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Posts from the Character Category

Here’s an exercise Cameron uses that’s great for “yes, and”-ing.

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

If you listen to Comedy Bang! Bang!, you know the Andy Daly characters get really fleshed-out, in part because Paul F. Tompkins, Jason Mantzoukas and Scott Aukerman ask leading questions.

You can do the same in scenes. When you ask leading questions, your scene partner now has to accept that reality and build out from there.

It’s like the press conference game. You’re basically endowing the character, and you just keep endowing them. For example:

Player #1: So, John, you wrote a book called Starting when you started drinking. I noticed the last chapters are just random type. Do you really feel like this has helped your life?

Then the person has to respond. It forces them to realise that those are true things now, because the other person said them. So it’s “yes-ing” and it’s “and-ing.” It’s forcing you to go, “Yes, this is fucking real, so just accept it.”

When Player #1 says, “Oh and there’s a whole chapter on how to start embezzling,” that feels like the wrong path, and you’d have to explain why, in your book, it’s a valuable thing to start doing.

Where it gets fun is, it’s really about surprising the other person. So like, “I notice you wear a live raccoon as a hat. Does that help with writing, or are you also into fashion?” And then they can be like, OK, I wear a live raccoon, how do I explain that? Or, “I see you’re not wearing pants.”

What you want is for them to almost laugh the word “Yep,” and then follow up with “Here’s why, and here’s how that happened…”

Player #1: Today’s your birthday.

Player #2: Yes, I share a birthday with…

Player #1: Tom Selleck?

Player #2: Yes. The man and the moustache.

Player #1: For your birthday gift, on twitter you said that you wanted people to send you their used Kleenex. For eating. Was that a joke, or do you actually eat tissues?

Player #2: I do. I feel like the fibre market is expanding…

Player #1: Why do they need to be used?

Player #2: Well, people are germophobes now. Everyone’s carrying around their little bottle of Purell, and it’s actually leading to a very unhealthy and more dangerous society. We need to get more germs into our bodies in order to be healthier.

…or whatever.

To get started, you might endow someone’s character, but then as they “yes, and” it, they’re going to say things that in turn you can feast on.

So if you say you’re into Paleo, I’ll think, to what extreme are you like a caveman? You know what, I’ll test this out by saying, “I notice you slaughtered the neighbours’ dog and ate it, and you also drag your wife around by the hair.” I’m not making you say those things; you said you were big on the Paleo thing, now let’s really go 100% on it.

Try it at your next rehearsal.

There’s so much pressure in life to “do our best,” it’s only natural that some of that spills over into the world of make-’em-ups we call improv. But striving for perfection is a surefire way to suck the fun out of a scene. As Joe Bill says:

“Any consideration of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ will fuck you over and put you in your head. Onstage is not real life.”

Think about that: onstage is not real life. That gives us incredible licence to do whatever the hell we want.

One time in rehearsal my teammate, Justin Kosi, was pimped into being John Travolta. He looked at our coach, Tom Vest, and said “I don’t know him.” “That’s great!” Tom told him. “Just do your John Travolta.”

Of course, Justin’s Travolta was nothing like the “real” one – and a million times funnier as a result.

If you want to take pressure off yourself, try doing something really badly. You can do it in a circle as a warm-up, as well as in scenes.

Do the worst accent, the worst dance, the worst impression, the worst anything, and see if it isn’t the best.

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

Subway

Experts say anywhere from 60-90% of communication is non-verbal (facial expression, gestures, and posture). We take our cues from how people sit, stand or move. But the information doesn’t end there.

“Hairstyle is body language. Clothing is body language.” – Fred Herzog, Photographer

Look at the men in the photo.

The guy with the beard, Subaru shirt and camo pants is worlds apart from the dude with the checked shirt and forlorn expression. If I were to guess their first lines of dialogue, it’d probably be something like:

Guy #1: “I used to ride bikes in the military.”

Guy #2: “I wish Maanika would call me.”

In improv though, it’s rarely this obvious. We don’t have as many physical cues to get a read on someone’s character right away. So what can we do?

Mime An Accessory

In Trust Us, This Is All Made Up, TJ initiates an office worker who wears a beret. With one small gesture, adjusting the angle of the hat on his head, his character instantly becomes more interesting.

