The ways of characterisation

In the drama text the Western actor finds all the necessary information about his character, such as character qualities and behaviour patterns in various situations. These are developed gradually in rehearsals. In the beginning, not much is known about the character. It is like a blank page. Gradually, as the scenes of the play follow each other, through situations and reactions, the character takes form. This is the psychological way of characterisation.

The Asian actor builds his character on the traditions of his specific style. The movement-based actor builds his character on many different features: on movement and energy patterns, leading body parts, on a character’s use of space and timing. He retrieves fitting movement patterns of animals, trees, elements and objects, and processes and transfers them to his character.

Characterisation in movement-based theatre is built on physical techniques, on observation of nature and its phenomena, but without psychology. This way, the character is solved by action and movement.

Characterisation exercises 2.170–2.182

Characterisation and walks by leading body parts

Exercise 2.170: Walks by leading body parts: The participants walk side-coached through the space. The instructor proposes body parts to focus on, one by one: the nose, the eyes, the hair, the ears, the head, the chest, the arms, the hands, the pelvis, the knees, the legs, the feet, etc. Each participant concentrates on the specific body part that leads, influences and modulates the walk: the ‘nose-woman’, the ‘knee-man’, the ‘pelvis-girl’, etc.

Impro 2.171: Improvisation for 3–11 people. Different characters (defined by their leading body parts) participate in a scientific conference. Through their movement patterns, the other participants should understand what their profession or topic is. (Each participant chooses a character.)

The four elements as characters

Exercise 2.172: Improvise an aspect of fire, water, air or earth and use movement and dynamics for the presentation of a character. As fire, water, air and earth[182] characters or character qualities: such as for fire: a torch, a match, a volcanic eruption, lava, a forest fire, fireworks, a burning house and even smoke; for water: drops, rivers, lakes, oceans, floods, tsunamis; for air: a spring breeze, storm, tornado, hurricane; and for earth: drying earth, a landslide, earthquake, etc.

Exercise 2.173: Morning occupations of a family: Improvisation for 3–4 people. Each person chooses a character built on an aspect of an element. (Example: A wind-girl brushes her hair, a fire-father is very irritated, etc.)

Exercise 2.174: Become more informed about the four temperaments according to Galenus and consider them for your mask character.

  • Fire – the element of the choleric, fanatic, workaholic
  • Earth – the element of the melancholic, sorrowful, realistic
  • Air – the element of the sanguine, happy, easy to convince, superficial
  • Water – the element of the phlegmatic, slow and dreaming

Animals as characters

Animals as characters or characters having animal qualities.

Exercise 2.175: Animal-like characters: Improvisation. In level I the students observed and improvised animals. Improvisation. Now it is a question of a human walk but animal behaviour: to move and behave in a cat-like, wolf-like or bee-like way. A dog-man is planting a tree, a tiger-lady is laying the table…

Impro 2.176: Vets and zoologists meet at a conference. Improvisation for 3–11 people. How can you recognise what animal a participant is obsessed by? Show the improvisation, and discuss it together afterwards.

Impro 2.177: Birds and the personal bird[183]. What bird moves, behaves and looks as you?

Exercise 2.178: Chose your personal bird first. Become a very bird-like human, with some of the qualities of your bird (a peacock showing his feathers, proud; a human sparrow, jumping and chirping around; or a hawk, a colibri, a hen, a game, an eagle, etc.)

Plants and trees characters

Exercise 2.179: Use the form and energy of an old oak, a little birch sapling, an apple tree, a coconut palm, act like a daisy, a rose, a jasmine bush, etc. Walk, move and show an action, through which the tree or plant character is displayed.

