What is character? Someone asked me this in class and as I went to say the simple answer, I realised I didn’t really have one to hand. Instead, I thought about how different students and performers find their way in to being somebody else. Some of us are outside-in and some of us are inside-out and the audience may not even know the difference,
I have taken and given a lot of classes where people are asked to walk around the room imagining that they have a rope pulling them forward from different places on their body. What happens is that it changes your body shape, your rhythm and your way of walking. In IO Chicago they call it Stacking when you move your spine into a different position to alter your stance. None of this is character yet, it is more like a chicken wire mesh that we can build a character on. So you start with a position, then you try speaking with the voice that would ‘suit’ this person. Often, you end up with stooped lower class characters and eyebrow-raised, tall upper class characters. I always found this creation of characters easy and sort of archetypal. An accent or way of speaking will inevitably follow your stance and walk and you will ‘know’ who you are playing even if you can’t articulate it yet. When you’re asked questions like ‘what is your name?’, ‘what do you have in your pocket?’ or ‘what pet do you have?’ you know the answers pretty quickly.
Start with discovering your point of view and the character follows.
I learned some great point of view stuff from Rich Talarico at the Out of Bounds Comedy Festival in Austin, Texas. After a decade of learning character exercises, this was the only one that really changed and varied my character creation.
We played objects in a room. We were just sitting on chairs, so there was no staging or much physicality. By talking to the other objects, we found out what our point of view was in relation to every other object. I was surprised and delighted to discover that this came out organically. It was clunky at first, but soon, I found that it was clear how much the old clock envied the new side table or the fireplace fancied the lamp.
Now the BEST PART was handing someone else your role in the scene. We passed them a card that said ‘lamp’ or whatever we were playing, but explained to them who the character was as if they were our understudy. The clearest character explanation ever. It’s not about the text of the scene, you wouldn’t be telling that to your swing in a theatre show, it’s not about the accent or physicality because that’s up to the actor herself. It’s a clear point of view. “You are this lamp that has just been introduced to a room full of older objects; you are really trying to please them and be one of the gang.” It’s not that different than having a secret want or motivation or goal.
Now add the above on to this for free; the characterisation bit. Make it like a Pixar character. How would Pixar personify a side table? What voice would this one have? How would it stand or move?
So whether you start with the body (outside-in) or in your head with a point of view (inside-out), we get to create a whole character, one piece at a time.
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Katy Schutte is a London-based improviser who teaches improv classes in London, Europe and the States. Katy performs with Project2, The Maydays and Destination. See her live show dates for upcoming shows.
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