The first time I encountered Viewpoints, I thought it was a class about character point of view, which I’ve since discovered is many improvisers’ assumption when they first hear the name.
Viewpoints are a set of elements that are always in play, whether or not you’re paying attention to them, but that can be easily manipulated by the actor through training and awareness.
It was February 2013 and the workshop was Improvisacting I with David Razowsky. Dave had taught in Toronto the previous year and Isaac Kessler, my coach, hadn’t stopped talking about him since.
I’d never been the funniest comedian, but I’d always been a decent actor, and that was what carried me through my first four years of improv training and performance. I played committed characters, but without much direction. The majority of my games were emotional heightening, but I often let the emotion overrule the scene. The few times I tried to be witty and aloof to stretch my boundaries, I forgot everything else I knew and played for cheap laughs that even I didn’t like. It worked sometimes, but it wasn’t consistent, and the biggest compliments I usually got were that I was high energy and had good stage presence.
In hindsight, the biggest mistake I made was taking improv scenes personally. I found it very difficult to separate myself from the character. I was immersed, as any young actor thinks they should be. I was so immersed that I often couldn’t see the scene beyond my character. Was there potential for a status shift? What move got a great reaction from the audience? When should I enter a scene? What was my scene partner actually saying when their character was talking? I’d been taught all of this in classes and rehearsals, but never truly absorbed it, and found it difficult to apply onstage in front of an audience. I allowed myself to get lost in the character instead of making the character work for me.
Viewpoints was what finally pushed me to separate the actor from the character. In turn, it made me, the actor, more present in scenes and backlines versus when I’d been getting lost in characters. Finally, I felt like I knew what I was doing. I began remembering scenes I’d been in, which made giving myself notes much easier, and made the notes more objective. I finally understood what people meant by “nice move,” because instead of throwing offers at the wall to see what stuck, I started making moves. Not always great ones, but I was able to recognize when a scene needed a move to be made, and was ready to provide one. I began to see improv through the eyes of a director and a content creator.
Viewpoints is a “technique of composition” created by Mary Overlie as a method of dance improvisation, then adapted for stage acting by Anne Bogart and Tina Landau, and interpreted for improvisation by David Razowsky. It breaks down time and space into nine tenets: Tempo, Duration, Kinesthetic Response, Repetition, Shape, Gesture, Architecture, Spatial Relationship, and Topography.
This may seem like a lot to pay attention to all at once, but the beauty of it is that they are already happening at all times, so even if you just want to try playing with one tenet at a time, the rest will follow.
As someone who’d always loved a practical approach, the idea of breaking down space-time seemed like a delightfully scientific method for improv. At the same time, the heightened awareness of my surroundings, the constancy of the tenets, and their malleability awakened something very spiritual in me as well.
If all I’m expected to do is define and use what’s already happening, I’ve eliminated the need to invent. I’ve eliminated the need to create funny, because the funny already exists and now I know how to simply reveal it to the audience.
One of my favourite things that Viewpoints gave me was the ability to outpace myself. With so many new things to react to, and so many new ways to react to them, I started reacting faster than I could think, and that got me into trouble. Lots of trouble. And holy shit was that fun. I no longer had to worry about “staying true” to a character or making the right move, because by the time I thought about it I was already making the move, which then further defined my character.
You know that high you get from having a great improv scene? I now had the tools to reproduce it and prolong it. Viewpoints is the science behind the state known as “flow.” It’s what’s generally known in the improv world as “having fun.” If you’ve ever been told by a teacher or coach to “have more fun” or “get out of your head,” this is exactly what they mean. Make moves before you’ve thought of them, and as long as you’re listening to yourself and reacting to everything your partner’s giving you, your character and scene will create themselves.
My newfound awareness on stage opened up a whole new world of possibilities. It made me realize the importance of taking classes. Suddenly I wasn’t taking classes to “get better,” which sounds like an exercise in humbling the ego. I was taking classes to add more tools to my tool belt. Nobody was right, nobody was wrong, everyone just had a different approach, and now I had an approach that worked for me, so I could take what I liked and forget the rest.
It also changed my approach to acting with a script. This isn’t surprising, as Viewpoints is already an established acting method. I stopped caring about finding “the character,” and started letting the words guide my choices. I started learning the words before rehearsals began, so I could spend my time in rehearsal experimenting beyond the script. “Beyond the script” meaning improvising everything else around the words, allowing myself time to try different moves and see what works best. (Believe me, your director will appreciate this as well.)
Viewpoints changed the way I play. The way I listen. The way I respond. It doesn’t replace other schools of improv, in fact it enhanced my ability to apply onstage what I’d previously learned. I already had tools, but now I was more proficient at using them. Viewpoints can work for you, and you can play with the exercises and philosophy for the next five years until it finally becomes a part of your being. Or you can forget the majority of it a month later because it’s too much to think about while you’re having fun. But if you’re lucky enough to find a class or workshop that’s accessible to you, I suggest you take it and find out. David Razowsky introduced me to a whole new religion that was, incidentally, based on science, and I’ve been living it ever since.
Oliver Georgiou is an actor, improviser, and comedian who takes himself way too seriously. He is the founder of SODA School Of Dramatic Acting where he produces SODA Theatre, SODA Underground, Hat Trick Comedy, and specialty improv classes, including an Intro to Viewpoints.