“Brechtian breaks are what make improv fun and exciting, because they remind us of the unrehearsed, instantaneous creativity of the performance and of the distance between the actor and the fictional character.”Ryan McKittrick, “Audience Becomes Spark For Boston Creem.” The Boston Globe 22 Aug. 2001: C7.
Corpsing, a concept closely related to commenting, refers to the accident (or tradition) of stepping outside of your character and undermining the scenic reality – often in the form of laughing as the player – in reaction to what is unfolding on stage. This is a newer term in my own improv lexicon: in the scripted tradition it would be synonymous with “breaking.” I believe the phrase deliberately plays upon the most extreme scenario imaginable which would be to laugh while reclined as a supposedly dead body or corpse, hence exploding any sense of theatrical realism. Some forms and genres deliberately play with this dynamic, such as the The Carol Burnett Show, Saturday Night Live or more presentational styles of performance such as pantomime or some interactive children’s theatre where players happily step in and out of their dramatic personae as it suits. This dance between the theatrical and real world can certainly cause delight as we watch the performers struggling to maintain their composure in the face of increasing mayhem, and as McKittrick observes above, such breaches can also have a Brechtian air, playfully reminding those in attendance of the impossible feat of creation that is unfolding before their very eyes. Companies in both the scripted and unscripted tradition can therefore deploy this tool in order to add an element of whimsy and irreverence to the performance event.
While I understand why many see a value in this performance technique, I will confess that in general I am not a fan nor advocate. This likely reflects my preferred style of play and the more theatrically ornate worlds that I strive to build. Encouraging corpsing in these contexts will typically degrade the work of your teammates in ways that may cause unwarranted struggles to set the ship aright. That being said, I am also aware that this is, in fact, a tool that I have perhaps unwittingly sharpened in my own improv toolbelt, and that finds its way into my work (even if I’ve only more recently discovered what to call it!). Short-form modes, in particular, tend to look more favorably on these slips as the improv constructions are more fleeting by design and subsequently the stakes are much lower if any one scene wobbles off target. So while I am not entirely in favor of this tactic, I acknowledge that it has a time and place and that its effectiveness as a tool is largely dependent on the frame in which you are playing.
A detective, Player A, stands over the body of a recently suffocated victim.
Player A: “After my close examination, it is clear to me that the butler was suffocated in the pantry with this intricately embroidered pillow.”
The murdered body laughs….
Keeping Life in Your Corpsing
To reiterate, I am not advocating shoehorning corpsing into all your improv, but if you find the mask of your character crumbling, here are some thoughts on ways to make corpsing additive rather than destructive, especially in modalities or games where its presence isn’t clearly sought or elevated.
1.) Keep it real. In my opinion, unless you’re working in a broad or highly interactive form where the conceit of character is fluid and lightly worn, deliberately corpsing (or laughing at your own choices or discomfort) is a hard sell. Audiences can typically smell insincerity or manipulation a mile (or kilometer) away: if you’re feigning a “break” for comedic effect, you could well end up undercutting your own scene. Some improvisers have such an innate or polished charm that they can execute such a metatheatrical moment with finesse, but I fear that few of us are truly proficient at an effortlessly expert execution. Instead, attempted corpsing tends to feel amateurish or pandering – “I’m sooo funny I keep cracking myself up!” – or merely sabotages the emerging action through our misplaced efforts.
2.) Fight the good fight. Instead of seeking these moments of breaking, consider that the witnessed fight not to corpse and break character is half the joy for the audience and players alike. If we play hard as improvisers, perhaps skating on a razor’s edge of losing our cool, when corpsing inadvertently occurs it does so more organically. It is not unforeseeable that as the improv stage is the cradle of surprise something might unexpectedly and utterly tickle our funny bone. Watching a player joyfully fight to maintain composure in such circumstances can serve as a riveting source of entertainment. However, over-playing such moments can quickly gild the lily thereby destroying the very thing that was providing joy. Frankly, fighting to regain the character may, in fact, heighten a corpsing moment in spite of your best efforts; but, again, this will generally appear more honest and play as such. The biggest audience laughs and reactions rarely come from the moments when we look (or beg) for them.
3.) A little goes a long way. Corpsing is rarely a substitute for good story telling and construction, and if you’re building your improv castles from this quixotic sand, you are likely limiting your own chances of reaching any real heights. Yes, our work should be infused and powered by joyfulness – there are few things that I find more appealing as an audience member. Handled clumsily, however, corpsing can place the joy of the performer above that of the audience, especially if it appears (or has in earnest become) self indulgent. If you consider yourself a novice or emerging improviser, I would caution against making this a go-to choice as it will likely hamper your growth in other areas. At the buffet line of improv, I would liken corpsing to the parsley: a potentially welcome embellishment that few would consider a main course (unless you’re a big fan of tabbouli!)
4.) Earn it. Underlying all of my observations above is the belief that successful corpsing needs to be earned. As a performer, you need to have developed a strong rapport and connection with the audience (and your teammates) if such a moment is likely to land well. Corpsing tends to flourish when it serves ultimately as a function of your fight to retain character, or as an extension of your engaging and relatable performer persona. Be wary of striving to replicate others’ success in this area especially in unnuanced or mechanical ways. I have rarely seen corpsing work well when it becomes the only thing of value in a scene or monotonously present. More often it weakens the narrative arc, thwarts your scene partner, and results in tepid and uncomfortable laughter from a needlessly generous audience.
If you’re interested in developing the skill of corpsing you are probably better served pursuing its opposite; that is, actively striving to stay in the moment at all costs and allowing moments of rupture to occur as they will. If you’re working in a venue where corpsing is part of the culture, I’d still caution that it can easily become overused, poorly executed, or a mark of desperation. Yes, it can certainly add charm and whimsy, but also know that this might be coming with a cost, especially if you’re hoping to craft a multi-dimensional performance event.
Connected Game: Laugh and Go