MAGIC IF meets WHO WHERE WHAT – IMPROV 201
I have been reading a great book. “The Great Acting Teachers and Their Methods” by Richard Brestoff As I get more and more into teaching I want a refresher course for myself. I have been a working actor for over 20 years now – I know how to walk the walk – but wanted to make sure I still remember the talk.
Richard’s book is a time travelling trip into the great minds of acting through the ages. If weaves history and technique into one allegory that allows the reader to absorb. If you are a young (in your process) actor you might have some interesting AH HA moments. “That’s what she meant!” For me it was a great reminder of my training, the exact refresher course for which I was looking. And I love how Richard gets into the how and why the greats changed their views of acting. Too many just regurgitate technique. Many teachers don’t even truly understand the why behind the madness. Acting technique for too many has become like music theory. We can talk about what Bach did, but do we understand why – in order to achieve the musicality (the art) behind the notes. In “The Great Acting Teacher…” you get to go through 40-50 years of discovery for each genius in 30 minute of reading. Thank you Thespis. (Best Mirror Exercise ever!)
At the same time I wanted to bring more serious acting into Improv. How do I get my Improv students to find this? Go back to the basics…
I am trained – and with a decent amount of pro experience (Shakespeare, Broadway Musicals, Operan, and now TV/Commercials) – as an actor. I am big on process – research, self discovery. By the time I came to Improv I struggled at first – letting go so I can be in the moment without weeks of preparation. But I quickly chilled out. Years of creating great characters, classical technique and tons of movement training – dance, mime, martial arts, Alexander etc – allowed me to dive deep as a character actor. Even when I was being silly I was grounded in a reality. The characters ran deep. I attest this new discovery process – acting on a dime without weeks of prep – to my more recent success into the world of TV etc. But without the foundation in the classics consistency is tough.
Anyone that has ever taken an acting class has probably heard this term or a variation. Many folks that have just studied Improv comedy have not. Time to change that.
When you get a script, you are given lines, maybe a few stage direction, perhaps a short description of character, and that’s it. It is up to you as an actor – and together as a company with a director – to fill in the blanks.
I talk about Subtext & Inner monologue a lot, but I realized as I read Richard’s book, I never really described why and what all that was about.
For me – in context of acting – subtext and inner monologue are the same thing. Both are the first person thoughts of my characters. Subtext are the thoughts behind words I am speaking. Inner monologue are the thoughts while listening to others speak or discovering the world in silence (While not speaking myself).
But there was a key word I was leaving out – CIRCUMSTANCES.
When you get a script, the blanks we fill in are the circumstances WE create. Too many actors get a script and say – THIS SUCKS. But any great actor can make a bad script sing, by finding the circumstances to justify the most bizarre lines. How many could act or direct Mamet plays without some context of the Mamet rhythmic style?
Subtext & Inner Monologue ground us in the reality of our scenes.
MAGIC IF is on why we determine those choices. WHAT IF….. fill in the blanks. When rehearsing a play, we can change these WHAT IF choices at each rehearsal. We play with options throughout the process. Often we change these WHAT IFs backstage after opening night. Sometimes the IF that got us there today gets stale. We need some new choices to get us into the moment.
On set for a TV show, the director might ask us to play something with more anger. 90% of the time if you just play ANGRY it will be false. However, if you change the circumstances to be more dire, the anger will flow for real and feel real tot he audience as well.
In Improv we need to make a choice and live with it. Trust it. GO WITH IT!!!! As we get into our scenes, our partners may give you something that forces you to altar a choice. Until your choice is made public it it not given into the scene yet. However sometimes we abandon our choices too soon, instead of finding ways to JUSTIFY our choices, which can forward the scene wonderfully…
MAGIC IF – WHO
Before entering scenes, make a choice about WHO you are. We teach in Improv, the relationship is more important to the Improv side of things, but YOU have to make some big choices about YOUR character. Create some circumstances for your scene through your choices. Try this – something that works for me wonderfully in auditions as well…
WHAT IS YOUR CHARACTER’s JOB IN LIFE? PICK ONE
Are you a banker, lawyer, teacher, astronaut, journalist, doctor, carpenter, welder, plumber, actor, singer, musician, student, etc – as the scene progresses get more specific but for now give your self a quick launch pad.
WHAT IS SOMETHING THAT MAKES YOUR CHARACTER UNIQUE PHYSICALLY? PICK ONE
Do they wear a particular clothing item that changes how they walk or carry their weight.? (Over coast, vest, tight jeans, sweats, high heels, gloves, tie, hat etc) Give you character some costumes. In a play costumes can make a character. In Improv we can Pantomime and create this reality (Makes a huge difference in auditions too!) How do you deal with this clothing as you enter and progress though the scene.
