“S” is for “Strangers”

“My mother used to say that there are no strangers, only friends you haven’t met yet. She’s now in a maximum security twilight home in Australia.”

Dame Edna Everage, Australian Comedian

Definition

The conventional wisdom when it comes to Strangers is to avoid them whenever you can (on the improv stage just as in real life). By definition, strangers don’t tend to bring vital backstory or relationship details to the story. Subsequently, more times than not, these personae stall the action or lower the overall stakes. Such ill-defined characters are particularly irksome in short-form traditions as we may only see this particular person or relationship once and much of that time will likely be spent justifying and determining why we’re seeing this random character combination in the first place. If you find yourself inadvertently falling into this trap there are some “quick fixes” that can prove reasonably effective, such as recognizing your scene partner as someone significant (and justifying why you didn’t do so initially) needing them in a concrete and emotionally grounded way, or finding a commonality that inextricably ties your fates together. “Wait a second, weren’t we on that same dreadful math-letics team in high school…?” or “I know you don’t know me, but I need you to be my alibi…” or “So I hear Omar broke your heart as well. Wanna help me get revenge?”

Example

An elderly character sits on a park bench consuming their lunch from a brown paper bag. After a few moments they are joined by a teenager listening to their music on headphones. They glance at each other. They are strangers.

OR

A flustered shopper overladen with an armful of shopping bags struggles beside their car, trying to acquire their keys from an uncooperating jacket pocket. A teenager chuckles from their perch leaning on the wall of the convenience store and then quickly returns to scrolling through messages on their phone. They are strangers.

OR

In a line at the sports stadium a bedecked fan excitedly purchases an over-processed and equally over-priced hotdog. Behind them, a teenager silently and indifferently observes, waiting their turn. They are strangers.

When Is a Stranger Not a Stranger?

Accepting as a given the pitfalls of assuming a stranger persona outlined above, there are (as has clearly become the norm in this series) some notable exceptions. I’d offer that the techniques described below are likely better fits for a long-form modality where the payoff of a stranger character has much more time to gestate.

1.) When it’s a plot device. It’s a common trope in theatre, film, and television to utilize a new or stranger character as a vehicle for introducing and establishing other foundational roles and relationships. When used in this manner, the stranger becomes a proxy for the audience, learning all the given circumstances that will prove necessary to get the dramatic ball rolling. As they meet each new character and engage in formal pleasantries, the audience also has a chance to get up to speed. It’s likely that through this expositional process we’ll also learn about the stranger character as well, and they may, in fact, be situated as the action’s protagonist: they’re the new doctor in town just hired by the hospital, the reclusive transfer student (and possibly vampire) who suddenly arrives mid-term at the high school, or the up-and-coming legal aide (and possibly vampire) hoping to make their mark on the big city. Initially a stranger, these characters typically evolve alongside the action they facilitate.

2.) When it’s a seed. A stranger can serve as the ultimate shelved callback or curve ball. Especially in genre work that embraces suspense and a sense of mystery, a stranger may strategically appear with the explicit intent of initially remaining ill-defined and seemingly disconnected from the greater story arcs. Again, this is probably a little challenging to pull off effectively in a shorter production, but in pieces spanning multiple scenes, or even evenings, such a choice can add delightful potentials. Each appearance of the stranger might plant deliberately opaque or unwatered seeds, trusting that later improvisational moves will find prescient connections and justifications. There is an intoxicating and palpable risk in such a device – if the stranger doesn’t ultimately prove vital to the story’s climax with a dynamic reveal the buildup to this choice will ultimately disappoint – but this is a brave and genre-specific way to deploy an embodiment of the unknown.

3.) When it’s a ruse. Strangers can provide dramatic opportunities for subterfuge. While these characters may initially appear as strangers to their scene partners, they are actually strongly connected to the known characters but are electing to hide their true identities (at least at first). They are, if you will, one-sided strangers as they know their scene partners even though they themselves are unknown. Such a choice could resemble the strategy above, but more often than not the ruse becomes shared with the audience as this provides the spice of the dynamic. (And in doing so, the improvisers will also know this information even while their characters remain in the dark which provides further opportunities for mischief and raising the stakes.) There are ample examples of such machinations in the classic dramatic canon – the ubiquitous tradition of cross-dressing heroines seeking agency leans into this energy mightily – and the contrast between what the audience knows versus what the characters know provides rich contrasts and tensions.

4.) When it’s a foil. It’s important to note that there are dramatic opportunities when a stranger’s presence is actually needed in order to serve the needs of another significant character. Strangers can act as enabling foils assuming relationships with the featured character that are secondary to the information or heat they can bestow. This can be the realm of teachers, doctors, lawyers, counsellors, law enforcement and the like – voice pieces of important institutions that have the power to offer up unexpected tilts or news. It’s a trap to reduce such roles to solely their plot function, and equipped players will also imbue these personae with compelling energies and deals of their own, but they frequently appear in one-off encounters destined to influence the story arc and then vanish into the ether. Their gifts are more likely to travel with their defined scene partners than live on in later iterations of their own journeys. Sometimes such an outside character is the best vehicle for pushing the story along to that next substantial moment.

5.) When it’s a game. And in larger ensemble-based or non-realistic pieces strangers may appear as part of a larger thematic gesture or serve as cogs in more broadly conceived games or staging dynamics. Side support and Canadian crosses are probably the most readily familiar examples of this impetus, where strangers can add to the environment or energy of a scene without any intent of becoming more indelibly connected to the dominant story threads. But we could also see a sea of strangers in a run, revolving door, or group scene that serve as a preamble to a relationship of note or increases the isolation of our protagonist by surrounding them with a swirl of anonymous faces so as to intensify the weight of their emotional plight. When the ensemble suspends the need for individuality and works as an organic but faceless whole, the persona of the stranger can become a truly evocative tool.

Final Thought

Onstage strangers are most dangerous when they are the product of fear – players warily avoiding naming each other or forging meaningful relationships as they are unsure if their idea is “good” enough or the “right” choice for this theatrical moment. The above exceptions all employ the device of the stranger from a place of deliberateness and strength: I am not defining this connection now as I know it will be more powerful later; I have a gift to bestow from the vantage point of this stranger and will trust you to run with it; I am focusing on energy, mood, or style as I know that will serve us all well in the long run. So, when is a stranger not a stranger? When it’s a purposeful opportunity for discovery.

And remember, you can check out all the previous “A” to “Z” entries here!

Related Entries: Character, CROW, Curve Ball, Endowing, Relationship, Secrets Antonyms: Specificity Synonyms: Vagueness, Wimping

Cheers, David Charles.
www.improvdr.com
Join my Facebook group here.
© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Game: Pan Left, Pan Right

Published by improvdr

A professional improvisational practitioner with over thirty years experience devising, directing, performing, teaching and consulting on the craft of spontaneous (and scripted) theatre and performance.

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