“B” is for “Bulletproof”

“To believe that our ideas are true and incontrovertible, that they represent the only path of truth, is to cut us off from change.”

Bernard Sahlins, Days and Nights at the Second City. A Memoir, with Notes on Staging Review Theatre. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2001. p.170-171


It’s interesting how alphabetizing concepts can frame them in certain ways. I view the habit of bulldozing as being closely connected to that of being Bulletproof. While the former often manifests itself as seeking control over the scene in a way that does not permit other players space for meaningful contributions, the latter seeks a similar control over the domain of your individual character. Bulletproof players tend to resist accepting any meaningful change or adjustment in their scenic role or function. They prefer to intellectualize choices rather than embrace them, with their characters almost standing outside of the scene looking in rather than joining the topsy-turvy abandon of the creative process. A bulletproof stance can also be indicative that a player has formulated choices (or punchlines) for several steps ahead and so is reluctant to shift gears.


Player A has donned the role of a supercilious store clerk at the register. Player B, in a panic, approaches the counter…

Player B: “Do you work here?”

Player A: (nonchalantly) “I’m standing behind this counter aren’t I?”

Player B: (distraught) “I can’t seem to find my daughter…”

Player A: “And you expect me to do something about it…?”

Player B: “Couldn’t you make some sort of announcement over the speaker system..?”

Player A: “My shift is over in the five minutes…”

Player B: “Do I need to talk to your manager?”

Player A: “Be my guest.”

Player B: (frustrated as both the character and player) “Can’t you see that I’m a nervous wreck? Aren’t you going to help me?”

Player A: (looking beyond them in the line) “Next.”

Signs Your’re Wearing Your Improv Armor

1.) You character resists change. Change is around nearly every corner in the world of improv: a technical or musical improviser might offer a shift in mood, weather or environment; an emcee or director might provide a new handle or recommend a different direction to explore; or a fellow improviser might pose an unanticipated idea or course of action to advance the story to new rich soil. Most would recognize these as important offers and appreciate the responsibility to accept these ideas and fold them into the scene. Bulletproof armor, however, can make you adept at acknowledging these new potentials while staying firmly in your previously self-determined lane. Similarly, when a potential tilt emerges, while others may allow the given circumstances to adjust accordingly, a bulletproof stance is more likely to result in a discussion of this choice rather than an embrace of its consequences. “Don’t worry about the rain, it’ll be gone in a moment. Anyway, back to that thing I was doing…”

2.) Your character repels endowments. We learn so much about our characters by how they interact and grow through the relationships they embody onstage. Often our scene partners will provide well intentioned gifts or endowments that add nuance and detail to our personas and backstories. Innate in these offers, once again, is an invitation to change or explore a hitherto undeveloped (or possibly unknown) facet of our characterization. If our bulletproof armor is fully equipped, this new information will undoubtedly challenge assumptions as to where the scene “should” be going. Rather than relish the opportunity to unlock a new potential of your character, you’re likely to double-down on the previously established qualities and norms. “Thanks for your concern, but it just turned out to be a headache. Anyway, back to that thing I wanted you to do…”

3.) Your character contests culpability. Any accusations or blame will quickly deflect off your bulletproof persona. If your character is charged with any behavior or revealed to have been at fault, rather than gut check and take on this powerful choice, it’s more likely to instigate a return attack or volley as fully accepting these offers will require a reconsideration of what the character is essentially about. To take on culpability also generally requires releasing some of your control or power in a scene, which can prove difficult once you’re all suited up. “Sure I broke the window. You broke all the other ones first. So anyway, back to that joke that I was setting up…”

4.) Your character stifles emotional responses. In my experience, improv armor is particularly adept at protecting the wearer from tapping into their emotional core as a performer. This attire adds distance between the occupant’s words and any earnest emotional connection to the scene and its contents. I would posit that in many cases this may have been how the armor was acquired in the first place if emotional expressions in general cause discomfort or have not formerly been valued or nurtured. To remain ensconced can become almost second nature and improv can (d)evolve into an almost exclusively intellectual affair. It’s “safer” to stay emotionally disconnected after all. “I see that you are getting upset, but can we please get back to me just talking about things…”

5.) Your character avoids inconsistencies. This is a more subtle trap and one that improvisers may fall into even if they generally don’t perform in a bulletproof fashion. Consistency is an interesting dynamic in improv. On the one hand, it’s helpful if characters uphold patterns, attitudes and behaviors that they have established. Games often explicitly require this sense of mirroring, repeating and heightening. On the other hand, in the “real” world, people are rarely consistent or “one thing”. Our improvisational creations can take on whole new levels as our characters become internally dynamic and perhaps even contradictory: the hero who has a fatal flaw, the heroine who has a dark secret, the picture-perfect lover who has done something immoral in pursuit of their love. I’ve come to use the term consistent inconsistency to describe this more kaleidoscopic approach to character where we explore how they are challenged and changed depending on their circumstances in ways that complicate or question their moral or essential core. A reluctance to take on this type of ambiguity will often result in work that rarely transcends the one-dimensional. “I may have made a mistake but that was so long ago now, so let me just play my character this way again please…”

Final Thought

While I have prefaced each of the observations above with “your character…,” the line between the persona and player is often thin when it comes to assuming a bulletproof stance. The stage tends to magnify and accentuate our own interpersonal tendencies, especially in improvisational modes, and in my experience this certainly holds true with this particular approach to playing. It is no small feat to let down our guard as people and players, but the deeper connections and journeys so central to improvisation will often seem to stand away from us at arm’s length until we let our fellow players truly affect us.

Related Entries: Ambiguity, Bulldozing, Commandment #5, Commandment #8 Antonyms: Change, Culpability Synonyms: Wimping

Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2021 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Game: Emotions

Published by improvdr

A professional improvisational practitioner with over thirty years experience devising, directing, performing, teaching and consulting on the craft of spontaneous (and scripted) theatre and performance.

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