It’s the penultimate commandment entry as I re-examine the foundational Theatresports guidelines that help me take my first steps as a high school improviser in New Zealand during the 1980’s.
The ninth installment declares:
Those who try to be clever are not, while those who are clever, do not try
I view this commandment as a reminder and a charge to just be yourself. Bring your own idiosyncrasies and perspectives to the stage and think less about trying to be clever or funny. I touch on this concept a little in the fourth commandment that focuses on the habit of gagging or making jokes on the improv stage in ways that typically don’t best serve the action or story. If your primary concern is trying to make the audience laugh, you are likely your own worst enemy in reaching success. When I’m in the audience, there are few energies that make me less inclined to laughter than this perceived desperation, and I do not think I am alone in this regard.
I have a theory that there are two ways we can approach our work as actors in terms of our relationship to the theatrical mask of performance. We can either wear this mask of characterization to hide ourselves as the improviser, escaping our own experiences and feelings by assuming those of another. Or, we can use the theatre as an opportunity to remove the mask that society and convention has placed upon us, and spend our stage time revealing and exploring different facets of ourselves. Clearly, both approaches have merit and a place in our craft. The first, in particular, can be an important method of “Atticus Finch-ing” by placing ourselves in the shoes of others. In terms of the current commandment in question, however, I would offer that the second method of removing our masks might be a fruitful antidote to ill-advisedly elevating cleverness or the “funny” above all else.
Bringing More of Yourself to the Stage
1.) Don’t wear your character “too lightly”. If you’re assuming a character purely as a comedic device or prop, it will generally show. Even in a brief short-form scene, we can tend to a character’s backstory and seek a portrayal based in our own experiences, fears or dreams. A tell-tale sign that you may be falling into this trap is if you are overly aware of the audience or have a tendency to break the “fourth wall” and look into the auditorium for approval.
2.) Lean into a personal passion or experience. We’re more likely to create interesting and revealing characters if we risk bringing facets of ourselves and our lived experiences to the stage. A comedic frame may not be the most welcoming venue for our heavier stories and encounters, but connecting to different roles you play in the real world (parent, friend, child, student, co-worker, lover, immigrant, sibling…) will open up a different potential for discovery and connections. You’ll also have a better likelihood of earning laughs played in this more personal territory than frantically grabbing for them in characters and scenarios that are completely alien to you.
3.) Trust that your honest reaction is enough. You’ve probably had that moment on the stage when the audience has erupted into laughter, perhaps unexpectedly, when you just said something that was “you” in that moment. Don’t undervalue the joy garnered from moments of honest recognition. I’ve worked with a lot of improvisers who were initially dissuaded from exploring the field as they didn’t think of themselves as “funny,” and yet almost without exception when they were just being honest they routinely crafted incredibly funny moments and situations.
4.) Know what’s happening in the world. Let’s face it, if we don’t know much, we can’t bring much to our work. You have to know the news, current affairs, pop culture, societal trends and the like in order to access this material knowingly on stage. This is perhaps the biggest trap for those of us who come to improv from a theatrical or performance background as the arts can tend to exclusively consume our time and resources. But the more we grow and become multi-faceted and informed, the more we can access in our work. Know more so you can bring more.
The Bigger Picture
Take the risk of being yourself. The improv world doesn’t have another you yet, so you’re needed.
Connected Game: Passion Statements