“Play is not merely an outlet for surplus energy, but rather an outlet for those impulses and emotions knit up with the social interplay of group life.”Neva Leona Boyd, Play and Game Theory in Group Work: A Collection of Papers. Chicago: University of Illinois at Chicago Circle, 1971. p.42
I’ve described improvisers as emotional super heroes to my students as our craft invites (if not demands) that we allow ourselves to go emotionally to places on stage that the average theatre goer would probably avoid at all costs. Some improv traditions clearly privilege this function, such as Playback Theatre, Forum Theatre and the allied healing arts of socio- and psychodrama. Other styles of play might de-emphasize the emotional aspect of the improviser’s craft, but I would argue that a pursuit of Emotional Truth can only elevate all our endeavors to a higher plane. Spontaneous theatre, after all, is a very human affair and benefits from exploring the full range of our foibles, fears and passions.
Player A sits on their adult child’s bed.
Player A: “I’m really sorry that she didn’t accept your marriage proposal. I can’t imagine how you’re feeling right now.”
Player B: “She was out of my league anyway…”
Player A, after pausing for a moment at the door to assess the situation, sits on their adult child’s bed and puts an arm cautiously but lovingly around their shoulder.
Player A: (after a long breath to summon the courage to speak) “I’m really sorry that she didn’t accept your marriage proposal. I can’t imagine how you’re feeling right now.”
Player B: (unable to make eye contact, the tears swelling in their eyes) “She was out of my league anyway…”
Inviting the Emotion In
There is no short-cut to portraying earnest emotions in our scenes – actors literally spend their professional lives pursuing this end – but there are some grounding techniques that can at least open a door to this more vulnerable style of play…
1.) Take some time. When we rush through our scenes, expecting our words to carry all of the meaning, we are much less likely to connect to our character and their situation in a more honest and potentially profound way. Take the risk of really breathing in your scene. This will encourage you to consider more earnestly why you are speaking, and how you might most effectively communicate your wants and needs as a character. (Sometimes this may not be through your words at all but rather your actions or absence of words.) You’ll want to make sure you are not just manufacturing silence for the sake of it – this time should be filled with energy and commitment – but use your breath to connect yourself to your emotional storehouse.
2.) Trust the audience. This may be more of an issue in venues that consider themselves to be more overtly comedic, but most audiences will happily sit and observe a wide array of dynamic energies if they feel earned and honest. So even if our stated intent is comedy, we needn’t fear material or a performance approach that might not result in belly laughs right out of the gate. When we grab at a joke, especially early in a scene, we may get that fix of immediate audience laughter, but it may come at the cost of a more nuanced or complex reaction further down the road. Trust that the audience will follow your exploration if you are committed and present. This is not to say that an emotionally grounded scene should also be divorced of humor or lightness, but if our initial fixation as players is getting a laugh the likelihood of emotional honesty decreases precipitously.
3.) Don’t approximate or push. The mark of melodramatic or amateurish performance is playing emotions artificially, exaggeratedly or insincerely. There are certainly games and characters where such an approach might serve well satirically, but in general emotionally “spending more than is in your wallet” will likely strain the credibility of the scene and the patience of your audience. I would posit that no-one really wants to see someone pretend to cry, for example. I’d rather watch (or play opposite) a smaller and more honest performance than something grandiose but ultimately empty. Especially if you’re approaching deeper or more sensitive material, overly indulging will likely ring untrue. It’s more effective and theatrical to actually fight the swelling emotion rather than to over-eagerly welcome its arrival. (I consider this common pitfall a little more here.)
4.) Bring yourself to the work. I strongly believe that it is our right as artists to maintain a healthy separation between us and our work, and that we have no obligation to bring all of ourselves and our past injuries and failures to the stage. It’s healthy for players to set boundaries, as it is to be skeptical of using our stages as public therapy sessions (unless that is their stated intent). That being said, I fear that it is equally problematic and potentially debilitating if we actively avoid bringing any of ourselves to our scene work. Our performances are unlikely to soar if we withhold our truths, interests and experiences. Konstantin Stanislavski posited the notion of the magic “if” which loosely translates to asking yourself a series of related questions along the lines of “what would I do if I was in this situation”? Allowing this deeper connection to the world of our characters and their plights, with practice, can unlock a great cascade of emotional depth while also building empathy and imagination.
5.) Care more. I deal with the concept of love on the improv stage elsewhere, so suffice it to say that we’re more likely to become emotionally disengaged when we’re pursuing stories and scenes that we do not care about or connect to, so bring the issues and relationships that ignite your passions to the stage. Fight for your character’s happiness and for those that they love. When our onstage relationships become mere facsimiles of real relationships – dare I say unrealationsips – we can more easily stand back and passively observe the work rather than roll up our sleeves and enter the fray. On a simple level, why should our audiences care about our characters and their fates if we don’t?
Even the seemingly silliest of scenes or premises can benefit from a more emotionally grounded performance approach. We can tend to think of the more somber or negative end of the spectrum when we discuss emotional truth on stage, but the lighter hues of the human experience can equally gain depth and meaning with some earnest exploration. Why, after all, should we settle for being whimsical but removed observers when we could soar as emotional super heroes?
Connected Game: Theme Scenes