“An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.”Niels Bohr, Danish physicist
Expert games are a common feature of short-form improv show rosters and may include a handle such as an endowment, audience participation, or a physical or verbal restriction. The persona of the expert remains central to each of these frames, and will typically involve an improviser feigning knowledge on a topic that is innately ludicrous or which the improviser obviously has little true experience. Stepping outside this particular scenic frame, however, the value of embodying Experts transcends this narrow improv subset and provides a powerful means of approaching characterization and scenic content generation. As such, this topic strikes me as worthy of a focused inquiry.
The topic of lunar weather systems serves as the interview prompt.
Player A: “And welcome back to Look Up! If you’re just joining the program, we’re talking with esteemed astro climatologist, Dr. June Piter.”
Player B: “It’s an honor to be on the show, Olivia.”
Player A: “As we went to break, Doctor, you were just starting to explain your new discoveries regarding wind on the moon…”
Player B: “That’s right, Olivia, it’s been a long road to this particular breakthrough, but we’ve unlocked a mystery that has been plaguing scientists for decades: does the moon have wind?”
Player A: “And your revolutionary answer?”
Player B: “Just as the moon effects the earth’s climate and tides, so too does the gravitational pull of the earth and other celestial bodies create movement on the surface of our nearest neighbor.”
Player A: “Now you’re going to have to walk me and our viewers through that a little…”
Player B: “It would truly be my pleasure…”
An Expert Approach to Characterization
Certain qualities enable the persona of the scenic expert, each of which embodies an improvisational approach worthy of emulation.
1.) Confidence. When you assume the mantle of an expert it typically encourages a level of increased confidence and presence. Experts know their topics which are often the pursuits of a lifetime, and they bring this grounded strength to their dialogue and interactions. By definition, if they are an expert, they have earnt this reputation and title, probably from their peers in the field. Even if the scenic parameters are absurd or obtuse, an expert character should attack the material as if they have been living in this world for the bulk of their professional life.
2.) Passion. While there is always the possibility of fatigue or burnout, experts generally love or find great excitement in their chosen field. Any opportunity to share their hard-earned passion is an opportunity to shine. Without this inherent joy and thrill, an expert character (or scene) can quickly lose its steam or playfulness. An expert should find delight in the chase of the conversation, and savor the chance to educate those who may not yet fully comprehend the import and beauty of their field and unique findings.
3.) Knowledge. Unsurety stands as the antithesis of the expert persona. Yes, they might willingly acknowledge a gap or limit to their field of study when it rarely occurs as they are equally experts on what they do and don’t know, but such breaches would prove uncommon and largely inconsequential. Overwhelmingly, their knowledge emerges as broad and deep, representing the studious pursuit of a life’s work. They know all the jargon and terminology (even if it’s made up), all the most recent studies and findings (even if they’re made up), and all the latest controversies and tensions in the field (even if…). After all, how could you really be wrong when everyone comes to you for the answers?
4.) Exactitude. The expert’s knowledge is most readily revealed through their powerful use of language. In addition to having the requisite vocabulary of their profession at their fingertips, experts are precise in their wording and responses. Stalling devices – such as “well,” “um,” and the like – are infrequent as they merely postpone getting to the facts that are readily at hand. Approximations and estimates are used sparingly as why answer vaguely when you personally processed all the pertinent data? If a question is simple, it will be answered concisely so as to allow more time for the detailed narrative that will soon follow. Specificity is the preferred currency.
5.) Personality. And then all of these facets of character and communication find nuance through the guise of personality and point of view. While experts may all incline towards certain stylistic and linguistic devices, they are also highly individualized in nature. They could be child prodigies or long-in-the-tooth academics, revolutionaries on the cutting edge of the discipline or conservative traditionalists clinging to the ways of old, bookish recluses with poorly developed social skills or enthralling conversationalists who are always the life of the party. While some interesting characterization terrain might present itself by selectively undermining one of the essential qualities listed above (such as an expert who can never think of the right word), generally embracing these tools at face value will result in a wide array of dynamic personalities.
The lessons learnt and honed from embodying an expert persona belong in all our improv work. Characters and scenic choices are more likely to take root when they hit the stage with confidence, passion, knowledge, exactitude and a clear point of view. Experts make statements and choices unflinchingly and unapologetically as they know everything there is to know about their chosen field. This is a powerful place from which to play and create.
Connected Game: Naïve Expert