In impro we’re taught that character and scene work is important.
I think that most people think about this from the point of view of the audience, what it does for the show, how it helps propel a story line, or makes things funny. There is another way to look at it.
Being funny is hard work. Getting on stage for an show requires concentration, and when you’re also steering a story and trying to invent funny, that’s a lot of brain work. A show is brain work on demand; It’s a fixed point in time, for a fixed period in which you have to be “On”. It’s like taking an exam or test. Doesn’t matter that your dolphin just got stuck in a wind turbine, or that your mother found your gynecology report (“but how did you catch it?”), good day or bad – it is time to perform.
Lets also note that being funny is hard. Even the best comedians have to work at it. They look like they strolled up there, and just made it up on the spot, but they didn’t. The best raconteurs have years of experience, story lines they have played out time and time before, and pre-canned material hidden up there sleeve. There is repetition and honing of jokes. Chris Rock may do two specials year, but even that’s 6 months of planning for a couple of hours of material. To believe as improvisors that we can come up with an hour show based on our shear comic genius alone is unrealistic.
Improvised Comedy based on brainy wit alone is not enough. We need to make it easier on ourselves. On stage we need to give our cerebral humour space to think, and we need to proof ourselves against hangovers and bad days. We need fallbacks and shortcuts, we need to find any advantage we can. In comes character.
Forgetting the humour potential of being a good character, pretending to be someone is very low effort. It’s easy and it takes very little brain power. That’s mainly because we are someone all the time. We don’t think about being ourselves, we just are. We’re ourselves when we’re angry or sad. We react to things all the time, we emote all the time. We just do. It just is. If you don’t you’re what’s called “dead”. When I’m thirsty I pick up a drink. When I’m horny I make a face that’s concerning to my co-workers. When I see my shoelace is untied I bend down and untie it (albeit very slowly of late).
If you’re onstage and can throw a character over yourself, and pretend to be that person. It’s very low effort, and it brings you the space and time you need to think.
There are some rules here:
You’re doing the character to free up your intellect. It has to be a minimally resource intensive activity. Think how much effort you put into sitting on a bus being vacant, that’s how much effort we’re looking for. 9am alone on autopilot making your what ever breakfast level of attention. It’s pointless if you’re thinking about how the character will do things. Here are things that you might think about that will NOT help:
What will I do next?: People on autopilot don’t think that, they live in the moment. I’m writing this, and later I’ll probably check my phone. When I sneeze I hunt for tissues, and when decide to get a drink I sort of just do it. I might make some porridge in a bit, but I can honestly say when I do it I won’t pre-plan the whole thing. I’ll just open the door and go to the kitchen etc. So don’t plan on stage. Do. This is made much easier if you can feel (not think) the characters motivations and act on them.What are those motivations – your call. What emotional state are they in, your call. The only caviate is pick them at the start and don’t change them, mostly because it’ll be confusing to the audience, but B), who has the energy to keep rethinking. Make a choice stick to it.
Where is everything?: It’s much easier if you decide what shape you’re environment is. Now – you’re probably thinking, I don’t have time to plot our a whole world, I’m on stage. The truth is that you do. For one thing, if you’re doing something in this world, the audience will find it interesting (try it, they will, go round your space making shit up by doing stuff). For seconds, you’re a god, If you want the kitchen to be a double wide granite counter with six massive potato mashing machines driven by skunks in wheels – it is (don’t forget to notify you’re co-performers). Just be decisive and make it that way. See it in your minds eye, play lets pretend and be there.
React: If in the next 10 minutes a minotaur opens the door and flashes at me, I will react. I won’t be together when it happens. I will probably kack my pants, and I might scream. I won’t continue writing this post. I won’t instantly find a sword, or say thank “god I brought spare under pants”. I will need to get my shit together and then I will react on instinct, not with witty one liners (“three horns!”, or a witty one liner). Be… damnit. Be the character. Don’t freeze by intellectually thinking “how can I make this into a funny moment”. Emotionally react. Give your mind space. Harvest more material to work with. Maybe the situation is enough. If nothing else you’ll have completely committed to what ever huge offer has come your way. There is no better way to support a fellow performer than doing that.
Is this right?: This old sock. For a skill that has no rules, and where everything is correct, there’s a lot of rules in impro. Go back to the god principal. Bring into existence what ever you want. But consider this. The world you create needs to hang together. If it doesn’t it will be hard to be in. If it’s hard to be in, you’ll have to start expending mental energy; how do I cope with a world where 2 minutes ago I was a captain on a ship, but now I’m in a penguin in the desert. How do I function within that? The answer is that you justify. The ship hit the Bermuda triangle and you where transported, or you were always a Penguin, but you have a very vivid fantasy life. Those kinds of justifications are core to making a funny situation – they validate strangeness that you can then live off and make comedy with. But the more crazy the change the harder the justification. Going back on what is already established is one of the hardest ones to deal with, which is why blocking is such a problem (That chair was a duck 10 seconds, how! But we fed it bread and everything!). Johnstone’s book (can’t remember which one) talked about circles of possibility. The badly remembered quote that stuck with me was “if you’re going to have a supermarket in an enchanted forest, it better be staffed by elves”. Why – cause that’s easier.
Normal is easy. If what you’re doing is normal to your character (ergo low effort) then do it. Just make sure that you explain (in impro speak) to your co performers why it is (if they have that mystified look on their faces). Don’t think about what is right. Normal people don’t function like that. When I make the porridge, I use a spoon, I wash my bowl and put the stuff in a microwave and sit down, and wipe my mouth and start to wash up. All without permission. If I am a psychopath I kill the person, and clean their skin, and cut it off and start to sew the flesh bikini. If I live in the trenches, I clean my gun, and flinch when the bombs fall, and check the lines and dig a toilet pit blah blah. Just do.
Special note on this one, that being self conscious is the act of questioning if your behaviour is correct. In that case in a social situation. If your character is self conscious then do that. If they are not, don’t. You have the permission of the stage to do what ever. If you let your underlying emotions seep through into your on stage characters emotions they will produce a mixed up character. Giving yourself permission to be, is the essence of success. That’s a hump to get over, and if I think of a way to teach that I’ll be a billionaire. Let the situation of being on stage fall away. Forget about the audience and play. Best way i know to do that is to stop attending to the intellectual side of the problem, the “Think of a funny side” and again – just be a character. You have to trust that when you neglect the audience and attend to the made up world, the audience will stay with you, and that the process will work. It’s like trusting the scuba gear and attending to the swimming and the fishes, rather than constantly obsessing about the equipment and the potential for death 40 meters under the sea.
So there – be a character to free you up. To allow yourself to be on auto pilot. It will do 70% of the work for you. You make the world, relationships, perform tasks, have emotions, have desires, to help make it easy to submerge into a character. To reduce the effort, not as additional things you have to do for the audiences benefit. The character will make the decisions and drive things forward, and then your intellect can sit somewhere at the back of your mind, take its time, and simply nudge you in good directions.