In traditional theatre, actors have weeks - if not months - to create and refine their characters. In the recording booth, we have an hour or two as we prep the audition, and maybe a little extra time in the booth when we get the job. In improvised theater, you know your character best when it’s time for curtain call and not a moment before, since everything can change at any time. The demure religious scholar you’ve been portraying all evening could actually be the murderer… and you won’t even know until everyone else (including the audience) knows.
Oftentimes, you walk out on stage with no character, hoping that one springs forth from your head as Athena did from Zeus’ while you speak your first line. You have to be ready to be whatever is necessary to support the narrative, even if it’s something you would never be cast as in a million years. I once spent half a show as a sentient fish who had taken over Earth and enslaved humanity.
No amount of character study can prepare you for THAT!
And so, as improvisors, we tend to do a lot of work on building characters quickly, and adapting them as the story unfolds. I’ve done my share of improv character workshops throughout the years with masters of the craft. Every single one of them brought new tools to my “Character Creation Tool Belt.” And yet, I still found myself slipping out of characters as a show progressed.
All of these tools helped me create the characters, but my creations were ephemeral and tended to fade away when I left the stage, returning slightly more dilute each time they re-entered the scene. And if I was playing more than one character in a show? Forget it.
Fast forward to Summer 2019. I was taking a class at Voice One and the instructor said (and I’m paraphrasing here) “In the booth, the only thing you have is your voice. No sets, no lights, no makeup… just your voice. But - you can use your physicality as a costume.” I nodded and tried to look philosophical as I thought about what she just said, but I wasn’t actually able to wrap my brain around it until a few months later when I was teaching a drop-in improv workshop for Voice Actors.
We were doing work on creating characters. They'd start with an animal, or a name, or a job, then dance until I say "freeze," using their frozen pose to inspire a character. We were having a really good time creating rapid fire characters when I suddenly had the idea to tell people to remember their pose before we went on to the next. Everyone found a new pose, we wandered around the room in character talking to each other for a bit, and then I told everyone to strike that previous pose again and switch back to that previous character.
And that’s when it clicked for me.
The physicality of the poses were the characters’ costumes, and by putting those costumes back on, it was easier to find the character again.
Our brains are always very busy. Sometimes we’re thinking about the script (or lack thereof). Sometimes we’re thinking about the stage lighting, or the fact that we missed dinner, or how Tim didn’t see us enter from stage left, or figuring out what the story needs at 8:32 PM on a Thursday... We are always thinking. When we’re in the booth, we have the added pressure of taking direction, and listening to the engineer, and hoping that the other people in the room aren’t as important as they look. When we’re improvising, we’re watching the story as an audience member even when we’re on stage telling the story.
So when you try to do a character, your brain looks at everything else it’s got going on and just says “Ain’t nobody got time for that.” And poof. Bye bye character.
But our bodies? Our bodies don’t have a whole lot to do. They hold us upright and help us move. Most of the work they do is automated so that the brain doesn’t have to think about it. Your body has plenty of spare bandwidth. Your body is smart.
No matter HOW you create a character, give that character a distinct physicality immediately. Figure out how they hold themselves, or how they sit, or what part of their body twitches when they’re nervous.
It doesn’t have to be huge or complicated, just make it specific.
When your body returns to that physicality it’s going to remember all the other stuff that went with it. Because your brain said “Oh look, body’s got this one” and offloaded all of the heavy lifting in regards to that character.
This is something simple and effective you can do while you’re recording to remember (or even just maintain) a character. The only thing in the booth is your voice. Nothing else matters. The booth doesn’t care if you are contorted, or if your eye is twitching, or if you’ve got your lips curled up in a snarl. All the booth cares about is your voice.
That means you can take advantage of your body’s intelligence and use it as the costume that makes that character stand out in your brain. That means you have a quick and easy shortcut to returning to that character after lunch, or after a bathroom break, or even after playing a totally different character. And even better? A really specific physicality can distract your brain just enough to make you less nervous.
Your body is smart. Use it. Trust it.
by Clay Robeson October 1, 2020
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