“…if no one changes the play it will come to the same end as before.”Augusto Boal, Games for Actors and Non-actors. Trans. Adrian Jackson. London: Routledge, 1992. p.20
A favorite definition of theatre is that it is primarily a study of change and the ways that characters struggle to adapt (generally comedies) or fail miserably to do so at all or until it’s too late (generally tragedies). This notion of Change is central to many fundamental improv terms and strategies. Embracing and prioritizing change can be seen in philosophies such as breaking routines and tilts; the perils of resisting change noted in pitfalls such as being bulletproof or commenting.
As we balance the plethora of sometimes seemingly competing improvisational ideals, it can become difficult to know when or how to change without upending established games or energies that are serving our scene work well. Changes in the story or game are addressed elsewhere, but here are some character-centric ideas that can promote more well-rounded and dynamic performances:
A Parent (Player A) and adult child (Player B) are engaging in a driving lesson. It’s several minutes into the scene, and Player B has been slowly but steadily improving in confidence and results.
Player A: “You’re really getting the hang of this!”
Player B: “Well, I’ve certainly had a good teacher…”
Player A: “I don’t think you’re going to need my help much longer…”
A change awaits… to be continued below.
Changing Up Your Characters
1.) Change the inherent power dynamic or status. If you are exploring a relationship with a clear power dynamic that has served you well thus far, consider inverting or complicating this component of your character. In the example above, the child is clearly the lower status character as they are in the role of student. Moving Player A into the higher status position will unlock some new energies and potentials. This can prove particularly effective if the scene has heretofore assumed a largely teaching or transactional quality.
Player A: “Dad, we need to talk about your vision. I don’t think it’s safe for you to drive any more…”
2.) Change your point of view on someone or something. When your character learns something about themselves or the world that they occupy you are also opening the door to change, especially if this new knowledge is emotionally impactful or deepens the relationship we are currently observing. This will also tend to make this particularly scenic moment more critical and dynamic rather than just another “driving lesson” or “conversation at work” or “chat on a park bench.”
Player A: “Mom, I really had second thoughts about letting you back into my life, but this has been really nice…”
3.) Change your physicality, staging or tempo. If you’re inclined to maintain the central dynamic as it is working well or enabling an effective game, explore a change in your character’s physicality or tempo instead. If the driving lesson has been smooth sailing thus far, creating new obstacles or opportunities that will encourage a different use of the space can add another needed level to the scene. It could be as simple as literally turning the angle of the car, changing who’s driving, or turning the driving lesson into a full fledged car chase in pursuit of a carjacker with a child trapped in the back seat.
Player A: “Oops, I must have taken a wrong turn onto this unsealed road; hang on, old man, it’s about to get bumpy…”
4.) Change your stakes or urgency. You can also change up a relationship or character energy by tinkering with the given circumstances or the consequences of the current activity. A scene that appeared to just be a calm lesson now assumes more import and dynamism as we understand the “why” of the scene more fully. If you have a tendency to assume a deadpan or even keel stance in your character work this can be a helpful addition to your tool belt as it will also encourage scenes that have a more driving energy (pun intended).
Player A: “Mum, I’m really regretting telling Amazon Prime that I already had my driver’s license. I don’t think I’m going to be able to do this…”
5.) Change your emotional truth. Embracing a dynamic shift in your emotional center as a character is yet another helpful tactic that can elevate a scene to a new level. If the tone of the scene has been joyful or playful, introducing a touch of regret or suspicion will invite new content and details. Or, if you often find yourself stuck in argumentative dynamics, choosing to quickly shift gears (and then earning this shift) can prove highly effective.
Player A: (holding back tears) “Dad, this is the most time we’ve ever spent together. I don’t think I want these lessons to stop…”
These approaches are just a handful of ways to encourage more flexibility and range in our character and scene work. At the top of a scene or larger performance such a change can facilitate moving from the balance to the ignition of the piece. Within the body of a dramatic arc, it can heighten the stakes, complicate the rising action, or add nuance and depth to your characters. As a scene approaches an end, a dynamic shift can herald the final moments of your story and the button. While Boal is writing of the Theatre of the Oppressed in the quote above, a form that often literally invites its audience to break the fourth wall and intervene with the unfolding stories, the advice holds true to most of our work in the theatre: “if no one changes the play it will come to the same end as before.”
Connected Game: Status Swap