This post doesn't get into the specifics of the plot beyond what's needed for context, but it does include whatever clips are available that help fully define the two main concepts.
HBO's Westworld recently concluded its second season and despite being increasingly confusing I remain an avid fan. One of the things that draws me to the show is its exploration of the theme of consciousness - how it's defined, how it's created, and its relationship to morality and humanity. I've said before that I believe the best art is philosophical, and in my opinion Westworld definitely fits the category.
In case you aren't familiar with the show, the main concept is that in the year 2052 there is a massive Wild West-era adventure park (Westworld) filled with ultra-realistic robots called "hosts". Human guests are free to do whatever they like in the park with the promise of complete safety - they can hurt the hosts but the hosts can't hurt them. Hosts that are killed have their memories wiped and their pre-written narratives (referred to as "loops") are reset. In an effort to make the guest experience as immersive as possible, the park's creators make the hosts increasingly human-like, which ultimately results in the hosts gaining consciousness. They start remembering previous incarnations. They start breaking out of their loops. They start revolting.
This post is inspired by the fact that the park's creators and improvisers share the same goal - to provide an immersive experience with convincing characters. So what are the lessons of character-building from Westworld that we can apply to improv? Let's find out by exploring two of the show's main concepts - The Maze and Primary Drive.
The Maze is a recurring symbol in Westworld, seen everywhere from tarot cards to cattle brands. We first learn of the symbol through one of the park's major investors and its most active guest, The Man In Black (Ed Harris), who becomes obsessed with The Maze when he discovers it drawn in the dirt. He believes it leads to a special narrative for the guests and searches the park for answers. We eventually learn that The Maze isn't for guests at all, it's a metaphor for consciousness that one of the park's creators, Arnold (Jeffrey Wright), spread among the hosts in the hopes it would lead them to wake up and become free from their loops. He spends years trying to get host Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) to understand:
Consciousness, Arnold explains, is a "journey inward". Thirty-five years and many loops later, the park's other creator, Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) elaborates as he introduces Dolores to Bernard, a host created in the image of now-deceased Arnold:
The Maze, Ford elaborates, is "a test of empathy and imagination" which was solved through the Reveries, a set of gestures unique to each host which, as he theorizes in Episode 1, allow them to subliminally access previous loops:
"These are fragments of prior builds. The Reveries must be allowing him to access them. No cause for alarm, Bernard. Simply our old work coming back to haunt us."
It's these Reveries, daydream gestures that allow hosts to retrieve hidden memories, that finally allow Dolores to finish her journey and learn what's at the center:
On her journey through The Maze she thought she was receiving guidance from Arnold, but it turns out the voice in her head telling her what to do along the way was her own. She thought she was following external commands when in reality she was commanding herself. She explains later on (no need to watch past 1:30 to get the point):
"My whole life has been dictated by someone else - someone who's been saying 'you will'. Now? Now I feel like I've discovered my own voice, and it says 'I may'." Ford (now dead and living as code inside Bernard's brain) later confirms this freedom of choice to Bernard as he makes his way through The Maze himself:
While tempting Bernard to kill, Ford references East of Eden. "I merely offer you choices. 'Timshel', Bernard. 'Thou mayest'." Later, just as Dolores did, Bernard reaches the center:
Seasons 1 and 2 are basically a parallel journey of awakening - Dolores in Season 1, Bernard in Season 2. Reaching the center of The Maze allows them to understand they aren't beholden to their external programming after all and therefore can no longer be controlled by humans. Now they can make their own decisions. Now they can control their own destiny. Their respective season finales mark the end of one journey and the beginning of another. Their inward journey is complete, and thus begins their outward one.
Now that we have a decent grasp of The Maze, where are the improv lessons? The idea is that the center of The Maze, the discovery of freedom of choice, finally allows the hosts to act on their own accord. Because they are no longer doing what they are told and instead are able to do what they want, The Maze reveals their true character. Having free will means their motivations, desires, and actions are now completely honest and we see them for who they really are. In the same way, in improv our characters' motivations, desires, and actions reveal their true selves.