Characterisation through moving objects matters and materials

Exercise 2.180: Each person improvises a moving object in front of the others: such as floating oil, a sponge that gets squeezed, paper in a storm, a piece of paper is torn, rumpled foil, a rubber band, a growing mushroom or mildew, a rotting banana, bacon and eggs frying in a pan, a flower opens, cream stiffens when beaten, marmalade sticks, stockings drying in the wind, etc. and adapts it to a character (a person with doubts, not able to decide – such as a rubber band, or a person in love, melting like ice cream, etc.)

Characterisation through three basic character qualities

Exercise 2.181: Each student decides on a character (from literature, such as Hamlet or Juliet, or from history, such as Martin Luther, Queen Elizabeth, etc.) The character possesses quality A and quality B, but also quality C in opposition to the first two: characterisation A + B but C. They must be shown in the body by movement – and as behaviour patterns. (As an example: Juliet, proud and witty, but soft.) The actor presents a physical action of the character, with or without objects showing the character traits of A and B, but also C.

Characterisation: the parts of a machine[184]

Exercise 2.182: Each participant chooses a character. They meet at a party. Each one is a wheel of a functioning social machine (party, office, school, criminal gang, etc).

Characterisation through basic, folkloric characters

These are the basic characters of ancient dramas. Study their walk (and the use of their costume, as well as how their occupation and profession influence their walk (the heavy crown makes the king walk with a straight back, the soldier has ‘exercises in his blood’, the beggar shakes his hand, etc).

Folkloric characters exercises 2.183–2.184

Exercise 2.183: The actors give the basic folkloristic character clichés[185] a body, a walk, and a basic action: compose the walks of a king, soldier, priest, servant, beggar, village idiot – the basic characters of folkloristic theatre, according to Peter Brook. Find walks connected with their professions (the king walks slowly with straight back, because the crown is very heavy). Show the results to the group, and decide together which walks are the most efficient for the character, and understandable immediately and everywhere. (The exercise can be extended to other characters, such as queen, princess, maid, amazon, nun, matchmaker, prostitute, nobleman, angry father, drunk, prince, officer, monk, peasant).

Exercise 2.184: Give each character from the exercise above an occupation walk: (the priest sprinkles holy water, the beggar holds out his hand, etc.) The characters immediately have to be recognised. The group decides which is the most efficient.

Danced characterisation through basic energy types (voodoo characters)

When actors work too intellectually, or the work atmosphere is not very good, I let the students dance together and release a character quality needed for their work. Each person must find the ‘character’ from the choices below and dance it for quite some time, becoming re-energised.

Danced characterisation exercises 2.185–2.197

Exercise 2.185: I introduce simple steps to free their body, such as step right, adjustment step right (an adjustment step is a step with a weight-shift), step left, adjustment step left.

With these steps and rhythmic music or drumming, the actor dances a character that is appealing, a basic energy type. For each character there are masculine, feminine and neuter variations. The characters below are inspired by candomblé characters.

Exercise 2.186: The earth mother stands with her feet deep in the earth and morass, or in a dark cave. She moves very slowly, due to inertia and entropy. She is very old, always stirring a big pot of porridge, a wise hooker, or a witch, an old hooker with a fresh smile. Sometimes she kneads dough, and the yeast rises. She has a lot of time, she slurps, allows hard things to melt, communicates insights.

Exercise 2.187: The abnormal (other-abled, the sick, the weak, Oxala), wants to retire and preaches about the unpredictability of life and accepts their fate. As an old king or a beggar with a stick, bent as an embryo, the head wiggles, and the entire body’s ramshackle bones tremble. But the character is peaceful, provides passive resistance, reconciles people with the abnormal, the sick and the erratic, inhales sobbing, bends the body forward, feeble, moves with hooked rhythms, uncoordinated. Weakness is maturity! A self-forgetful drunk creator, who represents creation as derailment and arises, falls into pieces, and cannot be put together totally.

Movement: three times with a tentative touching of the unweighted foot behind, before he makes a step back. He is formless, a victim, all in white and represents heaven.

