“…the on-the-spot improvisation is truly the most ephemeral of the work we do. It’s very rare that you get something that, in addition to being funny and displaying virtuosity, also makes some kind of a statement, has some point of view.”Roger Bowen quoted in Jeffry Sweet’s Something Wonderful Right Away. 1996. New York: Limelight Editions, 1978. p.36
It’s common improv parlance – at least in my current circles – to talk about filtering the events of a scene through your character’s Point of View. This phrasing refers to the specific way your personae approach the world, their primary attitude or “deal” if you will. In our quest for content, a strong point of view can open the floodgates for generative material as choices become largely responsive – and perhaps even effortless. A character needs only to react with some thread of consistency based on their earlier behaviors rather than frantically search for a unique contribution. If you’ve ever found yourself floundering in a scene without an anchor, it’s likely that you hadn’t locked in a strong attitude or, perhaps, let it go prematurely. Finding a dynamic character perspective can at times prove easier said than done, however, so here are a few potential keys for unlocking this powerful scenic doorway…
A group of characters have been waiting on an exposed elevated train platform for the last train of the evening. They have been engaging in small talk to pass the time. The booth improviser offers cloud rumbles and it starts to rain…
Find Your Point of View By…
1.) Wanting something. Characters devoid of objectives typically become characters devoid of energy and action. If you don’t want something specific, after all, you can coast through a scene with very little at stake. Theatre explores winners and losers, those who obtain their dreams and those who are punished for striving to do so. In long-form explorations there may be some considerable time to test and adjust your greater goal for the dramatic arc; in short-form scenes, the action might culminate before you’ve managed to articulate your character’s goal if you’re not careful. It’s helpful to grab something – large or small – even if you revise it multiple times throughout your journey. This may be as simple as allying yourself with another significant character, pitting yourself against a common foe, or pursuing a deep desire that may never explicitly surface in the dominant story arc. It matters less whether or not you achieve this goal than that you have a goal at all.
Player A has established that they are going to an important late night job interview – an opportunity to finally prove themselves to their overbearing parent and enter the world as an adult. As the rain starts to fall, this need to make a professional first impression necessitates that they ask a fellow traveler if they can share an umbrella.
2.) Feeling something. Another pathway to an immediate point of view is assuming and deepening an emotional energy or climate. There are many ways to formalize this: your character might have a mantra, ethos or words that they live by such as “there’s no day like today.” Digging into a deep emotion or quality can also get the improv ball rolling: perhaps you are overly-sensitive, or extremely introverted, or you feel an underlying sense of envy for how others always seem to have an easier life than you. Strong feelings activate games, encourage the development of dynamic backstories, and provide onstage relationships with energy and interest. Feeling a strong emotion doesn’t dictate that this energy must remain static, unnuanced or monotonous in its execution. Just as a strong objective should be explored through a vast array of tactics, so too can an emotional center find expression through a multitude of shades. And a sudden and earnt shift can provide a breathtaking climax or tilt especially when it changes or challenges the core of a character we have come to know and love.
Player B has spent the earlier phase of the scene exploring a wide-eyed optimistic energy that finds the good in everything and everyone. As the weather takes a turn for the worse, they kick of their sandals and start to dance in the puddles, laughing all the while.
3.) Loving something. Loving something or someone adds another potentially profound level to an emotional point of view. Many emotional cores can prove self-serving, introverted or even isolating. This is not necessarily unhelpful – a relentlessly paranoid character that feels the world is out to get them could certainly add some power to a scene. Choosing to honestly and earnestly love something or someone, however, adds a whole new level of vulnerability and stakes. There are many kinds of love and this need not necessarily be romantic in nature, although theatre is filled with these kinds of stories for a good reason. Characters might embody parental devotion, or profound loyalty to a friend, or passion for a workplace, occupation or sports team. As I discuss here, this powerful ingredient is often absent or poorly approximated on the improv stage and yet when it appears, it can elevate the most mundane premise into something quite astounding. Loving someone also tends to push you into the scene in actionable ways as opposed to retreating into your imagination.
Player C and D have been gently cooing for the duration of the scene, clearly sharing a literal or metaphorical lovers’ honeymoon. When the rain appears, Player C, without hesitating, lifts their jacket so that it covers both of their heads. It’s just another excuse for holding each other tight.
4.) Believing something. An additional source for a strong POV can reside in a powerful conviction or belief. If you’re leaning towards a more comedic tone, these may be quirky or slightly odd in nature: a character might have a deep-seated fear of stepping on any cracks in the train platform having taken to heart too seriously the chant that such behavior might result in their mother suffering bodily injury. If you’re exploring more complex hues, character beliefs could embody some of the more complex societal issues of the day: a bystander might be silently protesting the plight of working class citizens who struggle to pay for the train to get to and from their minimum wage jobs that don’t meet actual living expenses in an industrialized city. Bowen, in the quote above, recognizes that improvisation’s ability to question or mock the world as we know it as a unique (although unfortunately, in his opinion, rarely executed) quality of the form. I ardently believe that we needn’t silence astute critiques when we play. Sometimes such a stance is viewed as being “political” but, in reality, when we avoid such stances we are also being political, just in the service of the status quo. Even in more whimsical performance modes, portraying characters that believe something important can encourage valuable discourse through satire or parody.
Player E, who has revealed themselves to be an environmentalist to the nth degree, has perched beside the train benches. When they hear the rain approaching they produce a small drinking canister which they use to discretely collect the rain water.
5.) Bringing something. Finally, a point of view can become quickly established by bringing something with you to the stage. While I’m not really meaning grabbing a prop or costume piece as you enter, this actually can jumpstart the process too. Rather, I would advocate for using what you have at your disposal. In most cases this will be our own real world experiences and histories. Perhaps you have worked a late night shift in a particular job and can bring this reality (and its physical remnants) to the scene, or you’re always leaving your umbrella at home when there’s an unexpected rainstorm, or you’ve had some less-than-pleasant experiences using big city mass transportation systems. In long-form pieces, also be sure to bring the performed history of your character to the scene if this moment occurs later in the arc, along with any pre-established point of view elements such as a want, feeling, love or belief. Your character might begin as someone quite different from you, but even a small commonality can connect us to our work in profound and helpful ways. Don’t be afraid to use what you know by bringing your “obvious” to the work.
Player F, a regular elevated train rider in their real life, has a visceral image of the train platform and its sights, sounds and smells. Almost unconsciously they grab a free real estate paper from a nearby stand and hold it above their head when they sense the rain is about to fall.
Investing quickly in a clear point of view will soon pay improv dividends. There isn’t one correct pathway to finding your scenic filter, but the longer you wait to make a definitive choice, the more likely that you’ll find yourself wandering a little as an improv passenger. Whether you grab an objective, mood, passion, conviction or part of your own life story, this vantage point can add flavor and flair to your character work. And to Bowen’s point, as artists we should be mindful that our character point of views can also serve a greater socio-political perspective that can meaningfully serve our communities.
Connected Game: Rashomon