave the feet in a neutral position; the feet are facing forward about a fist-width apart. When a student changes the feet positions too much, it becomes distracting and takes too much time to change characters.
The exception to changing foot positions is if your student is doing Humorous Interp. In HI, many students do what we call “popping” as a means to pop (change quickly) into a different character. In the pop from one character to another, the body’s physical position changes simultaneously as the feet. In HI, there are only two feet positions. As I described above, with feet facing forward about a fist-width apart, the second one is with the feet turned out at no more than a 45-degree angle. The character does not determine the position, but the movement between the two-foot positions signifies a character change. To see foot pops in action, watch the NSDA 2010 National Champion Lindsey White’s popping technique in her HI piece “Fat Kids on Fire.”
Popping can occur without foot pops. In 2005, Jeff Moscaritolo won the NSDA National Championship in Humorous Interpretation. Watch his performance of “Rinse the Blood Off My Toga” and take note of how his changes between characters were quick and clean but didn’t always utilize foot pops. According to Jeff, “I did use foot pops, but not consistently. I didn’t bother popping my feet if I moved between two positions that didn’t demand it. I didn’t assign specific foot positions to specific characters because my characters were frequently moving their feet around anyway. My guiding philosophy was holistic: make distinct but grounded characters, and minimize the distance between positions as much as possible to enable cleaner popping. It was always about doing what was right for the moment. For example, I avoided foot popping in quieter moments because I felt the noise would be distracting. Or, in other moments, I was popping very quickly between characters, back and forth, and knew people wouldn’t be looking at my feet, so I only worried about my torso, arms, and face.”
In the other interp events, students must master the meld instead of the pop to change from one character to another. “Melding” is the term used to describe changing from one character to another in Dramatic Interpretation. It can be used in other events like POI, Prose Interp, and Poetry Interp when multiple characters are presented. A meld is not a pop as used in HI. It is a clean, smooth transition from one character to another or from one moment in time to another (past to future, present to past). The timing of the meld is dependent on the mood or situation in the script. Again, taking Jeff’s advice here, a character meld (shift) can be kept clean and smooth by minimizing the distance between the positions. Watch the 2014 NDSA national champion in Dramatic Interpretation, Abigail Onwunali, performing “While the World Watched” for notable shifts in time and between characters.
The Vocal Qualities of the Character(s)
Most vocal differences are created with pitch and tone but may use different pace, volume, and other qualities like accents, regionalities, nasality, stutters, etc. The placement of voice or the origin of the vocal tone or quality (e.g., chest voice, nasal, head voice, etc.) differentiates the character’s voice. A voice placed in the front of the mouth will be smaller, pinched, and more nasal, but a voice set in the back of the throat will be deeper or fuller.
Another way to distinguish a character’s voice is through the use of accents. Accents must be accurate and performed consistently. Several websites offer accent examples and learning techniques. We would like to provide a word of caution here. The use of accents should be character-driven, not a gimmick used indiscriminately. By character-driven, we mean that any character’s characteristics must come from the circumstances in the script. Accents need to agree with the background of the character.
Here are two excellent sources for learning dialects/accents:
I once had a foreign exchange student who spoke with a perfect British accent. We found her a piece to utilize this well, but at the first tournament, one judge commented on the ballot that the accent wasn’t accurate or consistent. So while we may do everything we need to do to help our students find success, we are still at the mercy of the judges.