Is there an injury or something else physically that changes how this character moves and deals with the world? (Broken bone, limp, hunch back, stiff neck (from a certain job maybe), walks with a turn out, pregnant, nervous tick, etc)
WHAT IS THE CHARACTER CARRYING? PICK ONE
Give your character props. A purse, briefcase, watch/time piece, cane, etc can help tell the story for your character. Have you seen “The Caine Mutiny” movie or play? Lieutenant Commander Philip Francis Queeg, when under stress, has two metal balls he juggles in the palm of his hand. This becomes a major plot device and of the best examples in theater history of how a prop makes/reveals the character. An actor, to play the scenes when the balls come out (in war and later in a trial) must dig deep into the history of this character. Where did they come from? When did he start using them as a coping method. Why is he in need to the point they are always there at the ready? We never really learn the history of the balls, but when they pop out at the trial, it is the thing that makes all realize this strict disciplinarian has some issues. (I can only imagine my younger students reading this and snickering LOL)
In Improv we need to make snap decisions. Make 3 quick choices about your character. As you step onto stage, become that character. Now fill your inner monologue and subtext with thoughts about these choices. As you make the big choice about RELATIONSHIP, you have a base. If your scene partner makes the big RELATIONSHIP choice, you may or may not have to slightly change your choices about character. But unless your partner makes a choice that outright contradicts your choices, make them work.
You enter a scene with the idea that you are a banker, with a pocket watch and a slight limp from an old football injury. Then, before you can speak, your scene partner leads with…
“Son, come eat your breakfast.”
A son can still be a banker. Now as you “YES And…” this offer and JUSTIFY your choices…
“Yes Mom, but can we keep it quiet, my wife and kids are still asleep. We drove all night to get here.”
You are still dressed as a banker in a suit, with his time piece and limp.
NOW We have three interesting bits of info for this story. Relationship, Location, and a hint as to where you recently came from…
OOPS I am getting ahead of myself….
MAGIC IF – WHERE
At this point we all now about WHERE, right? WHERE is the setting/location of a scene. But now lets expand where and discuss how WHERE choices determine circumstance.
Someone needs to make a big choice early in the scene. WHERE are you? Our characters and relationships change depending on the room we are in – kitchen, bathroom, den, office, classroom, gym, jail cell, etc. Or are we outside – at a park, on a boat, in the rain, on the courts (Basketball, tennis, etc)? What time is it? Is it dark? Is it bright? Is it gloomy? How hot/cold is it? Keep making choices about WHERE.
Once WHERE is established I want you to now make a split second choice about WHERE you just came from. The actor just entered the staging area from backstage or class seating area. Your character that has a real life and history of their own, just came from a real place.
When performing a scripted play, before entering a scene, I inner monologue all about where I am coming from… THE MOMENT BEFORE is a big part of WHERE in a play. It grounds us in our objective for a scene we are about to play.
In our mini scene starting above, we just woke up. We are exhausted. It is way too early. Only reason we are up is we heard mom in the kitchen. But we already showered and dressed – quietly as to not wake up your wife and kids. We came down the steps, dressed and ready for work in our suit, pocket watch and limp.
Regarding WHERE – what do you see, hear, smell, touch, taste?
There’s bacon. We smell that. Mom is there in the kitchen she has always been in since we were a baby. She has her favorite morning news radio on. We touch the counter, and snag a slice of bacon. Still hot but it tastes so great…
“Oh, it is so good to have you back home again.” Mom says.
NOW we can let our scene partner know about a few of our choices, justifying why you are dressed for work in your parents home after driving all night to get there.
“Thanks for having us. As soon as I am settled at this new job at the bank, we will get an apartment and be out of your hair.”
We now know where you are, where you have been, and quite a bit about who you both are… AND Living at home is not an option for your pride but you appreciate the help.
OOPS Getting ahead of myself again…
MAGIC IF WHAT
I do not discuss WHAT with a lot of my beginning classes. In Improv, just starting a scene and making simple choices about WHO & WHERE you are and playing those choices is so new for beginning performers.
Once you really start Improvising, WHAT becomes the key part of the scene. WHAT is the circumstances of the scene. WHAT is action. After making some BIG CHOICES about WHO and WHERE we need to play the WHAT.
In Improv too often we get caught up in what to say. Too many worry about being funny. Too many worry about saying the “right; thing.
Instead just play the ACTION of the scene. What are the circumstances? What is our objective? How do we achieve this objective. WHAT DO WE (our characters ) WANT?
