The process of breaking character is an interesting concept that can quickly elevate comedy as well as potentially deflate it to a point of stunned silence. On TV, it usually helps comedy, especially if a comedian in character tries to hide the feeling of wanting to burst out laughing. On the Broadway stage, it might be a different story, even if you’re hearing more about actors on stage breaking character in both comedies and dramas. In some cases, it’s becoming misunderstood and thought to break from standard stage acting protocol.
What situations might you be in as a stage performer where you should effectively break character? You might try to be risky just to be innovative, though it can sometimes backfire.
Can You Break Character While Still in Character?
Neil Patrick Harris is the most recent Broadway performer to receive some headlines for responding to someone in the audience during his performance in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” When someone yelled out their affection for the actor, Harris had a profanity-laced reply that brought the house down, though also raised an eyebrow or two. This is because it usually isn’t customary to address someone in the crowd during a Broadway performance.
What didn’t get reported enough is Harris was doing a character already deemed interactive and somewhat improvisatory. He explained he was merely including the audience member as part of the show while still in character.
With this in mind, you can see how complex the world of theater can get in determining what’s being said through a character and what’s being said through the real person. In the world of drama on the stage, it’s an entirely different world where you don’t see audience interaction often, other than in Brechtian theatre where the fourth wall is brought down.
Breaking Character to Address Unruly Audience Members
We’ve already heard reports in recent years of serious stage actors breaking character to angrily address ringing cell phones or someone talking too much in the front row. These are all justified breaks from character, even if it still removes a crucial piece of theater technique that takes everyone by surprise. We’re all accustomed to dramatic actors keeping an intense focus that never intrudes on the present space around them. It has to be a bit of an eerie experience to see a brilliant actor playing in a classic and timeless play address the fourth wall as if the present-day suddenly intruded in a different time and place.
In comedy, it always works better, even if it should always be made clear that a particular character might be interacting with the audience as part of the show and not as themselves. When put into context, Harris’s less-reported dialogue had him riffing while combining the theater universe with the real world. It’s an idea worth exploring if you’re ever in a similar situation during a live stage acting performance.
Incorporating the Real World into the Play Without Breaking Character
When the audience members who addressed Harris above mentioned his first name, Harris himself took it even further. He pretended to not know who “Neil” was and asked the other characters if they knew. It was a perfect inventive riff on maintaining character while acknowledging the audience as part of the imagined universe.
While this might be easier to do in comedy, perhaps it’s always more challenging in drama. Regardless, it wouldn’t be the first time an actor incorporated the sound of a cell phone or other unruly person in the audience into the play being performed. The practice of inserting a line riffing off of something happening in the audience can create a chance for a lighter moment during an overly intense play, or something extra in a play utilizing comedy.
If you’re starting a career in theater, you show much more intelligence going this way than completely breaking character to show annoyance. The process of breaking character is still a very dangerous one where the magic of creating a persona on TV or on stage is almost a respite for those who make every effort to escape reality for a few hours.