“We think in shapes and pictures. The shape your character takes informs who that character is, and lets your fellow players recognize him/her/it when they see that shape again.” – Todd Stashwick
Photo © New York Musical Improv Festival
Physicality is a gift, not just to your scene partners, but to you as well. The second your foot hits the stage to enter a scene, notice what your body is doing.
Is it hunched over, taking small, shuffling steps? Or upright and striding confidently?
Are you snapping your fingers as you walk? Did you prop one leg on your knee as you sat down, or cross your legs demurely at the ankles?
All of these things tell our scene partner, the audience, and – if we’re paying attention – us, who this person is, before we open our mouth.
When we see a shape or image of any kind, our brain immediately goes to work, trying to find a “match” for that image. Todd Stashwick teaches an exercise that demonstrates this.
To begin, one person goes up and strikes a pose, any pose, and holds it.
The rest of the team then joins that person, one at a time.
For instance, let’s say the first person is standing with feet apart, hands on hips. The second person could go behind and stand with their hands encircling the first person’s waist. The third person could stand with one hand on the first person’s left shoulder. And so on.
If someone looks tired holding their pose, you can help by supporting them with the pose you take.
When everyone has joined in, the Coach/Director removes one person at a time, randomly. After each person is removed, pause to observe the new stage picture. It’s amazing how much it changes.
When only two or three people remain, see what the remaining pose suggests – what scene is revealed – then have those players perform it.
The last two people might look like a cop arresting a perpetrator. Or a woman proposing to her boyfriend. Or someone choking a co-worker. Or Kali, the goddess of death.
Even if there’s just one person on stage, their physicality can suggest things too. Stashwick teaches students to look at the negative space on stage, not just the positive.
But besides helping players recognize characters, shape can help your stage picture too.
Stage picture is something that’s often ignored in improv, especially after the opening (if there was one). We’re usually too busy talking to think about what the audience is seeing, and what they’re seeing is probably two people standing around yakking.
The next time you find yourself rooted to the floor, change your physicality and see how it changes the scene. Not only will you feel different, but it will immediately look different than 99% of improv scenes.
An easy way to create a great stage picture is through symmetry. Susan Messing teaches that doing stuff together makes it look important. If one person goes in as a guard, go in as a guard as well.
Observe what’s happening on stage, then mirror it. If your team is large, and more people mirror a move or a pose, it looks even more impressive. It’s the kind of thing that makes the audience think you rehearsed it.
Try it at your next rehearsal or show. Use physicality to shape your characters, build your environment, and support your team. It’s simple, it’s fun, and it works!
Photo © Adrianne Gagnon