An illuminating look into the cognitive processes at play when we cast theatrical and political figures—as well as everyday people—as characters

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What can we learn about how we understand each other and ourselves by examining the casting we find on stage and film—the casting we find perfect and the casting we find wrong? Building Character examines how the process of “casting” an actor in a part creates a character and how this can be usefully understood through deploying theories from the cognitive sciences. A casting director may match the perceived qualities of an actor with the perceived qualities of the character, but the combination is also synergistic; casting a character creates qualities. While casting directors do this professionally, all of us do this when we make sense of the people around us. This book argues that we build the characters of others from a sea of stimuli and that the process of watching actors take on roles improves our ability to “cast” those roles in our daily lives. Amy Cook examines the visible celebrity casting, such as Robert Downey Jr. as Ironman or Judi Dench as Bond’s M, the political casting of one candidate as “presidential” and another as “weak,” the miscasting of racial profiling and sexual assault, and the counter casting that results when actors and characters are not where or who we expect.

Amy Cook is Associate Professor of English and Theatre Arts, Stony Brook University.

 “How do we cast characters, sort out loved ones from the surrounding crush of humanity, much less keep track of whether actors are right for a part? Cook nimbly guides us through the cognitive functions that enable us to categorize people, and pulls more than a few rugs out from under our understandings of celebrity, politicking, and the culture wars.”
—Scott Magelssen, University of Washington 

"In a masterpiece that lies at the intersection of the humanities and cognitive science, Cook shows that we form notions of character by casting a specific person in a specific role at a specific time, following complex cognitive patterns. From daily life to imagination, from reverie to reality, it’s casting all the way down.”
—Mark Turner, Case Western Reserve University 

“A major conceptual leap in identifying and anatomizing a key cognitive feature in audience reception of performance and in conceptualizing this phenomenon in daily life. Cook assembles an impressive array of relevant theory from the cognitive sciences, and the use of theatre to frame a cognitive process is astute and effective. . . . Building Character is valuable, provocative and innovative and deserving of a wide readership.”
​—Rick Kemp, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, author of Embodied Acting: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Performance

“Anyone working in, or aspiring to work in, theatre, film or television should read this book. It’s insightful, practical, and profound."
–Matt Ross, actor (Silicon Valley) and director of Captain Fantastic

""An innovative and important interdisciplinary project that challenges old ways of interpreting theatre history and social performance."
-- Theatre Survey

- Carol Mejia LaPerle

"Building Character is a worthwhile addition to theatre and performance studies scholarship. Its strength lies in Cook’s persuasive defense of the opportunity afforded by cognitive science to rethink the relationship among actor, character, and spectator." - Jim Williams, Theatre Journal

- Jim Williams

"To unpack how factors such as age, race, gender, physical attributes, historical and personal information, and reputation make an actor feel “right” or “wrong” for a role, theatre history and performance studies scholars can now turn to Amy Cook’s Building Character: The Art and Science of Casting."
-Comparative Drama​

- Gibson Alessandro Cima

Listen: Amy Cook interviewed on WAMC The Academic Minute Link | 5/7/2018Listen: Amy Cook interviewed on HowlRound Link | 3/8/2018