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.