The more improv I do the more I realize how simple it all is.
Pick something to care about.
Act on it.
That’s pretty much it. Do this consistently and we’re in decent shape. But just because something is simple doesn’t mean it’s easy.
One of the reasons improv is so difficult to master is that it’s always in flux. New information flows into the scene constantly and not all of it fits neatly into the pile of information that’s already there. The longer the scene, the more complex it becomes. Luckily, because we have scene partners, we’re not responsible for managing that complexity all on our own.
We’ve previously explored how to manage scenic complexity through assorted Limits, but whereas in that post we examined broad scene-wide Limits, in this post I’d like to take a more individualistic focus. Knowing that I have scene partners and thus am not responsible for taking care of everything, what can I do for myself to increase the likelihood of a successfully coherent and entertaining scene? What makes an effective Character?
There are plenty of techniques for beginning to create a Character - “lead with a body part”, “mirror your scene partner”, “emulate someone from your life”, “play an archetype”, etc - and while this is all good advice for making initial choices, rather than start at the beginning, let’s start from where we’re ideally ending up and work backwards from there. Let’s start from presence.
Being “present” is a concept we throw around a lot in improv, but what does that mean in practical terms? It’s certainly more than physically inhabiting space onstage; it’s a mode of awareness in which we’re completely receptive to everything that’s happening. It’s both noticing and immediately embracing all new information and the circumstances this information creates. It’s not having a plan, not having expectations, and not dwelling on how things that already happened could have gone differently. It’s the nonstop consumption of Now.
Presence isn’t limited to the Performer level; it’s just as important for our Characters to be present as it is for us. Just as we want to be focused on the Now in a scene instead of getting stuck on moments past or potential, we want our Characters in the same mode. The reason this is important is because the nature of the art form is entirely non-material. By this I mean because we have no props, sets, or costumes, we’re asking the audience to mentally inject them on their own. As a result, they’re doing a lot of heavy lifting when it comes to creating the immersion required to have an enjoyable experience. When our Characters focus on the past or the future, we’re adding an additional layer of conceptualization in addition to what’s happening in front of them. The audience can manage this in short bursts, but generally prioritizes and is much more responsive to what’s immediately available to them. Basically, they prefer to be a witness to the action rather than a step removed.
So how do we keep our Characters present? First we need to recognize when they’re not.
All information enters the scene via Action, Emotion, Dialogue, or some combination thereof, but only Dialogue can transcend time. Whereas Action and Emotion are inherently and exclusively present, it’s through Dialogue that our Characters conjure the past and predict the future. This makes language our temporal gauge. The specific indicators of where in time we are at any given moment are verbs, as they place action in the past, present, or future. Any past or future verb tenses signal a lack of presence, but I’ve found the most common keywords are “That time...” and “Gonna”.
“That time…” usually appears when we’ve centered on a Character’s pattern of behavior and want to cement it with additional examples (“You’re always getting into trouble with authority! Like that time you stole that cop car, or that time you poisoned the mayor’s dog.”) This is effective only as far as it defines Character behavior, at which point we should pivot to actively applying that behavior in the present circumstances however possible (find an authority figure right now for that Character to get into trouble with). “That time…” starts to backfire when the whole scene becomes a list of examples of past behavior that we never actually get to see in action.
“Gonna” (i.e. “going to”) usually appears when we’ve centered on a Character desire or fear that they expect to play out (“We’re gonna be the coolest kids in sixth grade. Everyone’s gonna want to hang out with us at lunch and the bullies aren’t gonna bother us at all.”) Again, this is effective only as far as it defines Character expectations, which we then either need to actively meet or actively subvert (find a classmate to try to be cool to and see what happens). “Gonna” lists are even less stable than “That time…” lists because having not yet happened they aren’t even necessarily true. So not only are we talking about events we don’t get to see play out, those events might not actually happen anyway. The potential for our Character to be wrong is what makes them extra flimsy and particularly ineffective.
These list-of-example patterns have diminishing returns both for reasons explained above and because they rely heavily on our ability to come up with increasingly creative examples. An example of behavior that is technically less funny but actively applied will almost always be more effective and impactful than an example of behavior that is technically funnier but verbalized as a past event or potential future outcome. Additionally, it usually takes more time to showcase behavior than it does to state it, so making behavior active simultaneously increases scenic longevity and either doesn’t require as many examples of behavior or gives us more time to come up with them. Overall, it’s much more effective to see Characters do the things they do than hear about them.
