We often think of caricature when we see a humorous cartoon in a newspaper, usually a politician being lampooned before their voters. This is normally my starting point with students in understanding caricature in a dramatic context.
In Australia, the home of The Drama Teacher, a federal election campaign has just been announced. One of the daily newspapers here in Melbourne this week pictured both election candidates as caricatures on the front cover. Reproducing head shots of these two gentlemen would have been far too boring for the paper’s readers.
Here’s what Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd look like in real life:
And here’s the caricature of them on the cover of the Herald Sun newspaper:
Now, it’s all about “spot the difference”. The line drawing caricature exaggerates select physical features of each man for comic effect. Note, caricatures do not always have to be humorous and are sometimes serious, even morbid. But in this case, the subject of the caricature is two politicians. As federal election candidates, the more important the subject matter (applying for Prime Minister, the highest office in the land), the further their fall from grace when we ridicule them in a cartoon. Caricaturing my next door neighbor will have little impact on the readers of the newspaper, because no one knows him. Caricaturing a public figure who takes himself and his job very seriously results in humour, which happily translates to comedy on the theatre stage.
In the photo of Tony Abbott, his ears are a prominent feature of his head. This translates into good fodder for the cartoonist to deliberately (cruelly?) exaggerate them to get a laugh. In the cartoon drawing, Abbott’s ears are not only huge, but lowered to the point where they are level with his mouth. His shoulders are high on his body, mouth open to reveal thick lips, a wide grin and a pearly set of teeth … all exaggerated. He is pictured alongside his competitor running through the banner of the 2013 election campaign, similar to that in an Australian Rules Football game, a recognisable Australian pastime.
The photo of Kevin Rudd on the other hand shows a round-shaped head, hair fringe and glasses. In caricature this has become a fat-ish head, beady eyes appearing through frosted glasses, rosy cheeks and a pointy chin. Some of Rudd’s more prominent facial features have been successfully exaggerated for comic effect in the caricature.
A dramatic caricature is simply a physical interpretation of what has become the cartoonist’s line drawing. All other conventions remain the same. Instead of exaggerating someone’s physical features and turning this into a cartoon, the caricature now becomes a living thing. Facial expressions, movement, hand gestures, costume and props now combine to create a caricature for a performance on the stage.
Caricature is an exaggeration of a character that is often ludicrous or grotesque. It can be comic, at times derogatory, and with the intention to ridicule. (Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority, 2013)
The level of distortion in the caricature often determines its effectiveness. Exaggerated walks, an unusual stance, exaggerated facial expressions, padding under costumes for big bums or large breasts, or larger than life gestures, are all effective.
Because caricature involves an amplification of a person’s features beyond the norm (visual, aural, physical), it can therefore be classified a non-realistic or non-naturalistic convention for students of drama. It is not natural or realistic for a character to have such exaggerated features, actions or facial expressions. Note, we should not forget the importance of voice in a dramatic caricature. An accent or vocal tone can also be deliberately exaggerated.
Caricature which results in comedy in drama often mocks or ridicules. But caricature does not have to be an exaggerated send-up of a well-known individual, it can also be about a stereotype in society. In a school setting, a drama student could caricature the typical librarian or maths teacher, or perhaps teenage stereotypes such as skater, geek, wannabe or jock. Stereotypes are usually known to the audience, so exaggerating them in order to create caricature works partly because the audience is already informed.
It is important for drama students to understand the basics of caricature at an early stage in their schooling. Introducing caricature for the first time at a senior level can be less effective than if introduced earlier. However, as caricature in drama education can be complex and require sophisticated characterisation, seniors often excel in producing material of this kind for class performances and assessment. Regardless, I have found it is much easier for a student of drama to create a caricature if they already have an understanding of stereotypes in drama, first.