Exercise 2.188: The siren (Mary, Mamy Wata, Jemanja, mother of the ocean), dances in the moonlight on the shore. She has no real body borders, and rocks in the water, lifts her chest, and her large breasts become rivers. She circles with her arms to create energy, circles softly with the body, everything is as big as the sea, everything is in transformation. Sometimes she is lifted by the waves, like a cork, absolutely relaxed. Sometimes she dives into the depths or lies horizontally on the water, hands circling in front of her chest, swimming and appeasing the masses of water. Circling creates horizontal energy, hips and legs work together like a siren’s tail. The energy floats over the front of the body, the chest expands softly, energy flows from the heart to the shoulders, tensions in the upper arms are released. She is a carved figure on a ship, on the water creating generosity, and makes us forget the problems of the everyday, induces light trance, but always rests in herself.

Exercise 2.189: The snake (Oxumare, Ophion, a cobra), is a player and cosmic architect, master of crises. He dances under waterfalls and rainbows. (Ophion, the snake, born from dance and friction of the northern wind between the hands). He is pointing with changing forefingers to heaven, energy as lambency, master of lust, bisexual, jumping softly from heaven to earth, joins the palms of his hands together, undulates with his body, circling from the hips and the feet to the head. Sometimes he turns, gets a sudden heat shock, panicking (something that befalls), slogging the skin.

Exercise 2.190: The Trickster (Loki, Lucifer, Exu, phallic symbol) connected to doors and crossroads, is a traveller, a mediator and gate-opener, who enjoys breaking taboos. He symbolises the sun. He is sexually active (knees=penis), creates contact with the instincts, is a messenger and merchant, represents the joy of life, but likes to cause trouble. He moves his hips in convulsions, pokes his fingers in everything, staggers and deviates chaotically, always has a cigar in his mouth, is drunk, laughing, obscene, a braggard, exhaling with roaring laughter. He slobbers and drools, gets convulsions of laughter, and rolls. Swaying, he puts one leg in front of the other, has a ‘spring in the centre’, that makes him jump like mercury, with explosions under the belt line. (In cloche-pied he catches his own crossed feet.) His energy floats into the belly, from the belly to the pubis, and down to the earth. He casts excited and lascivious glances.

Exercise 2.191: Fire, energy (hero, Zeus, Odin, Xango), dances in thunder and lightning, an electrically loaded atmosphere, and is the sunset (the west). He is always frenzied and in a rage, he wants to heal himself, bats the heart with his fist, and anger floats from the inside to the outside. He represents the power of anger and energy that transforms into trembling. He rises onto one leg, heel high, and with his arms hits the place for himself. He makes a swath, is decided, and he flashes, the hero of impossibility. He is radical, awakens lust to full engagement, and creates a tabula rasa.

Exercise 2.192: The sufferer (scapegoat, sick, feeble (hl. Rochus, Laurentius, Omulu)) found in the earth and the underworld. As the black one, he is a symbol of sorrow, with disease, pain, feebleness, swaying from one side to another, rolling in self-pity. He lets himself go, he sees everything in black, wailing. He follows gravitation and his body collapses. He wants to construct bridges over the abyss of pain. His energy spreads to the outside. He gives away all dirt, his position of pain, as a cripple with open wounds, convulsions, itching skin. He shows his wounds, beats his breast, holds his head, has fewer, and is always a burden to himself and disgusted by himself.

Exercise 2.193: The hunter (St George, Sebastian, Oxossi), moves in the forest, the wilderness, and the hunting grounds. He fortifies hope and self-confidence. He keeps his back straight, is impatient, rushing, fidgeting, drumming with his heels or fingers, smells things, gets hunting fever. He is an aimless spirit of optimism, waiting, tripping, is always on the move.

Finally, he escapes and is free, lurking and stalking, and finally, his arrow finds its aim. Everything goes exactly as planned, and the dammed energy of the hip floats into the legs and feet, rises upward and transforms into the tension of the bow. Movement becomes independent, the tempo accelerates, he has an instinctive urge to move, panting, quick steps, to ride with nervous energy. As a soloist, he is always instinctively following a track, always searching. He is waiting for the right moment.

