As young actors, you are going to come up against some scenes that deal with the death of a character. Some of the titles that you will most likely come up against that do this:
- West Side Story
- Little Women
- Man of La Mancha
- Les Miserables
- Romeo and Juliet
- A Christmas Carol
- Our Town
And many, many more.
So, here’s the deal with death scenes: We don’t believe in death.
That’s important to understand as you go into a scene where another character is dying or has just died, and you need to make the most realistic choice possible for you. Remember an audience will most relate to emotions that mirror what they themselves have experienced. The death scene is usually toward the end of a play, so it’s one of the last images in the audience’s mind. Make it amazing by understanding that we don’t believe in death.
Death is the last great mystery of mankind. No one can explain it, it’s an incredibly personal and singular experience, we fear it and wish for it and fight against it and rush toward it, but we don’t really believe it’s a real thing. If you have had someone close to you pass away, you know what I’m talking about. No matter how expected or sudden, how much you hoped for or against the passing, you didn’t really believe that it had happened, not for quite a while. This is why you need to explore some realistic and interesting ways to approach a death scene, make it dynamic, rather than going directly to tears. While you digest all that, here are a few suggestions:
- One thing we do when we see someone who has just died is to shake them or pat them as if they might wake up. We believe that there is a possibility that they just went to sleep, or dropped unconscious, and that they will return.
- We explore a dead person’s face, see what they feel like now, are they still warm, is there a chance they are not leaving you forever?
- We want someone to DO something. To call an ambulance or a doctor, to do CPR, to make a miracle. Look around, plead with other characters to help (silently), try to get to the body yourself to save them.
- We want to tell the dead person all the millions of things we wanted to tell them while they were alive and didn’t get to. You might whisper frantically to them, gather them close to you and speak quietly into their hair or ears.
- We want to comfort the person as they go into the unknown. Again, to gather them close, stroke the hair, caress the face, rock them against you like a baby.
- We are disgusted and confused by the large doll who looks like the person who was there a moment ago, but the person is obviously no longer in there. maybe you can’t stand to touch or look at the body, or continue to search around for the person who has vacated the body.
The main point is, you cannot just accept death at face value. SO much more heartbreaking when you are not able to accept or believe the truth right away. Again, if you lost someone very dear and close, you know that tears can take a long time to come.
There will be a point at which, of course, the script demands that you do accept it, because plays move faster than real life. So. There are many ways you can accept it, and again, not all of them are tear-soaked.
- Be glad that the person is out of pain or illness, and you can smile, even laugh as you do whatever comes next.
- Be the person who takes care of everyone else while you stoically go on processing the loss.
- Be angry- that the person went and left you, either left you alone or didn’t hang on till help got there, or went out looking to get killed, or killed themself. Anger is a good one, relatively easy and accurate as among the first emotions to surface in grief.
- Stay in shock. Have difficulty understanding what’s going on around you, even when people are speaking directly to you, like a thick fog curtain is between you and the rest of the world.
- Wailing or keening. This is a difficult one, and I’d only attempt it with a cast and director you truly trust, and if it really befits your particular character. If you have a close and direct relationship with the departed- parent, lover/spouse- and the script allows, try it. Wailing and keening are when you let horrible, inhuman sounds come out of your body because language cannot in any way express the depths of your pain as this person has been severed from your life. Be careful, because this can open a genie-bottle of your own personal pain, and it’s hard to get that back in. But if you are ready and supported, give it a try in rehearsal, and if it goes well, then go for it.
Now, if you are the one dying, that’s a little bit different. Even those who are dying don’t entirely believe it until it is actually happening. There is a shift in demeanor fro when they are in trouble to when they are actually in the act of death itself. Read the script closely and work with the director to figure out when the shift happens. Up until the shift, you are either:
- Fighting hard- you are not interested in dying today, there is still so much to be done.
- Hoping for help, or hanging on until help comes. Weak, but hopeful.
- Totally in denial- everything is fine, there’s nothing to worry about.
- Confused- not sure what the heck is going on right now. This is especially handy when you are being murdered.
- Pissed off that you are in this position, and lashing out at people who are trying to help.
- Terrified of the death that’s coming, that you might be wrong about Heaven or whatever you’ve been believing or not believing in, that you will be judged on all the wrong things you’ve done and finally punished.
And explore other possibilities as well.
Once the shift happens, you will probably be more serene, accepting, and loving and forgiving toward people around you, taking last looks and last touches. If that fits. Again, work with the director and figure out what works best for the story.
Pet Peeve Side Rant: I hate it when actors die with their eyes open. They do it to prove that they can, not because it’s realistic (though it happens naturally about half the time). It’s disconcerting and distracting for the audience, because suddenly the scene is about watching to see how long this actor can go without blinking. It makes it really hard for the other characters to do what they need to do when they are watching your weird eyes and not wanting to make you blink by accident, or they want to try to make you blink. Just close your eyes and get on with the story, for the love of chocolate pudding pops.
The point is, you have to give the director something to work with, and also give the characters around you something dynamic and interesting to play off. In making a realistic and relatable choice, you do all that AND give the audience something to empathize with, which brings great dimension to the story.
Last word: because death scenes are so tightly wound emotionally, it is important that once you have set the progress and physicality of your grief or your death, that you stick with it. Keep it consistent. Don’t do anger and rejection of the death one night and keening the next. It is not your job to “keep it fresh” or “go with what you feel” or “keep everyone else on their toes.” Your job is to tell the story the way it’s been set, and to do whatever you need to do to inject the reality into it each night. More on that later.
Now, go forth and do death.