The Art of Being in the Background

I recently stumbled upon Joss Whedon’s 10 Tips for Writing.  This tip struck me  as particularly important.

Everybody has a reason to live.  Everybody has a perspective.  Everybody in your scene, including the thug flanking your bad guy, has a reason.  They have their own voice, their own identity, their own history.  If anyone speaks in such a way that they’re just setting up the next person’s lines, then you don’t get dialogue: you get soundbites.  Not everybody has to be funny; not everybody has to be cute; not everybody has to be delightful, and not everybody has to speak, but if you don’t know who everybody is and why they’re there, why they’re feeling what they’re feeling and why they’re doing what they’re doing, then you’re in trouble.

When you’re on the stage, you don’t always have the focus.  Sometimes, you’re standing in a group upstage, just watching the main characters.  What do you do in that scenario?

The best improvisers are always ready to pounce.  While the scene’s going on, they’re building a voice and an attitude and a physicality.  When I get lumped into a big group (of coworkers or students or a tour group, etc.), I immediately change my body.  I stick a body part out or suck something in.  And while the group is addressed, I try to figure out what this physicality says about my character.  Maybe I’ll speak, maybe I won’t.  But I’ll be a full character either way.

That’s your responsibility.  Explore your characters.  Everything you do reveals something about them: their movement, their vocabulary, their expressiveness, their secrecy, their shame, their pride.

In my last show, I stepped on stage with two actors who began a scene without me.  I’d begun the scene with my hands in my vest pockets as if I were a butler.  I stood and listened, as a butler would.  Two other people joined the scene.  None acknowledged me.  As a butler, I merely held my ground.  The two original characters began having sex in a hotel room.  I walked to the back wall, picked up a phone and had a silent conversation with room service.  The scene continued.  I met the (invisible) man from room service who handed me a Sade CD to make the scene more romantic.  I held it in my hands, waiting for an opportunity to say what I had.  As you can imagine in a five person scene, I never got that chance.  But I knew who my character was, and my character behaved in his own way, regardless of whether the other players acknowledged him or not.

It’s something Hollywood used to be great at.  Think of the guy who screams at Jimmy Stewart to kiss Donna Reed in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  Or every minor character in “Casablanca.”  You see them and think, “I’d like to follow that guy for a while.”  But they fade into the background, creating a rich tapestry of people.

Just because you’re a cop or doctor or teacher or janitor, you’re not limited to your function.  Be a person first, a job description (or archetype) second.  Make your characters live.  The audience will notice, even if you don’t get to say anything.

And how cool would it be to call back a scene from the perspective of someone who was there, but didn’t say anything?  Witnesses are just as valid as participants.  Don’t be afraid to be silent in a scene.  But when you speak, make your words count.

Got an improv question?  E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com

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