In the first exercise we stood in the back of the stage. The teacher would call out a name and you had to go out there and start talking immediately. No waiting until you’re somewhere, just start going, no thinking. The point was that you have to work out who you are as you’re talking and walking out there. Whatever you happen to say, do, any noise you make, it has to become the character — in fact it drives who the character is. The scene lasts only 30 seconds; you’re just trying to arrive at the meat of the character as fast as possible.
As another exercise to start thinking about characters, we started in a circle. We remembered who was to our left and right. Then, back on stage, the teacher would say “imitate the person to your left.” In all scenes you do, you have to imitate that (real life) person. Even though we don’t know each other, still mimic them. Then the person to your right. Of course you’re also watching as people imitate you.
Then think about how other person imitated you. What did they stress? Now take those attributes and multiply them by 10. Now do scenes as “exaggerated yourself.”
The point of all this? If you’re stuck needing a character, imitate someone you know. Or just exaggerate something you are naturally. These are all places to get ideas from.
Then we did another warm-up exercise called “I am a Tree.” Someone stands in the middle of the circle, puts out arms like branches, and says “I am a tree.” Then you think of something relating to that, say you’re that thing, and get into position. So “I am a left” and go over to a branch. “I am the buried dead body” and lay down next to it. “I am a squirrel.” Once you have 3-4 things, the first person says “I’ll take everything but the dead body.” Then everyone except the named object leaves the center and rejoins the circle. The remaining person repeat who he is (“I am a buried dead body”) and you continue.
The next exercise was an interesting exploration of what it means to build a character. First everyone generated a multi-syllabic word. (We did that with a word-association game in a circle.) Mine was “fast cars,” another was “rhinoplasty.” Then each of us took turns doing the following. One person gets up on stage alone and starts repeating the phrase. Over and over. Say it different ways. Break it up, misspeak it, emphasize different parts of it. Like when you’re a kid and you say a word so much it loses meaning. Then some syllable will stand out as being the “most prominent.” Focus on that one. Play a little more until you’ve got some way of saying it that you just like. Then keep repeating it exactly that way, over and over, meaning lost.
Here’s where the character comes in. Who would say the word like that? Who would say everything like that? Why? Where does this person come from? What’s this person’s name? Gender? What does this person do for a living? You don’t get too long to think about it — because then people start asking you exactly these questions and you start answering them. How old are you? What do you do for fun? What do you think about the upcoming election? You have to think of it, but you have in your mind who this person is. It’s surprisingly easy to come up with fairly detailed answers.
And that’s the point. If you can flesh out a character, you know how he will react to any situation. What he thinks about it. What drives him to do things. Of course on the improv stage you don’t get this much time to work it out, but this is what you’re striving for.
The hardest thing we did was “10 Characters in 60 Seconds.” One person on stage, teacher with the timer. Ready, set, go! Build the entire character in 6 seconds, then the teacher yells “switch” and off to the next. The first few aren’t hard because you’re used to a few characters, but soon you run out of ideas. The time-pressure is on and with just 6 seconds you have no time to think — you just have to start talking.
The trick is to just do something. Make a noise — any noise. A shriek can turn into a scared camper. A stomp can turn into an angry teen. A weird hand motion can turn into a guy with Tourette’s hailing a cab. Falling to your knees can be someone proposing. Just do anything (“put a stake in the ground”) and start rolling with it.
Even knowing the trick, this is really really hard.
The final character exercise was a two-person scene where each person is given three random character traits, but the trick is you cannot ever refer to these traits in the scene. So you’re carrying them with you, using them to affect your world view, your actions, etc., but you cannot use them for topics of conversation or even mention them in passing.
The point here is two-fold. First, this is a lot like real life interactions. People have various experiences in their history which has helped shape how they interact and what they do and think. But they don’t bring everything up in conversation! Besides just emphasizing that, the second point is that in improv you can give yourself these hidden attributes. When you walk on stage you can already have little things in your past. You don’t ever have to talk about it — you don’t want to force the scene — you can just use it to help shape and understand your character. Don’t bring up how your character was traumatized by snakes as a kid, just be traumatized by something, or approach everything gingerly because you have been traumatized.
Once again, all is easier said than done. It’s hard to come up with “random” yet coherent things.
Finally we got some more tips on 3-person scenes. One was that you can think about them as 3 2-person scenes, each character having a certain and different relationship to the others. The example was your grandparents. They have a certain relationship to each other much different than the one with you. And you have a slightly different relationship with each of them — it’s not automatically the same for both just because they’re both “grandparents.”
Our next class is at the Hideout, and after class there are two 30-minute shows upstairs. It will be really interesting to see pro improv again after having this behind-the-scenes look. (Oh, I guess that was a pun)