I’ve spent the last two days trying to formulate an improv philosophy. I’ve been asking myself, “What do I believe about creating characters in an improv scene?” I’m asking because tomorrow night I’m leading an improv class for the first time. It’s an elective at The Hideout Theatre entitled “Generating Characters.”
A few weeks ago, when the Hideout agreed to let me teach a class, I found myself a bit at a loss. What should I teach? Who the hell are you, kid? So I asked a few improv pals: What improv subject could I, Andrew-not-Andy, teach that you might pay to see? On what subjects am I qualified to pontificate?
The response was simple and quick: CHARACTERS.
That’s literally all I had until a couple of days ago, when I finally started thinking seriously about what I will teach. Turns out, thinking is hard, y’all. Sitting quietly—or in my case, on the couch with New Girl playing in the background—and thinking about improv stuff is hard.
(In part because New Girl is on, and because Jake M. Johnson’s performance as Nick in this show deserves an Emmy.)
I have read three improv books from cover to cover: Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre, Improvise: Scenes from the Inside Out, and Truth in Comedy. I have thumbed through the new UCB Comedy Improvisation Manual a bunch.
(The UCB book is a textbook, and it reminds me of my Cub Scout manual with its slick pages and bright illustrations. But the writing style is almost unwelcoming in its sterility. It’s a good reference book, but nothing to stir your improv juevos.)
I will be borrowing from those sources when I start talking tomorrow night. And like all effective teachers I will be stealing from my own favorite improv instructors.
But I’m also curious whether I can develop my own pathway into the subject of “character in improv.” If only as an intellectual exercise I’m enjoying trying to synthesize all of my thoughts and experiences into a cohesive message about this topic. What will help people create better characters?
And after some free-writing tonight, I’m starting with these three things:
1. Widening the Range
Too many characters in improv are uninteresting to watch. They can even be anti-interesting. If you’re acting in a Duplass Brothers mumblecore film, playing a slight variation on yourself is acceptable. But in a live improv show, it’s far less interesting for the audience than a character they don’t see often.
Think of the movies you love. The characters in those movies are probably extra-ordinary in some way. Which is to say they are not ordinary. That’s what we should bring to our scene partners and the paying audience: people that are somehow different than what they encounter everyday.
Whether it’s the character’s point of view, emotional state, physical manner, or simply how they say the word “butterscotch,” there is something about them that stands out, is compelling.
But it’s not just for the audience! It’s more fun, if you allow yourself, to play a character outside yourself. We’re adults playing make believe. Let’s MAKE so they’ll BELIEVE.
Play someone with an obnoxious Boston accent! Do an impression of your aunt! Limp! Be five-years-old! Mime a yo-yo! Be 2,000-years-old! Giggle after everything you say! Try to pick your nose when your partner looks away!
2. Quick and Sticky
This refers to making a quick choice and sticking to it throughout the scene. Here I’m borrowing heavily from Mick Napier’s superb Improvise—-the one improv book I’ve read that socked me in the gut and made me itch to get on a stage fast. Mick makes an excellent point about supporting your scene partner. Let me paraphrase from memory (it’s been a few months since I read it):
We talk often in improv about taking care of each other onstage, supporting our partners. The best way to support your partner is to give yourself something strong. Bring a steak to the cutting board, and they’ll bring a knife. Few things are less supportive in improv than not having a strong, clear offer off which your partner(s) can bounce.
I love that so much. It has to be one of my favorite improv maxims. I love it because (a) it’s true and (b) it’s fun. Why bother entering an improv scene if you’re not going to bring something? What’s the point? Why would you even want to?
So when the scene opens, pick something and go with it.
The second part of the equation, sticky, is as important as the first. And here is where I recognize one of my personal improv bugaboos: not holding on to my “thing.”
(Normally, holding on to one’s “thing” in public is frowned upon, but improv, as you probably know, is a lawless neverscape that fetishizes nihilism.)
Thanks to some insightful coaches I’ve been made aware of my own tendency to enter strongly only to let my character’s point-of-view/emotion/physicality just drop.
It’s understandable. We are essentially apes who are distracted by shiny objects—including offers from our scene partners. How easy it is to drop our thing! But we mustn’t! My comrades, we must stick to our guns! We must charge into the fray clinging desperately to whatever it is we’ve decided to do.
Even if all we have is that our character’s pinky twitches randomly. You’d better twitch that pinky like a motherfucker!
Besides, it’s more fun this way. The opening moments of your scene become a cute puzzle to decode:
You’ve brought something to the table.
Your scene partner has brought something to the table.
Now how do you make those two things fit?
Solving that puzzle is one of the fiercest joys improv offers.
3. Deepen via Details
So you’ve widened your range of characters, and you’re snapping into them quickly, and you’re sticking to them throughout the scene. But what do you do after the first couple of minutes?
There is tendency—and goodness gracious don’t I know it—-to let a quickly created character morph into a cardboard cut-out, or worse, a bloated caricature. Either way, you’re left with an unbelievable character who’s on borrowed time with the audience’s interest. No good.
One straightforward, in-the-moment way to deepen an improvised character is through the addition of details. You’ve started with a thing, and now it’s time to add a few more things. This new thing will often be evident, and will emerge in the response you give your scene partner. Her character says something, and you react—and that reaction might have a new nugget to tuck into your character belt.
Did you ever play the video game Katamari Damacy? Yeah, well, I did a few times in my mid-20s, usually while at some mellow house party. In this very Japanese game, you play a little prince who’s pushing a very sticky ball around the universe. Check out this video (on LSD if you have any at hand):
As you roll the ball pretty much everything you touch adheres to it, and your ball grows and grows, becoming a collection of trees and stars and et cetera.
I think that over the course of an improv scene you are that ball, you are the katamari. Things stick to you, and you have to be ready to nab them and squeeze tight. Which isn’t to say you should worry yourself with growing bigger and bigger into an insane chaotic bundle. That’s nuts, not to mention impossible.
Instead, you can let certain details stick. (And because you’re playing aggressively and nimbly, you’re seeing everything coming your way.) You can become a selective Katamari. Of course there’s no “rule” about which character traits, actions, moves you should hold and which you should abandon. You gotta let the moment and your mood dictate that.
But you also shouldn’t be content with what you create at the beginning. Hold on to that initial characterization, but let that character grow into three dimensions by sprucing it up with additional details.
Consider your best friend. Think of something he or she does that is uniquely them. Maybe they talk an unusual amount about the weather. Maybe they mispronounce things. Maybe they stick their thumbs in their waistbands a lot. Maybe they’re conspiracy theorists.
Whatever it is that colors them unique—you didn’t necessarily see it right away. Or at least you didn’t notice it right away. But when you did, suddenly that person became real—a human with foibles and idiosyncrasies and personality hiccups.
Bring that same detail to an improv scene and you’ll have your audience leaning in to see what’s next.
If you’ve read this far, and if you know a bit about improv theory, you know that nothing I’ve said here is novel. This is a recycling of ideas that have been shared elsewhere. But this is what I think is important. These are some simple concepts that articulate the moves I find myself making onstage. These things work for me, and I hope that tomorrow night they help a few people who show up.
But the weatherman says tomorrow is going to be 30 degrees colder than today, with a chance of rain. So I may be teaching myself. But that’s OK. I could use the practice.
The elective is tonight—Wednesday, October 16—from 7-9 pm at The Hideout Theatre. Show up, or sign-up online here.