Holding On to Your Creation

I’m currently coaching KC Redheart as they work on a new form called “Process.” The premise is that a pre-selected team member acts  as a director, working with actors to prepare a play.

In the first section, the director welcomes the actors and they begin reading the “script.”  (The script is several sheets of blank paper stapled together.)

The second section is the rehearsal of the play.  The first section introduced us to the actor-characters and some of the characters they’ll play in the end production.  The director works with the actor-characters as they feel their way through the play.

In the third section, we see the final act of the play.  The director stays off stage.

It’s a fun form, but an especially challenging one.  The improvisers need to create a character as their baseline.   For example, one of the improvisers could choose to be Christopher Walken.  On top of that, the Christopher Walken actor-character must attempt to portray the characters of the fake play.

It’s hard enough for most of us to remember our characters in a regular scene, let alone multiple characters played by one character we’re playing.  Yikes.  How do I help them pull this off?

Tennis balls.

A common maxim in improv teaching is, “Hold on to your s**t.” That means if you start out as a grizzled prospector, don’t shift into a nondescript middle class improviser-type character in the middle of your scene.  (It happens more than we like to admit.)

In our next rehearsal, the improvisers will be handed a tennis ball when they create their baseline character.  For example, Dave Maher played an actor whose last performance was in prison.  Great!  Whenever Dave stops being the character in the play, he should revert to his ex-con.  It gives him a way to be when he’s not actively performing.

If the improvisers don’t create a baseline character, they’re just playing themselves.  That’s not enough.  No baseline character, no tennis ball.  And if I see them drop their baseline character, I’m taking the tennis ball away.

Initially, I’ll have them set the tennis ball down when they’re playing their character’s character.  I’m fine with them acting with one layer.  But as we evolve the form, I’m going to have them try to carry the tennis ball all the way through.  Can they act as a character portraying another character?  That’s what I hope.

Improv is the easiest when we’re wrapped in the cloak of a character.  Bury yourself deep enough and the character can take over your body and even answer for you.  I’ve occasionally said or done things I would normally never do, but the character took on a life of its own.

Too often, we enter scenes as modified versions of ourselves.  If you’re playing a character close to you, it should be a deliberate choice.   And if you’re being a character, imagine that taking on that mantle means picking up a tennis ball.  You can only hold the ball as long as you hold the character.

When you perform, you should always be holding a character.  If you’re not, you’re just a glorified audience member.

Update: My experiment went surprisingly well.  I had half the team perform while carrying the tennis balls.  “That ball is your character,” I said.  “If you ever drop your character, one of the other players will come up and steal your ball.  Don’t let that happen.”  No one dropped their ball.  No one had to steal their ball.  And they made specific character choices that made their scenes pop.

When I had the whole cast perform the piece, they did so without the tennis balls.  But I warned them, “If you are not being a character, I will whip a tennis ball at your head.”  It worked.  Your results may vary.

Update 2: Time Out Chicago named KC Redheart’s “Process” a Critic’s Pick. “This nimble ensemble dives in full with total abandon and manages a highly entertaining Guffman-esque lampoon of community theater.” Even though criticism of an improv show is totally useless, I accept the compliment and credit the team.


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