“You can stay hear as long as you want. You never visit. I have not seen my grand kids in two years.”
OK – GAUNTLET THROWN
We are far beyond Mother and son in a kitchen now. Immediately think “WHY?” have we not seen each other in two years.
“Mom, you know how important my job was to me. I can’t believe I was downsized after giving up my life for that company.”
As we discover circumstances about the present we reveal circumstances about the past, which will help us together determine the future of the scene.
“We are living in different times. It’s not like your father, who worked at the same factory for 40 years before retiring, God rest his soul, leaving me with his pension and a solid plan. You do have life insurance, right son? You never know. You never know…”
“I’m sorry I have not been here since the funeral.”
OH – maybe it was dad passing that drove us to work ALL THE TIME. To avoid our own feelings. It was not just being a workaholic that kept us away form our childhood home.
“I am just happy to have you here now, even if its only because you lost your job and home.”
Boy mom really know how to simultaneously support and dig that knife in the back.
“THANKS MOM!” (breathe, she means well and we have been reminded many times how long she labored giving birth to us) “I could not have made this transition without you letting us stay hear. Looked every where in the world, yet the only job I could find is back here in Iowa.”
OK Step out of character. have you noticed….?
- We have been talking in the first person. I keep saying “WE” but really we say “I” in the scene of course. Our inner monologue and subtext is in the first person of the character we are currently living. You will hear me in class talking in first person as YOUR character as I help direct your decision making process. I babble aloud what you should be babbling to yourself via inner monologue/subtext.
- We never once said – hey there is the exit sign in the back of the theater. That audience member keeps fidgeting, distracting me. I hope I am good. I hope people will accept my work. I’M AWESOME! I SUCK! We did not think ANY OF THAT. We focused on the CIRCUMSTANCES of the scene. And when we do we do not have time for our own egos and/or insecurity. This is how we survive stage fears every day as working actors. We don’t get nervous because we are too busy making choices for our characters. And in Improv even more so… We need to make choices about WHO WHERE AND WHAT. It’s easy. Make a choice and accept it. Hear your scene partners’ choices and accept them. “YES And…” yourself too!
- We also never once worried about being funny. We never once said in our inner monologue “Now I need to say/do something funny.” We maybe have not yet had a laugh. Perhaps we have, because folks are expecting comedy and watching with that lens. Play the DRAMA!!! Go for real. The comedy will happen naturally. We are not here to tell jokes. We are here to create great characters and scenes. As you lose yourself in the scene, your audience will follow. You do not need to break the 4th wall and bring them in. TRUST your self. TRUST your partner. TRUST the audience. TRUST the process. LET GO…
I often say “LOSE YOURSELF IN THE SCENE!” To do this we continue to make big choices about the circumstances of our characters, ignoring the circumstances as ourselves on stage in a scene. Except for simple safety issues (Don’t walk off downstage falling into the pit or audience, or run into a lighting fixture), ignore the reality of the actor and focus on the past and present of this character. Every CHOICE becomes the launching point for discover and more CHOICES.
I started with Banker, Pocket Watch, Limp (We have not even dealt with that yet but our pantomime/actions have shown the audience the watch and limp)
MY scene partner gave us Mom/Son and Kitchen.
Together WE discovered I have lost my job and just moved home – hopefully temporarily, I have a new job in my home town, my dad is dead, and we are in Iowa.
If this were a real scene, that all probably took about 20 seconds. We have just created a reality for our scene that could become a 2-hour movie, play, novel, or perhaps even a sit com we hope runs 9 seasons (If only we all could land that Seinfeld gig).
But I guarantee if will be a very interesting scene for our show/class in this moment.
- Before entering the scene, make some quick choices about WHO & WHERE. Character, Relations ship, Where you are, Where you have been.
- In there first moments of the scene, together with your scene partner, make those choices known, making minor adjustments as needed to “YES! And…” each other.
- Make BIG CHOICES about the circumstances. GO BIG OR GO HOME even if playing a scene subtle. If stuck creating action. Continue to make choices that make the WHO & WHERE more and more specific. Discover and Share in the moment about who and where you are. As you and your scene partner make big choices you will inspire big choices in each other.
- If you find your mind wandering / thinking for YOUR reality (I’m hungry, I need to do my homework before math class, My mom is going to be so made…) MAKE A NEW CHOICE to focus you back into the moment.
- JOURNAL – now after every scene go to your journal and write down the BIG CHOICES about WHO, WHERE, WHAT that you made and made for you by your partner. WHY did you character do what they did? HOW did those choices effect the scene? Did the scene work? Why/Why not?
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