Specificity is the spice of scenework. Whether you’re creating a sketch, a play, a movie, or an improv scene, specificity colours and shapes the world your characters inhabit. Here are some ways it can add richness to your scenes.
Names have power. Would Cary Grant have been as successful if he’d stayed Archibald Leach? OK, looking at this headshot the answer is…maybe. But you get my point.
Giving your characters names helps dimensionalise them, for your scene partners and the audience. It also helps your teammates bring those characters back in longform.
“Names are important. We care about people whose names we know; we don’t give a shit about strangers.” – Susan Messing
Damn straight. Think about news headlines: “Man dead at 50” just doesn’t affect us the same way “Joe Strummer dead at 50” does.
Here’s another great tip from Susan: “What does that person LOOK like? I can guaranfuckingtee that they don’t usually look like your go-to name of ‘Susie’ or ‘Jimmy.'”
If everyone in your scenes is called Bob or Bill, try throwing in a Jatinder and see what happens. Or Quentin. Or Shasta.
An added bonus: unusual names are more memorable. Right, Cary?
In this age of persuasion, even bleeding-heart liberals like me have favourite brands. Like it or not, the products we choose say a lot about who we are. Watch Dennis Hopper in this scene from Blue Velvet:
Not only do we know what his character, Frank Booth, likes. We also know what he doesn’t like. (Bonus points to Hopper for having an emotional reaction to something so seemingly small.) The next time you find yourself holding a glass onstage, think about what’s in it. It might hold a clue to your character.
Information like this is best used sparingly. The Pabst Blue Ribbon scene would’ve lost its impact if all Hopper did through the rest of the movie was rant about PBR.
The funniest scene paint I ever saw involved a player pouring something onto his burger. One of his teammates leaned in, pointed to the bottle and said, “Diana Sauce.”
The audience loved it.
That one little detail added so much. No Heinz ketchup for this guy. Now we knew a little bit more about the character, and the setting. Which leads us to…
Is that a Louis Quinze chair, or a La-Z-Boy lounger? Just deciding that will affect how you sit and move in your environment.
Again, keep it simple. When a team goes crazy scene painting fifty things, it’s hard to keep track of them. It’s not about the things; it’s about the people who use those things.
The way you position your chairs on stage is another way to add information. Instead of the usual “two chairs turned slightly towards each other” set-up, try something different. Two seats side by side become a restaurant banquette, or airplane seats, or a cramped subcompact car.
Physicality and Gesture
Does your character have a prosthetic leg? Does he or she hold things very daintily? Maybe they wash their hands after touching anything.
By repeating and exaggerating a gesture, you can use it to heighten your character. (David Razowsky is a master of gesture. His Viewpoints workshop is a must for anyone who wants to deepen their approach to improv.)
Think about the people you know. Chances are some of them have specific quirks or tics: a habit of drumming their fingers impatiently, or jiggling their leg when they’re anxious. How does that affect their personality, not to mention the people around them?
You can mimic someone else’s physicality, or try leading into a scene with a specific body part. A character who slinks around the stage could be shifty, sensual, or just plain eccentric. Specificity leads to discovery. Let your body reveal your character.
Specificity Is Funny
You can be specific about just about anything. Here are some lines of dialogue taken from live shows. Notice how specificity makes them memorable. Take that away, and you’re left with generalisations, with vagueness. Master improvisers use specificity to paint a vivid picture in their audience’s mind. Be specific.
“I’ll bet you wear a red bra. I’ll take your silence as a yes.”
“My heart is broken, and it can only be fixed through a jazz medley.”
“He died in a brothel in France, right?” “Plane crash.”
“We are Spartans! I believe I can handle a little room-temperature mayonnaise.”
“You’re like a tiny, Jewish Indiana Jones.”
“It’s horrible. It’s like somebody carved a turkey and then put it back together.”
“I’m gonna go straight upstairs and masturbate to Tony Danza for an hour.”
“I think it’s smart not to serve decaf. Fuck those people.”
“You know what I was doing? I was cleaning the oven. That’s how Sylvia Plath died.”
“I used to sniff gas out of a cowboy hat.”
“I love franchised shows.” “Yeah, Special Victims, Criminal Intent…” “Which is the one with the guy that used to be good?”
“Never bring a sword to a mongoose fight.”