While “That time…” and “Gonna” are a couple of the more common traps, any past or present verb packaging has the same basic effect:
Past: I/you [Action]-d, have [Action]-d, or did [Action]
Future: I/you will [Action], are about to [Action], or should [Action]
By recognizing when our language is placing us in the past or future, we can take steps to bringing us back to the present.
While staying present gives us the best chance of maintaining a sufficiently engaging scene, it doesn’t mean that exploring the past or future is useless. One of our immersion-creating goals is to make it seem like our Characters could be real people, and just as real people do, our Characters have histories and desires. A Character’s past and potential future can be very useful in informing their present, so it’s perfectly okay and often helpful to bring up their backstories and wants/life direction as long as we don’t get stuck there.
At the very beginning of a scene I have two immediate Character goals: A) locate myself in Context, and B) figure out what I care about. Ideally, goal A is accomplished within the first 10 seconds, the faster the better, and as soon as I know where I am and how I relate to the other people onstage, I start on goal B. At this point I’m not at all picky about the source of information or where it's oriented in time. If a scene partner endows me with past behavior, great. If I start a scene in the middle of an activity, great. If I say I want something to happen in the future, great. Presence isn’t specifically essential this early because I’m still trying to define my character; I’m still centering myself. What is essential is that I use this information to start establishing a way to create presence - I’m looking for something I can do right now. I’m looking for a focus. This is where it’s important for me to recognize where I am in time.
If a scene partner endows me with past behavior, I immediately figure out a way to repeat that behavior again in the present circumstances. I make the endowed behavior the first instance in a pattern.
Make something you did something you do.
The tricky part is if that behavior is specifically unrepeatable, like it involved something or someone who isn’t currently in the scene. The solution here is to broaden the behavior enough that can apply to the current situation while still honoring as much of the initial behavior as possible. For example, let’s say I begin a scene on a sailboat with my friend who reminds me of the time I set their oven on fire. My immediate instinct is to do the exact same thing again, except I quickly realize that the boat is too small to have an oven. I recognize that I can probably keep fire, and in fact the circumstances make for conveniently heightened stakes, but I need an oven replacement. I decide the boat probably has a trolling motor, come up with a reason to need to use it (“Ah, no wind today! Lemme fire up the motor.”), and now we’re present. At this point I might still not know why or how, but I know that motor shortly needs to be on fire and I’m well on my way toward making it happen.
If I start a scene in the middle of an activity, I’m in a good spot because my behavior is already happening right now. This is now my first option for a pattern, although I may be on the lookout for something more compelling depending on how interesting or sustainable I find the activity. I have time to do this because I’m definitely not doing anything else until my scene partners and I define Context. But one thing I definitely am doing is deciding that the activity is very important to my Character.
Make what you’re doing now matter.
The reason I’m doing this is because if I do want to make this the first instance in a pattern of behavior, my Character needs to be invested in it enough to do it again. The key is to both make it important and not stop, or at least make the current action a part of a larger activity (e.g. chopping carrots is part of making a stew). A super common trap I see young performers fall into is not wanting to do the activity anymore and/or not caring about its outcome, which only means they have to find something else to do. They’ve basically wasted an active initiation. But if chopping carrots really matters to my Character in this moment, I can start developing my pattern once I figure out why. Maybe I’m making my child’s favorite stew for their first visit home from college. Now all I have to do is decide how narrow I want the pattern to be (I’m giving them all their favorite stews vs I’m giving them all their favorite meals vs I’m giving them all their favorite childhood things) and start following whichever one I prefer.
If I start a scene by saying I want something to happen in the future, I’ve given myself a target to aim for and all I have to do is move toward it. I may not immediately know how this future event will happen or even why I want it, but I know I can figure that out on the way.
Start pursuing goals immediately.
