“Make. An. Entrance.” This is probably the most repeated note I give to young actors when workshopping a performance.

A deceptively simple note – just walk on stage, right? Well, not exactly.

A character’s first entrance, like all first impressions in life, broadcasts to the audience a wealth of information about them. Much of the most obvious information is passed to us through costume – their social status, their occupation, sometimes even their level of intelligence. But when paired with deliberate choices that an actor makes about their character’s voice and physical bearing, stride, abilities (or inabilities), audiences get an instantaneous glimpse into their baser motivations.

John Harrell as Shakebag in Arden of Faversham. Photo by Lindsey Walters.
Chris Johnston as Black Will in Arden of Faversham. Photo by Lindsey Walters.

For example, the introductions of Black Will and Shakebag in our current production of Arden of Faversham, played by Chris Johnston and John Harrell, respectively, (see photos, right) beautifully epitomize the impact of a character’s first entrance. These two seasoned clowns expertly use the Blackfriars discovery space (that’s the curtained arch upstage center, for the uninitiated) to capture our attention before we hear either character speak a word. While another character, Greene (played by Calder Shilling), speaks about Black Will and Shakebag, the two alternate making false entrances into the space, allowing us glimpses of their comedically contrasting physicalities. Black Will’s slouchy, slithery gait and shifting eyes announces his presence as the brains of the operation, while Shakebag’s upright, uptight, cautious movement resembles that of a stalked rabbit; he is the “Pinky” to Black Will’s “Brain.” Luckily – for the actors and for us – Johnston and Harrell have the rare luxury of playing only one character in this production; however, if they were playing multiple roles, their physical characterizations of Black Will and Shakebag are so pronounced they could not possibly be mistaken for anyone else.

I often encourage students to make daring, exaggerated physical choices about a character even before looking closely at the text, just to see what their instinctual inclinations are, because we often reveal unspoken, unconscious truths through our body language. Also, having a physical shell for a character before delving into their psychological interiority is an easier approach for students than the other way around. By the time students do examine textual clues more deeply, they have something tangible to fine tune and chip away, as though they are both the marble block and the sculptor in one. This is doubly useful when doubling of characters is involved (pun very much intended); having two or three distinct physicalities aids students tremendously both in activating “muscle memory” for each role and in immediately transitioning between them.

Which brings us back to why a character’s first entrance is so important. First, it sets the audience up for success in distinguishing between an actor’s many parts; next, it holds the actors themselves accountable to the audience to maintain those choices throughout the performance; “sixth and lastly,” it sets your actors up for success by forcing them to make specific, repeatable choices for their characters.

Naturally, the second most common note I give is “Make. An. Exit.”

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