Maybe your character likes to stroke his beard, or play with her ponytail. I’ve seen Lisa Merchant mime goatees, while Ted Hallett twirls imaginary locks that would make Kim Kardashian jealous.

Maybe you’re wearing a scarf or a boa that keeps coming loose so you have to keep tossing it over your shoulder.

It doesn’t matter what it is; just reach out into space and find something, then use it to learn about your character.

Scene Paint Someone

If it’s three minutes in and we still know nothing about the people on stage, go in and scene paint something on them. Be specific. Is it a corduroy jacket, or a $6,000 Tom Ford suit? Reveal that they have a secret tattoo, describing what and where it is in detail. Endow someone with a toupée or glass eye.

Give them something to dimensionalise their character, and it will add dimension to the scene.

Study Body Language Like A Thief

There are so many tiny physical clues to how a person is feeling:

• Touching the back of the neck or head signifies doubt or uncertainty.

Improvisers who get in their head often do this unconsciously. If you see this happening to your scene partner, you can snap back them back into the moment by asking them if they need clarity.

• Putting both arms behind the head and leaning back in a chair is a show of status. (Watch for it at your next big meeting.)

• Touching or scratching the top of your hand or forearm signals stress. It’s especially common when people feel anxious or under attack.

Anna Gunn, who played Skyler in Breaking Bad, brushes her forearm ever so slightly when Skyler tells Walt she’s afraid of him.

Watch for these and other clues from your scene partners. You probably know friends or family members with unique quirks or tics; gestures that tell you they’re happy, anxious, sad, or about to explode. Try using some of them on stage, and see where they lead you.

“No scene is ever about the words being spoken.” – Del Close

Having a strong point of view makes doing a scene easy and fun. This exercise gives your character something concrete to play off of, right out of the gate.

Think of something you personally have a strong opinion about.

It doesn’t have to be political or religious; it can be as simple as “I hate clowns.”

Now, just flip the statement, whatever it is, and hold the opposite opinion as you play out your scene.

For example:

• “I enjoy exploring new cities” could become “I’m afraid of foreign places and people.”

• “Fox News is stupid” could become “Fox News is the best source of intelligent, factual information.”

• “Smartphones are destroying human interaction” could be “Smartphones make face-to-face communication better and more honest.”

etc.

You don’t have to force the topic into conversation, but you’ll find as your scene unfolds that you’ll share your newfound belief naturally.

To do the exercise, everyone thinks of a strongly-held opinion while they’re on the back line, then reverses it. Two people are chosen, and the Coach/Director gives a location to start their scene.

Try it at your next rehearsal.

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

“It’s not a toomah!”

“La-dee-da, la-dee-da.”

“Coffee’s for closers.”

“Is it safe?”

“May the Force be with you.”

“Big gulps, huh?”

When you read those words, I know you heard the actor’s voice in your mind. Not just the timbre, but the emotion.

A few simple words can sum up a scene, a character, a play, or sometimes, a whole TV series. And as Schwarzenegger proved, you don’t even have to speak a language fluently to make a lasting impact.

Photo © Klapi

Photo © Klapi

While we don’t recommend you rely on catchphrases as a crutch, they can often be useful in defining your character.

The next time you blurt out something on stage, take note of what you said and how you said it.

A word, a phrase, or even a sound (like Annie Hall’s “La-dee-da”) are so much more powerful when accompanied by emotion.

You can explore and heighten whatever you said, or simply repeat it.

For two extreme examples of character and catchphrases, check out Tommy Wiseau’s disaster epic, The Room, and Community‘s Magnitude character.

Improv Side Note: Jack Nicholson’s “Heeeeeeeere’s Johnny!” from The Shining and Robert de Niro’s “You talkin’ to me?” from Taxi Driver were improvised. Now try to imagine their characters without them. Impossible!

My boss saw two brothers, aged 4 and 8, being interviewed on Breakfast Television. The host asked what they wanted to be when they grow up.

The older brother answered “A dentist.”

The younger one blurted:

“I wanna be a dragon!”

As we get older, logic starts to rein in our imagination. Improv is a chance to let it run free again.

The next time something crazy, unexpected, or illogical happens on stage and your left brain wants to justify or “correct” it, ask yourself: Would you rather be a dentist, or a dragon?