“Audiences love details, but some details are more easily remembered than others. Details which have little bearing on the plot are easily forgotten, especially by improvisers in the heat of the moment. Particularly when people are starting to improvise, I’d much rather they called each other by their real names, instead of having to stop and think up a name which they (and the other improvisers) are only going to forget a minute later.”Tom Salinsky, The Improv Handbook. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc., 2008. p.123
Specifics are the life blood of improvisational creation, and so it would follow that naming people, places and objects is critical if we want to maximize interest and develop nuance. Character Names are a particularly rich site for both detail and – less ideally – confusion. As Salinsky notes, hurriedly assigned fictional names can quickly disappear into the improv ether never to be heard again. His co-author, Deborah Frances-White, makes a contrasting case for invented names and the resulting connections they can spark in the players’ imaginations. I don’t believe there is a one size fits all solution when it comes to this practice and I deploy both of these approaches depending on the form, style and venue. Regardless of your standard tactic, however, using names deliberately and effectively on stage stands undeniably as an important improv skill to foster. Players visibly struggling to recall a critical character’s name might garner a chuckle once or twice by a generous crowd reminded of the transient nature of improv, but this lazzi quickly becomes stale and will stall the action when it becomes a performance norm. And so with this in mind, I offer some tips that have served me well in the past when it comes to naming your all-important scene partners.
Half an hour into a long-form performance an important character is needed, but no-one remembers their name…
What’s in a Name?
1.) The case for using your own names… I agree with Salinsky that using our own names is a good place to start, especially if we’re working in relatively new ensembles. This has become the standard approach in my campus troupes, particularly when we play long-form, as we strive to bring more personal material and stories to the stage. Using real names in this case removes one more potential barrier between the improvisers and a connected sense of sincerity. Not everyone likes this approach – it can theoretically limit the types of characters you might play. And in some cases, such as when you’re assuming an unflattering or narrow-minded persona, it can be nice to have the camouflage of a name other than your own. But, all things being equal, I have come to appreciate the mental energy such a simple approach frees up as it’s exceedingly rare that there are miscommunications or name slip-ups when this is your performance norm. I’ll also tend to keep surnames fluid so that these can adjust as family relationships and the like deem it necessary (acknowledging that many families have a beautiful variety of surnames too.)
2.) The case for naming each other (rather than yourself)… If you are more inclined towards the equally esteemed tradition of using original character names I find it extremely helpful to default to naming each other rather than yourself. Yes, there are social situations in which it’s common for us to introduce ourselves – although these are often stranger moments which aren’t typically strong improv starting points. But I’ve found that when I endow or give another player a name it’s more likely to stick than when I assign myself a new one (and you can always introduce your fellow scene partner if the scenario warrants it.) In most instances, it’s much more likely and natural for scene partners to use and reuse fellow character names than their own – unless your character has a tendency to talk about themselves incessantly in the third person! In this way, it’s much easier to keep a new name alive and active than if the character in question just throws out their invented name and the scene moves on. Which brings me to…
3.) The case for burning a name in… Regardless of whether we’re using our own real names or fictitious inventions, it’s unlikely that our audience or fellow players will easily recall these offers if they are only mentioned once in passing. When we first meet a new character of note, or start endowing an unseen character in preparation for their later entrance, it’s enormously helpful to keep their name alive by making it important. This could be as simple as passing the name around a few times as seasoning to your regular dialogue, or, preferably it could become emotionally or dramaturgically significant. If every time you utter your parent’s new romantic partner’s name you do so with dripping repulsion, you and your audience are much more likely to remember this choice. Or if your character comments on the familiarity of the name – “That was my best friend’s name in high school” – then you’re also forging a connection that will hopefully stand the tests of time. Improvisers can become needlessly self-conscious when it comes to repeating names in scene work, but this is something we all do in our everyday life, especially if we’re meeting someone for the first time and we want to make a lasting impression or connection.
4.) The case for evocative names… There’s also no need to pursue randomness when it comes to creating names onstage; in fact, it’s helpful to recycle names that are evocative from your own life and experiences. If a character exudes an energy that reminds you of a family member or co-worker why not give yourself the gift of this memory and emotional shortcut? (Assuming, of course, that this person isn’t present in the audience if it’s a less than flattering portrayal!) It’s amazing how stumped many improvisers can become when tasked with assigning a name, as if there could really be a wrong choice. Why not use the storehouse of names that you already have at your fingertips? Depending on your performance mode, you could also benefit from the emotional cobwebs these names bring with them and use these experiences to color your relationship or subtext.
5.) The case for representation when naming… Character names unavoidably reflect our heritages and cultural experiences. I grew up where Anglo and Polynesian names were the most common. When I moved to America I’ve tended to drop the latter, sadly, from my performing repertoire for fear (perhaps misplaced) that these names wouldn’t be recognized or understood. Subsequently, I’ve now lost comfort with an important part of my own identity and background. Don’t be a David. (Be a Rawiri!) Enjoy the opportunity to populate our stages with a vast array of names that reflect the diversity of our companies and communities. When we allow others to name us on stage, this empowers our fellow players to bring their families – literally or metaphorically – into the center of the action. Especially if you are accustomed to improvising from the vantage point of a dominant culture, it can be easy to forget that this will often result in others’ differences being erased if we are not aware and open. So strive to joyfully accept as many names as your bestow. And check in with your company afterwards to make sure name endowments aren’t restricting the types of roles fellow players are receiving or revealing cultural blindnesses.
One small warning I’d add is to perhaps be wary of assigning current players’ names to others in the action. I have a teammate for whom David is a default endowment and it always throws me off a little when it’s assigned to someone else on stage! Although I would offer one notable exception to this preference. In my campus troupe we always have company members rotated into tech and house management positions. We’ve developed a tradition of occasionally using a non-playing company member name when referring to a previously unseen character that may or may not become important to the action. In this way other available players don’t become benched for a relationship that isn’t eventually needed. In situations when this shelved character would serve the onstage action either a slated troupe member will just take on this name and role or, if we’ve exhausted our current casting pool and we’re playing in a “one improviser one role” mode, the named player might leave their other assigned duty and make a cameo.
In many theatrical and literary traditions names provide snapshots of a character’s inner nature or a humorous commentary – Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Toby Belch spring quickly to mind. The improv stage can certainly continue to strategically learn from and share in this custom. Embrace the risk of assigning names – both fictitious and true – enjoy the connections doing so might unconsciously unlock, and relish the details they will add to your characters and scenes.
Connected Game: Name Circle