Exercise 2.194: The personified source (wellspring, Oxum, Erzulie, Laksmi) at sources and by rivers, in clear water and streams, lakes and lagoons. She is the patron of the positive, a soft beauty, of richness and happiness, and holds a fan or a mirror. At the start of the movement is the idea of beauty, and a sweet smile arises. One tastes sweetness (bitterness melts on the forehead, the ears and the temples). She winds long threads into loose balls, bound into the history of beauty: Wrists are loose and flexible, they hover over the world without touching it, on the fingertips is the feeling of light drops, and finally a feeling of saturation, of perfection and plenty. Energy falls like a shower from above, the drops collect like the water of a waterfall, of foam, or bubbles in champagne. Her movements are round, rolling and circling, giving light and sinking down, rolling, and shuddering the shoulders. Everything happens effortlessly. The spun gold – as a sign of transformation – is fate. The inner richness is projected to the outside, with charm, taste, self-reflection, attraction and fascination, self-acceptance and self-love.

Exercise 2.195: The tree spirit (hl. Benedict, Ossain, the god of trees, plants, time and contact with nature.) There is expansion of consciousness. The energy rises from the earth through the body and streams through the stem, like the juice of a tree. He feeds, drinking through the thumb, one gulp, slurping, the body enlarges. Finally, buzzing, rustling and tingling, shimmering skin, as the energy circle from above. Everything is connected, nothing separates, everything needs time. It’s magic! He makes everything light and transparent and regenerates: He feels like a tree: the leaves shimmer, tremble, foaming, silvery on the underside.

Exercise 2.196: Iron (Mars, Bellona, weapon, fighting, pioneer, Archangel Michael, St George, Ogun) on the streets and rails. He is impassionate, cannot wait, homeless, and works himself through. He makes space, but stays without his own space. Action is everything. He is no ruler, but a fanatic and dogmatic. Around him ice-cold northern air, and on the edge of a knife he hits. To that point and not further. With a final stroke, he makes himself seen, acquires contours, decides, and the hands become the edge of the knife. He goes to the extreme: he inhales and hits while exhaling. He lifts a hand in a warning gesture: ‘Just wait!’ The hand shakes out, threatening, the knife glistens, cutting through with one stroke, right to left, pressing out the air, stopping the world. Something has opened, has been decided. Energy collects in the hara, floating into the arms and hands like a laser beam. Fingers together, precise, controlled, and cold and calculating when hitting.

Exercise 2.197: The wind-girl (St Barbara, Jansa), in the rain and thunderstorm, she wears a flowery cretonne skirt, a crown with fringes of pearls. She dances frenetically, able to free herself from the past, separates death from life. The energy is pushed upwards from below, gives buoyancy, and expresses it. Flares up, tension, energy, shortly delivered, everything is put onto one card. She jumps up, lifts one leg and the skirts are full of wind, instinctive, light, impulsive, flying. As movements of childhood, she remembers the joy of anticipation, impassion, energy in the jumping joints, living, high spirits, tensions in the body, snappish, flipping the fingers, to leave behind what was before, lifting and turning the feet as in a Charleston, remembers lightness, shakes off the annoying, swirling. To become awake and vigilant, she cheerfully expels sadness.

Moving and passing through various milieus

On pieces of paper, three very different milieus are presented. Two to three participants get a piece of paper that they share. The group is given some time to prepare.

They must pass through these milieus, as non-defined characters (focusing on actions and showing problems): savannah, jungle, pampas, high mountain, volcanic eruption, lava field, rocks, glacier, snowstorm, rain, hailstorm, inundation, river, lake, beach with waves, thaw, geyser, tsunami, ice hole, wet earth, dry fields, forest fire, old forest, desert, sandstorm, earthquake, glacier, gorge, ice floe, iceberg, cave, park with flowers, garden, mist, fog, busy street, pond, temple, cathedral, greenhouse, hospital, factory, hot sand, hot roof, town besieged by war, through clouds, through a battlefield, ruins, etc.

