“…each actor must be directed to live the desire of their character intensely, rather than merely exhibiting that desire on the stage. As long as each character has an intense desire, as long as he or she intensely desires something – or does not desire something, which is also a form of desire, a negative desire – these desires will inevitably enter into conflict and from this conflict will spring the dramatic action. Theatre is conflict, not the mere exhibition of states of mind.”Augusto Boal, The Rainbow of Desire. Trans. Adrian Jackson. London: Routledge, 1995. p.5
Character serves as one of the four pillars of CROW (the others being Relationship, Objective and Where) and is equivalent to the first “W” or who in WWW if you’re more familiar with that acronym (the other two W’s standing for What and Where). Both of these systems remind us to bring these important details to our scenes as quickly and dynamically as we’re able, as in doing so we’re more likely to have a strong and clear foundation on which to build a journey. Each of these elements will also evolve as the scene emerges, unlocking new discoveries and potentials, but if players do not share a basic common understanding initially, it’s more likely that the scene will stumble or become needlessly contradictory.
I love basing both short- and long-form characters on my own experiences, foibles and qualities as a person and if you were to ask me for one piece of advice when it comes to character it would be not to overlook the thousands of characters that you innately bring to the stage just by elevating one facet of yourself. (Go here if you want to read a little more of that philosophy.) That being said, there is also great fun and growth to be had in deliberately moving away from our personal cores and donning roles that might not at first glance seem to share our assumptions and lenses. Long-form and improv traditions in the healing arts are probably more likely venues to truly build complexity and empathy with a wider range of personae, but we can certainly take this approach to much of our short-form as well.
Digging Deeper Into Character
Relationship is a topic for another day so here I am exploring facets of character that start and emanate from the individual rather than that magical improvisational zone that exists between us as players. If you don’t typically consider one or more of these dynamics in your work, giving some attention to these elements of characterization can quickly reintroduce the potential for surprise and discovery.
1.) Change your tempo. Our character work can start to feel homogeneous if we bring the same rhythms to all our scenes. If you tend towards being a fast talker, slow down or change up your speech patterns: if you tend to remain stationary or assume a more measured physical tempo, explore characters that are more dynamic or bring a sense of urgency to their staging. Laban movement qualities – such as glide, dab, and press – can further add new energies to your repertoire if you’re looking for ways to alter your “typical” patterns. This can feel a little technical or artificial initially, especially when you truly step outside your previous comfort zones, so be sure to give attention to nuance and the “why.” When we justify these behaviors through the lens of character they will often take on greater detail and feel more grounded: this character tends to float through life as they are carefree and don’t take on the stresses of their friends and families; this character exhibits a wringing energy as they are constantly in turmoil with both their own inner demons and the pressures of their environment…
2.) Change your age. We can have a tendency to predominantly breathe life into characters that are approximately our age (or, perhaps, are essentially “ageless” and therefore by default are approximately our age). It’s important to keep in mind that age is only one facet of a person’s identity and that there are, for example, a multitude of different octogenarians in the world that may range from highly fit and physically active to more cautious or sedentary – to name just one possible metric. Assuming different ages can encourage us to also explore characters who are in different phases of their lives on the stage as well which can be really helpful if you tend to fall into premises from similar angles again and again. A first date scene that may have been typically been played by two “twenty-somethings” will feel differently if you add a few decades to one or both of the characters; a first day of college will hold different meanings and possibilities for a middle-aged character restarting a career or a retiree looking for life enrichment and community than a more “typical” and expected teenager.
3.) Change your occupation. Without necessarily placing your occupation front and center, committing to a specific job or type of work as a scene begins is another way to instantly spark your imagination and craft some backstory. Do you spend your days primarily working behind a desk in an office, or outside at a work site? Does your job come with social standing and mobility, or are you stuck in a daily grind? Does the work leave “evidence” on your body and the way that you move or interact with others, or are the scars more psychological? Is it a profession that defines you or that is merely one small part of your greater story? When we assume occupations that we may only know tangentially or from limited exposure through the media, it becomes important again to not settle at a surface understanding but, rather, use it as a means to consider how another type of experience might influence a character in the here and now. Even if this choice is never actively voiced or referenced within the resulting scene, it can add surprisingly levels, reactions and motivations (or frankly, just add a new humorous lens in a “fish out of water” sense).
4.) Change your socioeconomic reality. I’ve used Boal above to situate this entry; I particularly love his work in this area and often deploy exercises from his toolbox in my classroom to reinforce and complicate an understanding that social and economic forces can have a huge influence on what options characters may have at their ready disposal when facing a crisis or challenge. If we always assume our own socioeconomic reality we are likely missing out on interesting opportunities to add specifics to our scene work and empathy to our tool belts. Losing a job, finding a $100 note, or facing a late mortgage payment can take on radically different tones and importance depending on where our characters are on this financial and privilege spectrum.
5.) Change your costume. There are a wide array of approaches to costumes in improv from more sumptuous and “rich” traditions in which characters appear in fully tailored and personal pieces, to more “poor” traditions where costumes, if used at all, are constructed in the moment from found objects or are just imagined by the characters and audience alike. When working in this latter modality, unhindered by what might fit you on the rack backstage, there is truly no limit to what specific costume pieces we can bring to the stage through physicality, scene painting and endowments. Entering a convenience store at the top of a scene changes substantially if we have donned an imaginary tuxedo, tutu or chicken costume. Such a choice may or may not become explicitly relevant to the immediate action, but it is, at the very least, likely to invite new movement qualities or characterization traits.
Some schools of improv actively encourage exploring different genders and sexes, which I think is certainly of value as well when done with care and empathy and not merely as a fast track towards a joke or gag. Exploring different ethnicities, races or countries of origin is much more fraught, problematic and (in my humble opinion) generally inadvisable especially if you are in s short-form modality or moving from a majority or privileged position as a player into a minority or marginalized population. There is one short-form game that my colleagues know I won’t play for this reason, Dialect Rollercoaster (or, as I like to call it, Stereotype Cavalcade) as it invariably becomes a group of privileged improvisers doing quick hits and bits without any potential of depth or nuance. I think dialect work on the improv stage, in general, needs some careful consideration as well for the same reason. Host companies might have preferences or guidance on these more complex issues; if in doubt, the lenses above offer ample avenues to explore that are less likely to cause offense or ill will.
Connected Game: Character Walk