On Likability Onstage

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Sure, but could he dog-sit for you?

You may sometimes worry whether you’re likable onstage. People use that word a lot when discussing performers, their “likability” or their “watchability” or the X factor. Here is a New Yorker piece on the subject of “likability in fiction.” Read it when you can.

But one part really jumps out as it might relate to improv, to the question of whether you’re “likable” onstage. Specifically, it’s this quote — from an author who was asked by an interviewer whether she, the author, would be friends with her newest novel’s main character:

For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter?

If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “Is this a potential friend for me?” but “Is this character alive?”

To me, this means that onstage, likability isn’t as important as commitment. Because what audiences really like is being pulled in to the reality of the scene, being given access to a private club. It’s not your character’s personality that they like; it’s their recognition of something authentic and relatable.

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