Your Character As A Wheel

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This is an essay about performing improv:

The metaphor I want to suggest is that your improvised character is a wheel, with the center of that wheel being the first thing you say or do as your character, and the spokes being the context of the scene.

The Annoyance Theatre’s training calls the first move and how you make it your “deal.” It’s your promise to the audience of who you are — specifically how you act as this character. Mick Napier, the Artistic Director of The Annoyance, says he chose the word “deal” because it was a kind of loosely defined word that could generally describe a lot of ways your character could operate. I like that but also want to practically narrow down a bit what a deal means to me. I like how fellow improv teacher Christian Capozzoli once described to me four essential places in your body for a deal to exist:

  • For brainy improvisers, it can be considered your “Point of view” in the scene. I think the queen of the world. I think that you’re ruining my life.
  • For more touchy-feely, body-driven improvisers, it can exist in your heart. I feel overwhelmed by the beauty of the world. I feel like no one appreciates me.
  • For more actor-driven improvisers, your deal can be expressed in your gut. What do you need in the scene? I need to get this room under control. I need to tell her I love her.
  • Or another way to express it is via your want. I want you to fuck me. I want you to apologize to me. Etc.

Whatever feels most comfortable, I think, I feel, I need, I want are all equally strong ways to find the core of a character. I find that initiating with a laser clear deal, one that I could sum up in a short sentence such as the above examples, helps to give me focus and strength at the top of a scene. It allows me to then create context without being in my head about it. It’s like armor against fear, protecting me from uncertainty and giving me a blueprint or roadmap of what to create next.

You can easily get in your head while improvising. There are lots of things improvisers worry about accomplishing to make a good scene. Establishing the “who, what, where,”…following the “rules” of improv, etc. I went and listed about 40 things you may be thinking of at any point in a scene in this separate essay. But I want to posit the theory that by creating the core of a character first, you create the center of a wheel and then you can start rolling down the hill of the scene, adding the spokes as you see fit. Some of those spokes might be the “who, what, where, when, or why” of the scene. Some spokes could be the “relationship, object work, environment work, game, pattern, heightening, or curve balls.” Whatever you want to create, I find it’s far easier once you have the center of the character down: your deal.

The opposite approach is trying to create a character from the outside in, such as by focusing on getting the “who/what/where” defined at the top of a scene and “on the same page” as your partner and then trying to figure out how your character feels about what’s going on. I know that some schools of improv teach this approach. They encourage improvisers to enter the scene neutrally and wait to see what happens before committing to a character’s point of view. I find that it makes for a flimsy, uneven wheel. I find that I get into my head about all the myriad possibilities for my character to be and start to worry what the “right” choice is to fit the context. Instead, I could have just made any choice at the top of a scene, stuck with it, and let it guide me as I created context.

Furthermore, Mick Napier points out in his book Improvise that the law of inertia states that an object in motion wants to stay in motion. If you begin your scene neutrally, or hesitantly, or ‘wanting to get on the same page so you’ll be OK,’ or searching for the ‘game,’ then you are likely to continue doing all those things. You are unlikely to suddenly have the most confident and joyous scene of your life! Alternately, if you begin with a strong declaration or choice for yourself and commit to it, you are likely to continue acting decisively throughout the rest of the scene and have a higher chance of enjoying yourself and making strong choices.

To be clear: I believe your deal is the emotional core of the character and not just the outward facts or attributes about him or her. I don’t tend to think of a deal as “I’m the haggard town doctor with a gimp leg and bad hygiene.” Because if I enter with all that context in my head and you clap your hands and say, “Here boy! That’s a good dog!” then well…I’m fucked because I had this whole pre-agenda for the scene that I now have to jettison to fit your context. Rather, I’d think of that same character’s deal as just “Nothing ever goes my way,” and then whatever the context of the scene, I’m good to improvise! This includes if the context totally clashes with what my character’s deal is. If I enter thinking, “Life is a game, and I want to play!” and you say, “Mr. President, the Russians are attacking,” then I get to be the most silly-willy-idiot President of all time and gleefully scream, “Yay! Where’s the red button!” If I enter feeling that, “I’m going to crush my opposition” and you ask, “Can I buy some girl scout cookies?” Then I get to grab you by the collar and shout, “You better buy some cookies, or I’ll rip you a new asshole!” Lovely! Now I’m in a surprising context all by happenstance of entering with a strong deal and seeing it clash with the world.

