“…the clown is happy to appear stupid. He doesn’t mind. He is not afraid of making a fool of himself. He is vulnerable, and happy to be so. His face is a disarming icon of happy stupidity.”Anthony Frost and Ralph Yarrow, Improvisation in Drama. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. p.67
As we advance in our craft as improvisers I would rank few skills as more critical than that of embracing Culpability. Perhaps most simply and eloquently defined as the condition of “good people doing bad or regrettable things,” culpability closely allies with the central improvisational philosophy of change. To embrace culpability is to fully accept rich but possibly unflattering endowments, take on responsibility for morally ambiguous actions, and savor opportunities to uncover complex character contradictions. Highly sought after change on the macro or scenic level is often heavily dependent upon culpability (and vulnerability) on the micro and personal level. In addition to helping action transform in new and dynamic ways, most audiences care more about a seemingly “good” and relatable character that finds themselves making a dubious choice than an overtly villainous persona replicating predictable depictions of right and wrong. Bringing an air of culpability to our work can serve as a powerful example of heightened and brave accepting, especially if it’s connected to revelatory accusations or CADs.
A nun, Player A, sits behind her desk as a nervous-looking novice, Player B, enters.
Player A: “I appreciate you coming to see me, Sister. I’m sure there has been some confusion.”
Player B: (nervously) “Of course. However can I help?”
Player A: “As I said, I’m sure she must have been mistaken – you’ve always been such an honest and moral woman – but another novice reported that she saw you taking some money out of the collection plate…”
Player B pauses for a moment and lowers her head.
Player A: (gently) “Sister?”
Player A: “I’m afraid what you’ve heard is the truth. I cannot deny that I took the money…”
The Gains of Culpability
1.) Less advising, more doing. If advising scenes plague your work or relationships on stage, you may be falling into the trap of discussing dynamic or problematic choices rather than jumping right into the beautiful mess they will create. When we’re asked to give advice on stage it can be a very human instinct to give good advice thereby pushing our scene partner away from a rich confrontation or discovery. Similarly, when we’re receiving advice we can tend to talk through all the options – especially bad options – that would be much more interesting to actually see. I teach a lot of improv on a college campus and a perennial scenario is getting dating advice or instruction on how to approach that appealing fellow student. It’s very rare that such a scene amounts to much of anything (or much of anything new). Risk jumping into the inadvisable or unpredictable choice: ask the most popular student on campus out who doesn’t even know your name, propose to your love interest on the third date, surprise your significant other with a visit from you and your parents (and grandparents… and three children from a prior undisclosed relationship…) So often the playful choice can be diffused or disarmed when we seek advice prior to its implementation.
2.) Less stagnation, more dynamism. When you or your characters are disinclined towards culpability you may often find yourself stagnating or trapped in a rut in your scene work. A lack of assuming responsibility keeps our characters “safely” away from change and growth. If the novice in the above example resists the charge of theft (or, perhaps worse, just assumes that she couldn’t possibly have done it) then it’s unlikely that the scene or greater story arc will continue forward with creative abandon. Instead, we’re more likely to be faced with characters stubbornly maintaining what they have established as their initial energy or essence. This, in turn, is unlikely to inspire dynamic work on stage. When we allow for the fact that our characters and their motives are truly a work in progress, open to transform and morph through the gifts of our partners and the given circumstances, it is much more likely that they will face excitingly unpredictable pathways. If you’ve found yourself stuck playing a limited cast of characters – ingenues can be particularly challenging in this regard – this may actually be caused or compounded by an inability to see and embrace “bad” gifts that can facilitate compelling interruptions and shifts in your characters’ point of view.
3.) Less moralizing, more embodying. I particularly enjoy theme-based improv that actively pursues an exploration of the human condition in all its chaotic wonder. An acceptance of culpability is central to such work. Without this mentality scenes can easily fall into the trap of unnuanced “good” versus “bad” clichés, offering little that is truly new or engaging for the audience and players. If we’re less concerned with espousing a particular viewpoint – most of us would agree that theft is generally a bad thing – and more interested in exploring the myriad of specific factors that might result in morally questionable or complex behavior, then our improv will come to life in rewarding ways. A scene about a “terrible” thief thieving yet again is innately less fascinating (to me at least) than a nun who has found herself in such a position that this was deemed desirable or even necessary. I have found that newer improvisers, in particular, can be hesitant to assume positions or philosophies that they deem “wrong” for fear that an audience might mistake their character’s behavior or attitudes as being synonymous with their own. This type of theatrical bravery is certainly something worth encouraging and developing, and it comes with the added advantage of building empathy as we assume positions and experience circumstances different than our lived truths.
4.) Less consistency, more ambiguity. Humans are innately contradictory and inconsistent: a deeply loving friend can become hate-filled given cause, a shy co-worker can assert bold fearlessness if pushed, a highly intelligent family member can prove surprisingly dim-witted when faced with unfamiliar circumstances. When we seek misplaced consistency, especially at the expense of pushing away choices that at first blush don’t feel “like” the character we’re embodying, we will be “rewarded” by highly predictable and potentially monotonous dramatic actions. I would offer it’s easier for an audience to dismiss antisocial or morally suspect character traits when they are present in clearly “evil” portrayals. When we embrace ambiguity, on the other hand, and see moral corruption in characters we have come to love and identify with, the dramatic and social effects are greatly enhanced. Most of us would like to consider ourselves as innately good people; subsequently, seeing similarly good people do bad things pulls us into the action as observers in entertaining and profound ways.
Characters and stories that remain in stasis will rarely reflect real life experiences and conflicts. Personae that are virtuous beyond reproach don’t demand much stage time and frequently lack agency or interest: villains who have an absence of any redeeming qualities or actions will quickly become one dimensional and stuck. Playing in the endless possibility between these two polar opposites by inviting change, surprise, inconsistency and culpability, reinvigorates our work and relationships.
Connected Game: Angel and Devil