Feature | Bringing Characters to Life

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by Laura Kressly

Passion Fruit is very much Dior Clarke’s story, but it’s not a solo performance. Though the first rehearsal I observed consisted of the director Melina Namdar solely working with Clarke, the second included actor Hayden Mampasi, who takes on a varied collection of supporting characters. In this rehearsal, director Melina Namdar uses a range of exercises to develop Mampasi’s characterisations and ensure the people he plays are distinct from each other. It’s an intense day full of work on the details that bring characters to life on stage, showcases Namdar’s expansive director toolkit, and the techniques that actors use to bring characters to life.

For the first character they look at, Samuel, Namdar starts by using Laban, a technique named for its creator Rudolf Laban. The Austrian dancer, choreographer and movement analyst developed a movement practice that categorises all movements into one of eight kinds: floating, dabbing, wringing, thrusting, pressing, flicking, slashing, and gliding. As much as these ‘efforts’, as Laban called them, are useful in dance they’re also a great resource for actors. Each uses weight, space and time differently, and can be applied to any body part. In actor training, I’ve also seen them used as figurative or metaphorical actions against other characters, but here Namdar directs Mampasi through several short, physical improv exercises using them more directly to explore how his character moves through space. They’re both happy with the results pretty quickly, so they move on. With many of these characters only appearing in a scene or two and having only a few lines, Namdar is able to tick through the script methodically and at pace. That’s not to say the work occurs at a superficial level, though. There are many bursts of intense, detailed refinement of Mampasi’s initial character development. We then see Romeo’s best friend Chardonnay, out with Romeo for his 21st at Heaven, before Clarke arrives at rehearsal.

Clarke and Mampasi carry out short improvisations so Mampasi can shape his character choices. Namdar suggests going back to Samuel so Mampasi and Clarke can work on the scene where they meet. It takes place at Samuel’s birthday, where Clarke’s character Romeo is putting in an appearance, but is feeling pretty over the whole party scene. Samuel has decided that he’s going to relentlessly pursue the infamous Romeo. Ignoring the exact lines but honouring the trajectory of the scene, Mampasi and Clarke banter and flirt freely, at first without scripted lines getting in the way of their chemistry. It’s great to see such free and intimate work. But Namdar doesn’t want to spend too much time on this short scene, so they move to the next.

In stark contrast to Samuel, Mampasi also plays Romeo’s grandmother, a frail Jamaican woman. There is initial discussion about what they know about grandma from the text, and how other factual information about her informs how she moves. They then work through the scene line by line, analysing the content, subtext and how these shape Mampasi’s delivery and character intentions. This part of the rehearsal is more bookish and delicate than the physical work on Samuel. They also discuss sensitive and triggering content – spousal abuse, death and homophobia – in the context of the scene. There are moments here that are difficult to watch in that Grandma is from a time and place where these things, particularly spousal abuse, is accepted if the man is otherwise a good provider to his family.

There are what feels like dozens of other techniques used throughout the day, all selected quickly and instinctively by Namdar as she and Mampasi methodically work through each of his characters. Though too many to detail here, it’s testament to directing training and experience that equips a director with an array of exercises to draw from. Combined with a safe and healthy rehearsal environment, it allows Mampasi to experiment and play, particularly within characters far from his lived experience, and bring them to life authentically. It suits this coming-of-age story of a Black gay man from north London.

Passion Fruit runs at The Glory through 28 September.

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