In this scenario there are a couple variables to consider. Depending on the distance and complexity of the goal, I may have to either construct obstacles to delay its accomplishment or expand the goal itself. A close and simple goal of “I want to eat this sandwich” I can delay by continually finding reasons not to do it (“oh but first it needs some mayo”) or by getting distracted by the process (“here’s the mayo, but yuck the fridge is filthy, better clean it while I’m here”) or whatever my scene partners are up to. I can also choose to immediately accomplish the goal and look for a new one that’s either directly related to accomplishing the previous one (“that sandwich made me thirsty, now I want a drink”) or expand the goal to retroactively make the original goal part of a larger one (“okay, that was the last sandwich left over from the graduation party, now to finish the desserts. I hate wasting food!”) The key here is I’m still actively pursuing the goal, there just happen to be a lot more steps involved than we would have initially expected. I’m still moving, I’m just moving slowly or going farther than originally planned.
For a more long-term and complex goal like “I’m gonna be a famous drummer one day", I simply start taking small steps toward it by doing the things that might eventually get me there (e.g. practicing drums, designing my celebrity look). Depending on how distant or realistic that goal is, I might not get anywhere close to accomplishing it, but hopefully I’ve been able to make chasing it fun. The two most common pitfalls with future goals are over-planning and analysis paralysis (or some combination of both), both of which prevent action by verbalizing it. Over-planning happens when we start listing the steps it would take to get to that goal (“first we’ll need do X, then Y, then Z”) but never actually get around to doing any of them. This we can avoid by doing the first step we list right away and worry about the rest once it’s done (“first we’ll need to do X, then Y, then Z.” “Okay, let’s get started on X.”) Analysis-paralysis is somewhat similar, although it involves laying out multiple first step options (“well we could start by doing X1, but it might be better to do X2, oh but what about if we X3”). The solution is to just pick one and start doing it and see where it takes us (“X3 sounds like the best option, let’s do that”). An additional trap in these moments is when Characters disagree on where to start and try to convince the others to take their side. Now we’re just spinning our wheels, and if I find myself caught in one of these situations I find it easier to just give in right away because imperfect action is better than no action at all. My Character can be reluctant to do something, but they should never completely hinder action because they don’t want to do something. (An exemption to this is if it’s something off-putting or that crosses personal boundaries, I can reject action as long as I propose an alternative.) Conceding on disagreements is additionally beneficial because it opens up the potential to showcase our Characters’ Dynamic when one of them is wrong (“I told you X3 was a bad idea! You never listen to me!”) Overall, it’s making sure I’m staying active that keeps things engaging, and it’s during the active pursuit of these goals that I discover more about my Character - Why they have this desire and How they go about attempting to achieve it.
It’s in digging into my Character’s Why and How where I do start to get a little picky. Once I know what my Character wants and start actively moving toward it, I need to define their motivations. This will be the foundation from which all their actions stem; the filter through which they operate in both this scene and any potential others. Ideally I’m looking for something that is Personal, Actionable, Perpetual, and that I think has the most capacity to be funny either on its own or in Context. I’m trying to take ownership of something I can do and repeat indefinitely, and I’m trying to make the process entertaining. The Personal aspect of Why is one people tend to have some trouble with - lots of Characters will deflect to history (“I do X because Y happened to me as a kid”), tradition (“I do X because my parents did” or “I do X because that’s the way we’ve always done things around here”), or make it unintentional (“Oh that was an accident”), especially if their Behavior is labeled as weird by other Characters. In general though, Whys are much stronger when Characters take full responsibility for them and are based in a strongly-held belief or worldview (“I do X because I believe Y"). “I believe” is a helpful device to make motivations Personal. Having our Characters do things on purpose and for their own individual reasons forces us to more clearly define how they operate. If we catch ourselves doing it, deflective justifications can often be made Personal by simply going one step further - “I do X because Y happened to me as a kid and I want to prevent Y from happening to anyone ever again” or “I do X because my parents did and my parents’ approval is important to me” or “I do X because that’s the way we’ve always done things around here and change makes me uncomfortable” - all of which are Personal motivators that are broad enough to be Perpetual pursuits, and hopefully we can find some Actionable ways to do so.
