“All tedious research is worth one inspired moment.” — Uta Hagen
Given Circumstances is a term from the teachings of Uta Hagen, a well known actress and theatre practitioner. Any actor who has had any kind of training knows exactly who I am talking about (if you don’t, that’s okay…but you should definitely look her up and read some of her material!) It explains the method in which actors should use to understand their character, where they are in the circumstances of the world of the play, and who they are going to become by the end of the play.
As an actor, I was taught that given circumstances are tools in which an actor should use to understand their character, what drives them, and who they are going to become by the end of the play. They are an important set of questions to ask yourself in regards to how you approach your character and act as a guide for overall development. Throughout that development, they create mood, attitude, and purpose for the character.
In my personal time outside of rehearsal, I took tedious notes that helped me to get a better understanding of who my character was. I constantly asked the questions: Who am I? What time is it? What surrounds me? What are the given circumstances of the past, present, and potential future? With whom/where are my relationships? What do I want? What do I do to get what I want? These questions, among many, are amazing stepping stones that will help your overall walk with your character.
You might be wondering, “how can I apply these things in a rehearsal setting when I have so many other things to focus on?”
Well, for starters, you need to have your lines completely memorized. Rehearsal is the best place for discovery, especially through relationships. If you have your nose in your script for longer than a week or two, you give yourself less time for overall character development; I say this out of personal experience! Do not waste time by not knowing your lines. Not only will this help you develop your character, it will also help your fellow actors develop theirs. It is a team effort!
Once you are able to recite your lines without even thinking about them, you are able to look into your partners eyes. Their eyes are a window into their soul. It is a way to communicate between the lines of the script and to your scene partner. This will help you answer the question “what is my relationship with this person and why?”
As I stated before, I took time outside of rehearsal to nail down the answers of the more expositional questions like “what time is it?”, “where am I?”, and “what are the given circumstances of my past, present, and potential future?” This question, in my opinion, is one of the most complex because it deals with extended questions: what happened in my past that brought me here/made me who I am? Where am I now, why am I here, and will the current situation I’m in be significant for my future? These are the deeper questions that you will have to be asking yourself in order to discover what your character is all about.
Even if you are able to find answers to these questions right off the bat, there is still potential for them to change during the rehearsal process. You can find yourself playing the character one way and then suddenly something will happen that makes your answer take a 180 degree turn.
What happens if this happens to you during a performance? There is nothing wrong with it. Live theatre is just that: LIVE THEATRE. Yes, there has to be consistency, but no two shows are the same. This is what makes theatre real. You discover that you are working on impulse, as if it were the first time you ever said specific lines or moved in a certain way, even though you know in the back of your mind that you have been doing it over and over for months.
This is the gift of given circumstances; the constant thought process through your character. You are constantly thinking about how your character would react, what inflection they would use on a certain word or phrase, and their overall process of thought. You are discovering how to feel as a character. You are developing a sense of empathy, something that is so important for an actor to focus on.
Actors have a huge responsibility on stage; their job is to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances. Without Uta Hagens’ understanding of acting, we as actors would not have a grasp on given circumstances and theatre would not be what it is today.
Extra information retrieved from: