I have the benefit of being both an actor, and also a director. So I work on theatre performance and production development from both sides.
As a director, I'm looking to my actors to build their characters based on analysis and evidence in the script, combined with research about the period and history, the location, the social stratus, the culture and more. Those pieces of evidence then combine with a back story of the character that might be historic or invented that gives the actor a palette to work from. The palette frames and narrows your choices to play the character's intentions, the delivery of their lines, the interactions with others, and even down to the most minute of things such as emphasis on words, gestures, the way the character carries him/herself, etc.
As an actor, I'm working on all the above to give me a framework inside which I can make those choices while still remaining true to the character and story, to tell it purely and toward the end goal of relaying the writer's vision and themes to the audience.
When I say "making bold choices" I mean that as an actor, I always want to look to the possibilities. If I only make the expected choices of how to play my character, the performance will likely be flat, dull, lifeless. I try to always remember that a play or book is not written about the ordinary times in these character's lives. It's a story about a peak moment... a critical or pivotal time in their lives when things came to a cathartic pinnacle, and then resolved in some satisfying way. So as I make every choice, moment to moment, I want that choice to be interesting, possibly unusual, while it always ALWAYS supports the overall story we are telling.
Here's an example. I'm currently playing Phoebe Reece in the crazy, ridiculous comedy 'The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen's Guild Dramatic Society's Production of Murder at Checkmate Manor'. (See show page here) As you can guess from the title, this is an over the top farce, poking fun at the conventions of community theatre and all the horrible things that can go wrong. These women think they are brilliant artists, while actually they are truly, devastatingly, bad. As I was developing the voice for Phoebe, this crazy British dame who is the leader of the troupe, I looked for every opportunity to display her sense of self importance, her ostentatious approach to the work and her audience. So I scoured through the lines to find words like Venetian, confession, profession, and purposefully over pronounced the ending with additional syllables, such as Venesc-i-o-n, confes-s-i-o-n, etc. Additionally, she often emphasizes the incorrect syllable for comedic effect. I have a line about how the other character "stole my Reggie, turned me into an alcoholic, and melted all my tupperware." Obviously the humor comes on the final of the 3, being a silly thing to emphasize. So I purposefully break the final word and emphasize the wrong syllable... "tupper WARE". It gives a punch to the line, gives more to the unexpected, which comedy is largely based on, and it plays into the choice of playing this particular scene as Bette Davis... see below.
When working on the 6 different characters that Phoebe then plays within the play within the play... yes it's confusing... I looked at the lines and found a pattern wherein most of the characters had qualities that I could tie to famous Hollywood characters or actresses. I knew that Phoebe probably wrote her own characters in the play, so it's not at all surprising to assume she'd look to write characters that mimicked famous people that she'd always wanted to be. So one character I played as Kate Hepburn, with cheese poses and poorly done mid-Atlantic dialect. Another was Bette Davis complete with cigarette. Another was Scarlet Ohara. I then went to work researching how they looked, how they tended to move and pose, how they spoke, and tried to find bold, broad brush strokes I could apply to the brief character appearances that audiences would recognize quickly and clearly, and doing them so poorly that they also fit the over the top comedy of the style of this play.
These are just a couple examples, but hopefully you can get the idea.
I rely on the director to tell me if something is too big, or too bold, or out of bounds. That's their job looking from the outside in. But as a director also, I can tell you it's always much easier and preferred for me to have to tone an actor down, than have to try to eek a performance out of them, or get them to be bolder.
Acting is not a business for the shy or meek. It's the work of those who are not afraid to be watched, not shy in front of a crowd, and not timid in making choices. Go for it. Rehearsal is a safe place to make mistakes, and to find moments of unexpected excitement. You'll never find them if you don't try. Do your homework, think creatively and from a place of knowledge within the character and material, and be bold!
Spike, as his friends call him, has 30 years in the performing arts world as an actor, director, administrator, marketer, fundraiser. He has consulted with numerous theatres and other performing arts organizations and loves to help such groups and individual artists to achieve their success!