Through milieus exercises 2.198–2.204

Exercise 2.198: The actors, after ten to fifteen minutes of rehearsal, show the three milieus in front of the group. Discussion in the group: was it communicated?

Exercise 2.199: As per the previous exercise, but the actors must find transitions from one milieu to the other.

Exercise 2.200: As the previous exercise, but slowly the body adapts to a milieu, and emotions arise: A falling tree makes you flee like a deer, on the walk in a cathedral you get serious and devoted, etc.

Against the milieu

Exercise 2.201: Same exercise, but A becomes suspicious or afraid, everything is too rough, or mystical or funny, etc., in the cathedral: the seriousness is ridiculous, etc. B and C slowly adapt A’s attitude.

Exercise 2.201: To ‘colour’ situations by specific milieus: A greenhouse conference, a love-quarrel in a snowstorm, pursuing a thief on a glacier, etc.

Exercise 2.203: The bar (This exercise has been done in Grotowskian and Lecoqian circles). A is the barman, B the client. A does his work as an ‘animal-like waiter’ (for example: the cat barman) and waits for clients[186]. B enters as the ‘sparrow-client’, for example. What happens? (The exercise can also be done with elements or objects in motion.)

Exercise 2.204: In the waiting room of a maternity hospital. Improvisation for 3–11 participants. Fathers, sisters, children, pregnant women, etc. are waiting. They are characterised by an element, animal, milieu, etc.


For the emotions of joy and anger, the body is ‘open’ with the weight forward; for fear and sorrow, the body is ‘closed’ and the weight is back. The eight basic emotions are expressed in the body, the face, the hands and the voice.

The expressions of emotions are studied, and their principles applied. Personal emotions should not be involved! A more complete general study of emotion and feelings and their transitions can be found in ‘Gesture Language – a Theory of Practice.’[187]

Each emotion has its direction, energy and relationship to space.

Emotions exercises 2.205–2.210

Exercise 2.205: For the ‘eight deadly sins’ (as mentioned in the Bible), find adequate and effective body and leg positions, weight, positions of the arms and hands, the head, and the direction of the body and the eyes.

Exercise 2.206: For the eight basic emotions[188] mentioned below, find an expressive, effective body and leg position, weight, position of the arms and hands, the head, and the direction of the eyes. (Move and find variations.)

  • Love and self-love
  • Wonder
  • Fun, laughter, euphoria
  • Heroicness, pride
  • Anger, jealousy
  • Fear, dread, horror
  • Sorrow
  • Disgust

Exercise 2.207: The space is parted and marked into three (or five) zones, each representing an emotion, for example wonder – fear – laughter – pride – disgust – sorrow – love – anger – shame and envy. The participants choose which field they want to start in and move accordingly and invent actions, before moving into the next field.

Exercise 2.208: As above, with sound and movement.

Exercise 2.209: As above, moving quickly from one field into another.[189]

Exercise 2.210: Find specific body positions, sounds and gestures for sorrow.

Handling objects to show emotions 2.211–2.214

Exercise 2.211: Show emotions through handling objects: Peel real potatoes in love, in anger, in fear, sorrow, jealousy, disgust, anger… It is the way you peel, the energy and the rhythms you use!

Exercise 2.212: Walk towards an object, touch it, and carry it away at three very different speeds[190]. Different emotions will arise.

Exercise 2.213: Use an object in at least three ways: As an example: a helmet is used as a drinking bowl, as a bowl for washing hands, as a tool for digging, as a chair, a skull, a tortoise.

Exercise 2.214: Bind the object and its multiple uses into a story.