“All the world’s a stage and most of us are desperately unrehearsed.”Sean O’Casey, dramatist
Gene Kozlowski, a theatre professor in my M.F.A. program, astutely noted that no-one wants to watch a character angrily yell or indulgently whine for any protracted length of time. In the scripted tradition this can be a particular trap when we approach monologue work as it’s tempting to find one energy or emotion and then just sit in it because it “feels good.” This same cautionary wisdom holds true on the improv stage. If we want vibrant performances then we must embrace Levels – physically, verbally, emotionally and in terms of how we approach our content.
Four players stand awkwardly in an unintentional line as they engage in under-energized banter…
An angry premise between rival lovers results in a three-minute uninterrupted yelling fest…
Players perform a scene in which characters bemoan their relationships without any shades of humor, irony, joy or satiric commentary…
A scene unfolds exploring the issue of peer pressure at a college party but characters are worn lightly and never develop beyond cheesy stereotypes…
Ways to Level Up
1.) Physical levels. Performers working in the scripted tradition will generally spend hours exploring and polishing scenic staging, crafting images to steer the audiences’ focus, or placing characters in particularly strong positions for climactic moments. We are undoubtedly at a disadvantage in this regard when it comes to improvisational staging – our physical choices are unavoidably more fluid and contingent upon the vicissitudes of spontaneous play. But there are simple adjustments that we can make in order to make our physical presence more interesting and engaging. We can avoid standing in lines (or just standing passively in our scene work altogether) in lieu of exploring more pleasing angles or clusters. While we want to avoid the trap of needlessly sitting in our scenes (it can prove oddly challenging to launch yourself from this perch if you’re not careful) a few well-placed chairs or blocks can afford helpful new possibilities so that everyone isn’t on the same plane. Similarly, while we must be mindful that we remain in our audiences’ sightlines, remember that the floor, too, is our friend, and we can crouch, recline, or take a knee so as to add variety. A simple but helpful tip to remember is that if you are making the same physical choice as your teammates (and this isn’t intentionally assisting the story or game) then try a different choice to break up the pattern.
2.) Verbal levels. Some performance venues pose acoustical challenges, especially if you are working in found or outdoor spaces, but it’s equally important to explore levels and range in your vocal work. Players who tend to over or under-project may frustrate their viewers. If you’re working in a new space it’s helpful to test the acoustics with some of your fellow players – with or without microphones – so you have a sense of any potentials or pitfalls (noting that a space can likely change significantly once an audience is present.) Recalling that unrestrained yelling can quickly prove off-putting (and perhaps even triggering) be cognizant to explore your full range: stark contrasts in volume and tone are dynamic and effective. On the other end of the volume spectrum, if your default vocal energy is more timid or reserved, explore passions and characters that encourage greater vocal presence. Thunderous proclamations or hushed confessions are beautiful contributions but if they become monotonous norms or stale routines then, like any other unexamined pattern on the improv stage, they will benefit greatly from being deliberately and dynamically broken.
3.) Emotional levels. Just as we should strive to find levels in our physical and verbal choices, so too should we seek emotional variety and depth. There isn’t one way to play a given emotion, and most humans don’t stay in the same shade of any emotion for an extended period of time. Anger can prove the most dramatic when it has climaxed into a whispered threat; passion can transform from a soft smolder to an exuberant celebration; pride can manifest as a subtle knowing look or a boisterous proclamation! A character needn’t (shouldn’t) feel obliged to present any given emotion in one static manner. Also consider taking this approach of varying emotional magnitude when it comes to mirroring or sharing your partners’ state of mind – they might be furious while you are mildly perturbed, or passionately enamored while you are quietly happy… The concept of opposites can prove helpful in this regard as well (Michael Shurtleff writes vividly about this in his Audition.) Sure, we might be exploring a scene between rivals that invites a good dose of jealousy, but if there are tinges of admiration as well the emotional landscape will deepen. Inversely, a courtship scene between two lovers will likely include attraction or passion, but some shades of agony or indifference would likely unleash a broader spectrum of interesting hues.
4.) Content levels. Finally, consider levels when it comes to the material and characters we are inhabiting. Some modes of improv more explicitly demand multi-faceted portrayals – such as performances in the healing arts – but even mainstream commercial enterprises can (should) benefit from looking beyond the surface of a scenario or character. Mining our work for new and cogent discoveries will also keep our content fresh for ourselves, our scene partners and our audiences. When faced with a tried and true premise or relationship, we can look to unlock new facets or elements: what is a contradiction that our character might embody; is there an important side of an issue or theme that is rarely given voice; can we humanize through empathy a character that might otherwise become a simplistic or damaging stereotype? As improvisers it can feel as if we’re often returning to the same well to drink once more, but we can level up by jarring ourselves out of past ways of looking at stock material.
Another professor in the same acting program, Sonny Bell, would often note that performers should all have two tattoos (on their posteriors) reading “must be seen” and “must be heard.” Ultimately it will not matter if we are crafting beautiful nuanced work if it does not effectively communicate to the back rows of our auditoriums. Pursuing appropriate levels certainly assists in this regard. But beyond this embracement of craft, it’s equally important to pursue the full range of human expression. Exploring levels, in all the facets of our work, encourages a greater awareness of our partners, breaks us out of unhelpful ruts and patterns, and adds depth and dynamism to the characters and action that populate our stages.
This marks the first “L” is my “A” to “Z” series. You can check out the progress thus far here.
Connected Game: Stand, Sit, Kneel, Lie