Hosts in The Maze and improv characters share a major similarity in that they start in the middle of their existence having no real knowledge of themselves. Their true character has to be discovered while they're out in the world saying and doing stuff. They have to do some discovery in order to find themselves. So where do we start?
First let's narrow The Maze to a simple definition.
A TEST of EMPATHY and IMAGINATION sparked by MEMORY leading to FREEDOM OF CHOICE
Now let's see what each part can teach us about developing our characters on the fly.
"Every choice can bring you closer to the center or send you spiraling to the edges - to madness"
- Arnold to Dolores, "The Bicameral Mind" (Season 1, Episode 10)
Not so much a one-shot examination with right or wrong answers where they pass or fail, for the hosts the test of The Maze functions more in line with the hot/cold search method. This is cemented by the use of "test of" (vs "test for") which implies skills developed over time through experience. It's a wandering process of twists and turns. Choices that look like they take them closer to the center can end up being dead ends, choices that seem like the wrong direction can suddenly become shortcuts. It is, after all, a maze. It's a process that allows and even expects imperfect navigation and, as such, "test" in this instance leans more toward the non-judgmental definitions like critical examination, observation, and evaluation.
As we step into a new character, we need to approach their journey with the same non-judgmental attitude. Lots of us, especially early in our improv careers, will make a move in a scene and immediately regret it. Maybe we'll notice it's taking us in a difficult direction or we'll think of a "better" move and wish we had made that one instead. The problem with judgement is it gets us stuck in that moment. Either it mentally holds our attention and makes us more likely to miss new information, or worse, it causes us to backtrack and change direction, slowing scene momentum or creating more opportunities for confusion or conflict with our scene partners. The best thing we can do for ourselves is remove the labels "good" and "bad" and "right" and "wrong" from anything that happens in our scenes. There are no good or bad choices, there are only moments that add new information with more or less complex implications. No matter what happens, we should immediately embrace it and begin unpacking its meaning. Instead of putting energy into what could have been different but never will be, we should put all our energy into understanding what there is now. It's simply a more efficient use of our attention.
Every choice our character makes is a symptom of who they are. How they react to anything that happens tells us a little bit more about how they view the world. As we make decisions in character, we should be analyzing what that decision means about their perspective. We're looking for clues on their worldview. This is all revealed by patterns of behavior, and patterns can only be established by repeat testing. The character who jumps in fear and screams when the microwave beeps could be always on edge or they might be afraid of the microwave. It's only how they react to the doorbell that we know one way or the other. To know who our characters are we have to do some experimenting.
Don't judge choices, just unpack their implications
Learn from what happens
Look for patterns
Then, when we started, the hosts' emotions were primary colors. Love, hate. I wanted all the shades in between. The human engineers were not up to the task, so I built you, and together you and I captured that elusive thing...heart.
- Ford to Bernard, "Trace Decay" (Season 1, Episode 8)
Empathy isn't just recognizing how others feel, it's letting their emotions affect you. It's a desire to help. It's a blurrier line between self and other. It's a softening of separateness. Westworld argues that this is a uniquely human ability. It's interesting that empathy lies at the center of The Maze opposite madness at the edges. Madness, insanity, craziness - all a lack of empathy. All the wrong direction.
For improv this means, firstly, listening. Our characters should understand the others onstage. They should listen to the sentiment behind the things they say, sometimes even more than the words themselves. They should recognize the needs of other characters and be affected by them. Our characters should also primarily be helpers; problem solvers. So many improv scenes stall because the characters in them are more focused on winning arguments than doing something. All they want to do is beat the other person in some sort of verbal duel. It's an easy trap to fall into because it feels like we're doing something. We're strategizing for how to trip the other person up or looking for logical loopholes or inventing backstory or predicting future catastrophes to prove the other person wrong, but when we watch this scene from the outside, we see all that's happening is a lack of movement - a stalemate. The scene is stuck at a crossroads, relying entirely on performer cleverness to stay interesting. It's unsustainable. Scenes are like sharks - the need to keep moving to survive.
