Play Smart So Your Characters Don’t Have To

courtesy Highlights Kids

One thing that I hear frequently is the notion that we should play to the top of our intelligence. I think that’s great advice, not just for improvisors, but for artists of any discipline. At the same time, I don’t think it’s always entirely clear what exactly that means. It sounds pretty straightforward at first, but what’s less obvious is that although as artists we must try to make the strongest choices possible, that sometimes means the characters we portray will not. Frail, flawed, desperate fools can make for remarkably challenging work onstage if we invest in them without foolishness.

Intellectual and Emotional Intelligence

Perhaps it’s important to talk about what playing at the top of our intelligence really means and the two most common ways to do that; intellectually and emotionally.

There are many ways to be an intelligent performer and book learnin’ is certainly one of them. Improvising can be like an episode of Quantum Leap, each scene has the potential to play in a new time and place. I believe that relationships  – not setting – are the heart of a scene. I believe that a pair of good performers can create a scene in a time or place they have no knowledge of. But, while not necessary, knowledge of the environment or occupation you find yourself can relive you from having to invent and can add a realism and verisimilitude to your work. It can add another level of richness and depth to your scene, providing you don’t use that knowledge for evil.*

Your character has some level of all of these

Just as important as intellectual intelligence, if not more, is acting with emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence in understanding that everything your character does or says comes from motivational place from within themselves. If intellectual intelligence is an awareness of the external world of our characters, emotional intelligences is an awareness of the internal forces moving them forward. As ourselves, everything we say and do is the culmination of our life experiences, our attitudes, our beliefs, our understanding of how to behave. If our characters are to be believable and real, the same should be true for them. Every choice your character makes will be drawn from the behavior and life experience they have incorporated into their lives.

It is tremendously valuable to play with both of these intelligences. They work together to make more compelling and believable characters and scenes. Consider for a moment finding yourself in a scene playing an athlete in the English Football League (aka a Soccer player). I choose EFL because it’s a sporting organization with an exceedingly complex structure. You may not have an encyclopedic knowledge of the league, but certainly having a rudimentary understanding of the rules of the game and some of the teams involved would be useful information to help you relate to this character. These are external pieces of information. Even if they are never spoken aloud in your scene, they inform how you play. At the same time, you must know that anyone playing at that level has got to have a huge amount of determination, competitiveness, ego, willpower and physical endurance – things that define who they are and how they behave. This is internal information. Knowing these things as you begin to discover your character will put them in a strong place right from the top of your scene. When you sacrifice the commitment to that character for a quick laugh or a joke, your short term gain comes at such a high price. You’ve lost the potential to play to something greater and more real.

This is how you – as an actor – can play smart; being aware and being invested. In doing so, you’re giving your characters a wonderful gift, the freedom to be flawed

*Evil? Yes ,evil. If you try to shoehorn little facts into your scene to prove how clever you are, you’re sacrificing your relationship and your character. This makes me cry at night.

Let Your Characters Make Mistakes

Fun Fact
When director Nicolas Meyer was approached to direct a Star Trek film, he felt the characters were uninteresting because they were peerless. When he was allowed to give the characters flaws, he created “The Wrath of Khan” which is considered by many to be the high-water mark for the franchise.

One thing I see often when players learn to play intelligently, is that they feel all of their characters must also be intellectually and emotionally smart. That doesn’t have to be true. The world is filled with people who make foolish decisions, who wander into schemes out of naivetĂ© or don’t know how to get out of an emotionally abusive relationship. Of course we want characters to reflect that part of life, that’s the very heart of drama. No one wants to watch perfect people lead perfect lives. You absolutely can play characters who are hopelessly lost as long as you yourself are not.

Your relationship with your characters can often be similar to a parent child relationship. Part of playing intelligently is knowing the consequences of your characters action. Part of us wants to protect our characters from mistakes, either out of sympathy towards them or out of some misguided ego that our character’s flaws reflect on us as performers. It’s a much braver and much harder move to let your characters wander into situations knowing the pain it will cause them.

I encourage you to let your characters stumble; let them make mistakes; let them be too stubborn to learn from them. There will be consequences for their actions. They may lose loved ones, face hardship or even die. Yes, your character might actually die due their own shortcomings, and that might be a wonderful gift to your scene partners. The important thing is that even if you allow your character to not understand the depth of their choices – you do.

The last thing I mentioned was refusal to grow. That’s a tough one, I admit. We all went through classes learning that characters should be affected and grow. It’s hard to go against that grain and play a stubborn character without feeling we’re doing a disservice to the scene. People enjoy seeing characters grow. Certainly if a show or scene was filled with characters and none of them were changed by the experience, it would be maddening. By the same token, for some characters to grow, they must overcome the obstacle of emotionally stunted people. When a deadbeat father doesn’t recognize the talent of a gifted child, the realization of that child of their own potential in spite of the constant discouragement is ten times as gratifying as a character who starts with self-confidence. The child’s emotional arc depends on it. Sometimes the strongest emotional choice is leaving someone who cannot grow with you – that’s the stuff of good Harolds. Give your partner the gift of being able to grow and to fight for their growth. Not every time of course. That would lead to shows filled with bickering; but at times, know that you can be the bad guy.

Let the other characters learn from your mistakes and grow. Let the other characters see the flaws within your own and reflect on themselves. And who knows, maybe by the end, you will finally have some small change. But by that point, you and your scene partner earned it rather than just changing because it was time to change.

Nurture don’t mock

Most of the time, improv is associated with comedy. And somewhere in the history of comedy, we learned that mockery and insults make for easy laughs, but not satisfying ones. It can be very tempting to play foolish characters just for the sake of a punchline. I beg you not to make a habit of this. If you have no empathy for your character, I promise an audience will not. The quick laughs at a silly statement are fleeting. The laughter with a character following a determined – if misguided path will fill your scenes with a richer sense of purpose. Rocky Balboa, Michael Scott and Tony Stark are characters that resonate with audiences because the skilled actors portraying them believe in them despite their shortcomings. We cherish these characters more than we do Otis the drunk or Ernest (even if he’s saving camp). I ultimately find flawed characters more interesting if the actor portraying them believes in them hopelessly and without reservation. I like to play that way too.

I offer two moments from film. Both with intellectually stunted characters, but only one with an actor who embraced that character.

Both are memorable, and the mustard scene is certainly fun, but for me, only one has the power to affect me and stay with me hours afterwards.

We play fools all the time. They’re easy because we feel that their foolishness frees them from any sort of motivation or logic. I challenge you to be better. I challenge you to play those characters with the kind of integrity and soul that will move your audience. Isn’t that what acting is all about? Challenge yourself. Challenge the audience. Challenge your scene partner. Play smart so your character doesn’t have to.





Posted in Improv Theory

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *