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The Green Room: What’s the best way to approach playing multiple roles?

Jamie Beamish and Owen McDonnell in Stones in his Pockets at the Tricycle Theatre in 2012 – in which two actors play 15 characters. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Meet our panel: We have given our panellists pen-names and used stock images but their biographies reflect their real career details…​​​​​​​

Keith Simpson is in his early 20s and since graduating from drama school in 2016 has worked on national tours and in rep

Peter Quince is a 72-year-old actor working in theatre and television

Velma Lee is a 32-year-old actor, comic and improvisor

Vivian Lee is 38 and has played leading roles at the National, the RSC and the Royal Court, alongside regular TV appearances

Albert Parker is 60 and has appeared as a regular in soaps, two BAFTA-winning sitcoms, theatre and TV

John Pepper is 31 and for the past 10 years has worked as an actor in regional theatres, the National and in radio, television and film

Jenny Talbot is 39 and has nearly 20 years of experience in West End and touring musical theatre with occasional TV, film and plays

Beryl Phoenix is in her 40s. She has played leading roles at the RSC, worked on numerous new plays, and toured internationally


John Using different accents is the obvious – but probably not right – answer.

JonYeah, that can get a bit distracting.

Velma Joyfully.

Albert Quickly?

Jenny Take your time with them. And use different highlighters for each character.

Vivian Wigs and limps.

Beryl Ha, I was going to say accents, hats and beards.

Jenny If you’re playing a lot of roles, it’s sometimes handy to be a bit cod and use a prop or part of a costume to get you into character. It also helps the audience to discern who you’re playing. Top coarse acting tips here…

JonWhen you’re playing a lot of parts over one evening, a certain amount of coarse acting is inevitable. You can’t dig too hard into the inner lives of 10 characters with 10 lines each.

Peter It depends on the style of the piece. If they’re quick changes and on and off a lot, you’ve got to be very bold and make them instantly recognisable.

Albert It all depends on the director’s concept, heaven help us – are we supposed to be in disguise or is it an accepted part of the story style? There’s nothing worse than superfluous accents and facial hair.

Keith The quicker you get them in the head, the better. But saying that, I am of the ‘you can only put out one fire at a time’ mentality.

John If you are struggling, the ‘bear’ technique can be a good way in. How would this character react to a bear entering the room? Make it clear.

Keith Definitely stealing that, John, that’s a great idea.

John No problem, I stole it from someone else.

Albert Surely that only works in The Winter’s Tale?

Velma I like to use an ‘outside in’ method when multi-roling, to provide more distinct definitions between characters when switching rapidly. It keeps it fun.

Peter In Handbagged by Moira Buffini, an actor just changes his glasses and says: “Now, I’m Peter Carrington.”

JonOf course, multiple roles can now mean multiple genders, too. Any tips for playing a gender that isn’t your own?

Keith Might be a bit obvious, but I would say base it on a specific person. If you have a clear reference then you are less likely to go into stereotype territory.

Peter But, Les Dawson was funny because he was a very particular type of woman – a stereotype but a very funny one.

Albert I like it when the doubling is imaginative. When it adds to the story.

JonOn that note, do we really need to see Theseus/Oberon again? They’re both authority figures, we get it.

John Easier for casting, though, no?

JonYou could just as easily double it with Egeus. Or Philostrate (no wait, Philostrate has to play Puck, yawn…)

John Or you could cast two actors in the different parts.

Albert Let’s be honest. Most doubling is for budget reasons, made to look like concept.

Balls to doubling. Give more actors jobs

John Balls to doubling. Give more actors jobs. I know that might not wash with finance but, you know: more jobs for actors.

Peter But in shows such as the four-person 39 Steps the audience embraces the concept with joy. I’ve been in shows with the costume rails on stage, and the multiple roles are very obvious and part of the show. The audience love it, but they like you to be very different in each role.

JonThere’s definitely a difference between ‘We are playing five parts each for theatrical reasons’ and ‘I’m also playing both butlers because there are only six of us.’

Albert Nothing worse than when you play something nice for a few scenes at the beginning, and then have a nice gap to do the crossword and come back at the end as someone else – and nobody thinks you’re anyone different.

Peter But would you want to be in Hamlet and only play Reynaldo?

John Depends where they are doing Hamlet. I’d be happy for a cough and a fart at the National Theatre right now.

JonSounds Dorfmanny.

Peter Even the National would have doubles in Hamlet.

JonBefore we get too bogged down in discussing the casting policies of the National Theatre – does anyone have any final tips for approaching a multi-role job?

Velma Think hard about the way each character relates to the other characters.

Jenny Find characteristics of each role that you can use to get into the character – physicality, mood, energy.

Beryl Seriously, different characters all breathe differently and that’s fundamental. They will all have a different internal clock – I think obviously it goes much deeper and is more complex, but this is a good starting point. Then you can add the hats and silly voices.

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