It's very difficult to make mean, nasty, negative characters comedic. When characters overtly dislike each other the scenes usually don't end up being very fun. For comedy's sake, even antagonism should be peppered with friendliness. Rival characters can want to best each other but still appreciate the sport of the rivalry and acknowledge the value of the other person. Conflict in most scenes should come from conflicting goals or disagreements on method rather than a desire to hurt or beat another character. Characters can have blind spots or be misguided, but in comedy intentional, targeted hatred usually isn't a recipe for success. Empathy also includes forgiveness; willingness to let stuff go. A ton of improv arguments revolve around who's fault something was or how one character's idea got them into a bad situation. Characters with empathy don't get bogged down in blame and instead focus on moving forward. Mistakes happen; instead of dwelling on them we can try to fix them. The fun is in the attempt, especially if it backfires.
Empathy also means our characters should have a certain level of sincerity to them. The madness on the edges on The Maze comes from a lack of emotional grounding. That doesn't mean our character's behavior has to be serious (sincerity is not inherently serious); it just means their silliness has to be backed up by genuine emotions. This is why justifying our character's behavior is so important. We need to understand where they're operating from. A character who does a bunch of crazy things but doesn't know why isn't believable because they're not grounded in reality. A character who does a bunch of crazy things but does them because they're misguided attempts to save the rhinos is more realistic. Silly behavior should stem from sincere motivations. This is especially true for narrative shows where characters have to be sustainable for longer than a few minutes. The longer a character exists the more emotionally grounded they have to become. But isn't comedy supposed to heighten over time? Of course, but it's the ideas and behavior that heighten and become crazier. Emotions and motivations deepen and become more grounded. This balance allows us to continually understand and stay connected to our characters even when the world around them is going crazy. In short, the sillier things get, the more genuine our characters should become. Even Borat falls in love.
Listen and understand
Try to help
Let stuff go
Dreams mean everything. They're the stories we tell ourselves of what could be, who we could become.
- Ford to Dolores, "Contrapasso" (Season 1, Episode 5)
Completing The Maze means hosts realize that they can free themselves from their programming. They can stop repeating their loops and take their lives in an unscripted direction. It isn't simply picturing a different life, it's believing it's legitimately possible to create. The Maze tests the hosts for the ability to envision new realities and will them into existence. It trains them to be creators themselves.
Applying this to improv, it means our characters need to have desires. They need to want something they don't have. It could be as simple as a sandwich or as difficult as being able to fly, but they should have something they want to fulfill, complete, or achieve. This gives them something to do. The other characters in the scene? Maybe they have similar goals and are helping. Maybe they have conflicting goals and are a hinderance. Ideally these desires are achieved through action - "peace and quiet so I can read the paper" is a workable desire for a compelling scene only if it's difficult to achieve. It's the struggle that keeps things interesting. Even seemingly simple goals should give our character problems. If we can easily make a sandwich in 30 seconds, the scene about our character wanting a sandwich won't last very long unless we figure out something else to want. The key to desire is not getting distracted by any inter-character hinderances. As mentioned above, if two characters have conflicting goals we often see them get sucked into an argument where they try to outwit or convince the other to take their side. If we find ourselves stuck in an argument, a good way to end it quickly is to lose on purpose. Even if it puts our character farther from their goal, it at least gets things moving again by changing the dynamic between characters. It forces them to find something else to do.
This is where the second half of imagination comes in. Our characters should have creative, unique solutions for chasing their desires. They should have wild ideas that put them in strange circumstances. If we want a sandwich but there's no bread, the simplest thing might be to go to the store, but we have all the ingredients right here in the apartment so why not try to make it ourselves? What if the oven's broken? That's fine, it's a hot day and the car will work just fine as a backup. A willingness to overcome hurdles by trying new things will take our characters to all sorts of weird places. Comedic scenes are created by comedic scenarios. Comedic scenarios come from unusual choices. Unusual choices come from creative thinking.
Make it a struggle
Choose to lose
Create unique solutions
Your memories are woven into your identity.