Do you need to pre-think your deal before you walk onstage? I don’t think so. I think there’s always something you can discover the moment you initiate. Annoyance instructor Susan Messing used to describe a “synapse firing” the moment you took a powerful step onstage. It could be your right pinky finger was unconsciously slightly raised and you noticed it and let it transform you into the high-status character, picking at his teeth, who thinks he’s the bee’s knees. It could be when you started your eyes were slightly wide-set and so your character’s deal formed around astonishment and wonder. There’s always something going on you can develop if you pay attention to your body the moment you step onstage.

For those still skeptical of starting with a deal, it’s worth noting that waiting to discover your character doesn’t match the reality of what’s happening at the top of an improv scene. The audience is feverishly creating a story in their heads the moment you walk onstage. They are doing so because audience members watching improv are basically terrified. Why? Because anyone who has sat through one knows, a bad improv show is one of the most excruciating experiences on Earth. Public speaking is the #1 reported fear of the human race; improv heightens that to another level by removing the safety net of knowing what you are going to say. So an audience member (especially a non-savvy one who isn’t familiar with improv or already a student of the art form) is on basic level just trying to understand what the hell is going on from the moment the improvisation starts. If you enter the scene neutrally, they will either think that’s your ‘neutral-seeming’ character for the rest of the scene, or they will start to worry that you aren’t making a choice at all and neither you nor they know what you’re doing. And then the audience member starts to imagine what if it was he or she instead of you onstage, looking lost and foolish. And then they panic and freak out or check out, and you’ve lost their trust for the rest of the scene.

So, I suggest you begin with a deal. If you are worried of being locked into a two-dimensional character deal based on a choice you hardly gave yourself time to think about, then know that your characters’ deals can absolutely evolve over time. An audience wants to see you discover the 50 shades of grey surrounding your initial choice. In the middle of a scene, I’ll often ask myself, “What’s under that?” and “Why do I feel the way I feel?” as ways to dig deeper. It’s like a jackhammer digging into the bedrock of my initial choice. If my original deal was something like “I love butterflies,” then I may ask, “What’s under that?” And I discover, “I love imagination!” And then I ask, “What’s under that?” And it may be, “I have no friends…so I must make believe!” And then I may ask, “Why don’t you have friends,” and the answer could be, “Because…I’m insufferable!” And now I have a three-dimensional character to explore. All based on that original inspiration of “I love butterflies.” Fun!

Developing your deal is very different from an improviser bailing on or dropping his/her deal out of a fear that it is not a good choice. That is the equivalent of breaking your promise of who and how you are to an audience. It never works to just drop your shit onstage. It is death to improv. If you break your deal, the audience will likely feel betrayed. They may not laugh at your work later in the show even if it’s funny — because you’ve lost their trust. Sometimes people bail out of a polite wish to ‘yes, and’ their partner or the direction they think the scene needs to go. A classic example is say I’m playing the saddest man of all time and you tell me I won the lottery. Many improvisers could logically respond to that news by saying that’s great news! Now their problems are solved, and they are no longer so sad. I would encourage you to view that same offer of winning the lottery through the colored lens of the way your character sees the world, which is sad. So winning the lottery is the saddest fucking news ever…because now you will never get any privacy or rest and all you wanted to do was vanish into the wilderness and write your novel on the mating patterns of mockingbirds. Or whatever. No one will ever come up to you after a show and thank you for how logical you were. I don’t want to see you logically “yes, and” from a realistic point of view; I want you to respond the way your character would respond. I dislike the phrase ‘Play to the top of your intelligence:’

A) Because it’s condescending as fuck to an improviser. Who isn’t trying to be clever and smart and respond intelligently to what’s going on.

B) Because it’s not a helpful way to improvise. Instead, as another Annoyance teacher of mine Mark Sutton once put it, I want to see you respond to the “top of your character’s integrity.” How specifically, via the colored lens of the way your particular character sees the world, would your character respond to that offer? And thus, you can both “yes, and” your partner’s offer and yourself at the same time by responding via your deal.

So I always begin with a deal. It can be a very small thing, but I find some an emotion or point of view to latch onto. There are no “bad” deals. There are infinite starting points to define how a character is, and they’re all equally good if you commit to them. Giving yourself a gift at the top of a scene is also literally the only thing you have control over in improv — so why wouldn’t you make a strong choice off the bat? Give yourself a solid center of your character’s wheel and then enjoy the ride as you roll down the hill of your imagination.