Just say Yes. Or don’t. Part 2

Part 2: Character

OK, so last week I looked at the language of improvising, trying to define the terms needed to discuss the nuances of Accepting and Blocking. This section is on Character and how our character choices interact with how we receive offers.

So, what is Character? It’s not an actor performing with a different posture or accent or any of the tics or bits of business we may put on. Neither is it the history of the character, the background and such facts. These are Characterisation. Character, to paraphrase Robert McKee, is the inner nature of the being underneath the observable facts of Characterisation. Character then is layered and is revealed through the wants, actions and attitudes on stage. The most important thing to take from this is that one word, “Layered” because it reconciles an actor’s habitual position on character (that it is fixed) with the need to be adaptable in the moment. Is your character a coward? Fine, but maybe there’s a layer underneath that is incredibly protective of others, so that he can overcome his fear and act bravely. Is your character arrogant? Sure, but everyone has an insecurity buried somewhere. I am of the opinion that “my character wouldn’t have agreed” is almost never a valid defense.

Let’s return to how Character is revealed: through wants, actions and attitudes. Everything done on stage is either an offer or a reaction to an offer; the favored reaction being “Yes and…” or Expanding. Any want, action or attitude can have more than one possible characteristic at its root and that even this root can have layers behind it. Example: I want money (Greedy) to pay for my mother’s operation (Righteous) so I can prove I’m the better son (Competitive) so I take the action of robbing a bank (Immoral) by tunnelling in (Sneaky) and I do with an attitude of bravado (Confident) until the alarm goes off and I burst into tears (Cowardly). As offers are made on stage more of the Character is revealed by a performer who is willing accept offers that seem to contradict their initial proposal than those who stubbornly stick to their agenda.

How Character relates to Status is a primary concern of mine. First off, Status is the perceived importance of a character on stage relative to the other characters. So it too is a shifting quality, changing as the action reveals layers of Character. Challenge games of High Status and Low Status, in which 2 players compete to one up (or one down) each other not only teaches good lessons on the nature of Status, but also teaches mastery of Tilting. The most successful player isn’t the one making the offers that push him toward the goal, but the one accepting the offers with a twist to his own advantage. As good a lesson as these challenges are, they do not teach layered character, for that we must turn to Status Switch, a challenge in which players begin one high and one low and must, by the end of the scene, reverse this; a conclusion that is a great ending in any story.

The switch depends on the improvisers building the necessary conditions and actions to change the dynamic between them. They could be in any number of relationships (such as: adversarial, familial, romantic, or cooperative) and could shift in any number of ways but under the scene one performer is accepting power and another is passing it on. Their revelations of character are toward a shared goal of the challenge.

In a class game of Poet in the Field, I played the interviewer as condescending and mean to the poet I was interviewing, very much High Status. After the first part and about to go into the poem the game was frozen and Megan pointed out how hard I was making it for my partner by undermining everything she had to say. I had been Resisting and Negating her work. The scene continued rather than restart and the ‘poem’ was performed. This allowed my character to go to a different layer, being moved by the beauty of the words. My partner in this scene, Illana, then seized the opportunity create a very satisfying status reversal. That lesson has stuck with me.

This brings me to the final point on Character: Attitude. This is how a character receives offers; it goes across a spectrum of positive to negative. The most positive reception to an offer creates a high energy scene with a lot of forward momentum to advance the story. The most negative attitude slows the energy and increases the risk of the scene becoming stagnant. The important way to avoid this is to treat Attitude the same way Status is treated, shifting and complimentary. Two performers playing negative Attitudes in the scene are in danger of falling into an argument, their Resisting of each other’s offers slowing the scene to snail speed. A negative played against a positive though can avoid this easily; the positive and negative complement each other. Combine this with the variations of Status and you have an infinite number of combinations to create layered Characters with shifting Status and Attitude.

So that’s the end of Part 2. Next week I’ll finish up this article with Part 3, a look at how all these factors must be balanced to create compelling stories.

I have been a performer of TheatreSports since 2005 with ImproGuise (formerly Improvision) and owe a lot of my ideas and understanding to the members of the company, past and present, especially Megan Furniss. And of course to Keith Johnstone and the ITI.

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About Jon Keevy

Jon Keevy is a writer of stories and plays and also runs Alexander Bar's Upstairs Theatre.
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7 Responses to Just say Yes. Or don’t. Part 2

  1. megan says:

    Please make this compulsory reading for all TS players. My fave sentence – I am of the opinion that “my character wouldn’t have agreed” is almost never a valid defense.

  2. megan says:

    And also, I always like to think of characters as the real, live people who aren’t me, when I am improvising.

  3. Tandi says:

    I think your comments on status are well observed, I would like to add though that being ‘condescending and mean’ is what students and actors perceive as the only way to be ‘high status’ when in fact you can be helpful and nice and still be high status, often we assume that all high status people are mean to us, when in fact this is not the case. In reference to the section on status challenges I think it is important to reiterate what Keith Johnstone says about these..”Status challenges tend to be disappointing because players milk it as a way to be funny..” and “Ideally, status should permeate all scenes, a good ” situation’ being one that makes the status very clear(and perhaps reverses it), but unless the players are experts, challenges to status transactions create inferior work” – Keith Johnstone.

    • jonkeevy says:

      Yes, I think it’s clear that the High Status wasn’t the problem, but how it was played by resisting and negating offers from the other performer. Perhaps I should follow this series with something on Status. As for Keith Johnstone’s words on status challenges, I agree but I think they’re invaluable as learning exercises, and I think the statement also applies to Tilting in general. As with all things, moderation is the key.

  4. Lisa says:

    Question on this, Jon (and other improvisors): when you’re improvising, to what degree are you internally “sidecoaching” yourself with these principles – ie analysing your character’s status, attitudes, needs, wants actions? How do you prevent the analysis from freezing you up onstage?

    • jonkeevy says:

      I think this question can only be answered on an individual basis. For me it’s been a long learning curve. I was very conscious early on about being a supporting player so that I could have a moment to think about status before entering, becoming more experienced meant not needing to think about it so much because I could see the signs easily – it had become 2nd nature. That doesn’t mean I don’t make many mistakes – now I just know when I do and I can do something about them. At the risk of rambling – I don’t find that thinking about the scene freezes me up often because I’ve found ways to make thinking space. For instance I find something as simple as reinforcing the environment (packing away the mop, opening a window) let’s you listen, think and stay in the scene. Or a reason to get off stage so you can come back later.

      I also think that too much analysis is bad on stage – I wanted this article to be about how sticking to the principle of Acceptance is actually good for character, and highlight the danger zones of attitude. If you take anything from these thoughts, take this: find the complement to your acting partner, the high to the low, the positive to the negative – you don’t need to be thinking too hard if you just keep that in mind.

      Anyone else care to pitch in?

  5. Pingback: Second submission « CTLive1.0Festival

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