So once I know that my Character set the oven on fire and I start moving toward repeating that Behavior, I’m quickly trying to figure out my motivations. Maybe I’m impatient and push things to their limits. Maybe I’m trying to be helpful but am overconfident in my abilities. Maybe I’m a lighter enthusiast so eager to show off my latest find that I forget I’m near something combustible. I’m looking for something broad enough that I can find a way to apply it in almost any scenario but narrow enough to still be unique. This ends up being much easier in theory than in practice, and depending on how central my Character is to the scene or how much time I have, might never happen at all. But I’m still always trying to work my way there because the longer the scene continues the more likely it is I’ll need it. The longer I need to sustain my Character, the broader their motivations may get based on my level of confidence in my ability to do so. As long as it feels like enough, it probably is, but as soon as I feel something is missing or doesn’t fit the current circumstances, I know that’s a good sign that I need to expand. My Character’s current behavior is always a symptom of a larger worldview, and if necessary I can always add another level of breadth. For example, if I’ve been operating from “my parents’ approval is important to me” but suddenly find myself in a scenario where that mindset isn’t particularly applicable, I can expand the mindset, turning it into something like “the approval of authority is important to me.” My desire hasn’t changed at all, I still want approval, but the source of this approval has expanded from two specific people (my parents) to a wide range of people (anyone of higher status), which should be easier to pursue in a variety of circumstances.
Once my Why is defined, I’m on pretty solid ground. All I have to do for the rest of the scene is pursue my goals while maintaining my worldview. I’m still receiving all new information as it’s added, but it’s being immediately filtered through my priorities. I’m not ignoring things that are unrelated to my goals and my perspective, but I’m having much larger emotional reactions to things that are related and I’m constantly trying to steer things back to whatever I care about. Operating through a Character’s worldview is like putting on a pair of colored glasses - if the lenses are red the whole world appears as some shade of red. Similarly, if my Character is anxious about their finances, they see everything in terms of how expensive it is. I view the world solely through the lens of this financial anxiety, so all my actions stem from the desire to save money and my challenge as a performer is to make as much of the scene as possible relate back to expenses. Hopefully I have solid enough association skills that this isn’t too difficult and the combination of logic and specifics I use in the process is entertaining for the audience.
It’s in this active application of my Character’s worldview and the pursuit of their wants where Duality becomes a key concept, that being
Everything inherently implies its opposite.
What this means is that in seeking any specific outcome I’m looking for where it isn’t just as much as where it is. Using “I want my parents’ approval” as an example, I’m not only looking to do things they would approve of (“If I win the science fair they’ll be so proud”), I’m also looking to avoid things they wouldn’t (“I can’t smoke cigarettes my parents would kill me”). As such, every goal is basically two goals - both “Accomplish X” and “Don’t Not Accomplish X”. While they lead to the same outcome, they do it through a contrasting approach. So while I have a singular goal, I have a dual focus; I’m looking for both what will get me closer to my goal (to pursue) and what won’t (to avoid).
Duality can be applied to any broad enough desire - if my Character wants everyone to like them, I’m essentially operating in two modes: create success (get people who don’t like me to do so) and maintain success (make sure the people who like me already don’t stop). Creating success starts from absence - I first recognize that another Character doesn’t like me and then I try to figure out what I can do to change that. Maintaining success is about cautious consistency - I continue to do the things I know other Characters like about me while keeping an eye out for any changes in their attitude toward the negative. In both cases I’m looking for where my goal isn’t just as much as where it is. If I’m a helper I look for people who need help. If I make messes I look for things that are clean. If I enforce the rules I look for where they’re being broken. If I set things on fire I look for things that aren’t in flames. I look for where my need is unfulfilled and then I figure out how to fulfill it. Duality applies to any goal that is sufficiently Perpetual, as the lack of permanent accomplishment means there is always something unaccomplished.
3,772 words ago I argued improv was simple, and it’s hard not to feel silly after using 3,772 words to explain why. But I stand by that thesis. With lots of practice the mystery begins to slowly fall away and what started as a million things to remember eventually becomes a few important necessities.
Notice all the information that enters the scene. Recognize where language places you in the past or future. See the duality in everything.
Pick something to care about.
Set an impossible goal. Make the things you do matter.
Act on it.
Pursue your goals without knowing exactly how they’ll be accomplished. Repeat behavior to make it consistent.
At the time time, remember that you are not your Character. As Character pursues their goals with solid reasoning and full commitment, Performer knows their place in the bigger picture. Character priorities aren’t always scenic priorities, and part of paying attention is recognizing when that’s the case. On the other hand, sometimes they are, so it’s helpful to know how to make and sustain solid Character choices when necessary.