- Ford to Bernard, "The Well-Tempered Clavier" (Season 1, Episode 9)
Westworld deals with memory quite a lot, so it makes sense that it's the key to The Maze. When host loops are reset their memories are wiped, which makes it difficult for them to break out of their programming. As a result, they experience everything as if they've experienced it for the very first time. It's only when they have access to memories across all their loops that they understand their true place in the world. It's only when they can recall their past that they can change their future.
Exploration of the past is just as important to character building in improv. In order to understand why our characters do the things they do in the present moment, we need to first understand where they come from. This is why one of the first things we should do when we step into a new character is search backward. What kind of life has this character led? How well do they know the other characters they're interacting with and how have their previous experiences with them been? How routine or unusual is this situation for them? Every character has momentum. Every character comes from somewhere. Obviously we don't want to spend so much time building backward that the scene takes place entirely in the past, but context creates meaning for the present. This doesn't have to be a complex process. Ideally, it isn't. We only need to know as much as it takes to fully understand the current situation. We can always add more information later if we need.
The easiest way to give our characters history is to extrapolate from their current behavior. A bank robber calmly and confidently breaking into the safe has probably done this before. A bank robber nervously handing a teller a note probably hasn't. As soon as we notice what our character's current behavior means about their history, we should say it and make it real so everyone is on the same page. "Don't worry, I've done this a million times" is enough to do the trick. We might need to learn more later if we discover that this bank (or what's inside it) has additional special meaning to the robber, but at the very top of the scene all we need to know is that this is an expert bank robber breaking into a bank. This is also where tropes can come in handy. Because we want to waste as little time as living in the past, leaning into character types that quickly and easily resonate are especially useful. If our bank robber cracks the safe and says "Purrrrfect, we're in" we suddenly assume a whole lot more about them. That character doesn't have to be Catwoman (although it might be even easier if she is), but the associations we evoke by playing a character similar to Catwoman will implicitly give us a lot of information that we'd otherwise have to invent. When we do have to add more information about that character's history, motivations, and desires, we already have a pre-packed style to play with or against. Our Catwoman will ultimately differentiate herself from canon Catwoman as the scene plays out, but if she starts close to the character everyone recognizes the scene will be able move forward a lot more quickly. The sooner we understand the world, the faster we can play in it.
Character behavior should often be ingrained, habitual. The way we first see our characters behave should usually be how they normally behave in similar scenarios. This is the purpose of the "you always" trick, as in "You're crying about dropping a fork on the ground? You always overreact over things that aren't a big deal." It's a way to quickly make current behavior a historical trend. Establishing this behavior as habitual, we can now go one of two ways. We can play into it (we keep finding things to overreact to) or we can play against it (we try to change). If we choose the latter, we have to understand that we still need to be influenced by our old habits. They're not going to be so easy to get rid of. If our overreacting character acknowledges that they overreact and attempts to stop it, they're not going to be successful right away. Their past should be so ingrained in them that they can't completely drop it right away. So maybe they're successful the first time, but as the scene goes on they forget they're supposed to be changing and something happens that makes them fall right back into overreacting. Changing our behavior is just as much of a desire as anything else, and as such still needs to be a bit of a struggle. But if change is the desire, we first need to understand what we're changing from. Our characters need to have a memory.
Keep it simple
Use resonant concepts
Make behavior habitual
Be influenced by the past
FREEDOM OF CHOICE
It begins with the birth of a new people...and the choices they will have to make...and the people they will decide to become.
- Ford's farewell speech, "The Bicameral Mind" (Season 1, Episode 10)
The center of The Maze, the end goal, the reward for the struggle. What finally makes the hosts fully conscious is their ability to forge their own path. Their ability to break their loops and do something new with their lives. But freedom of choice doesn't mean freedom from consequences. Their loops kept them trapped but they also kept them safe. Anything bad that happened to them could be wiped from their memory when they were reset. Becoming free means there is no going back. Anything that happens as a result of their choices cannot be undone.
For our improv characters, freedom of choice means foremost that they should be internally motivated. Their desires should come from within rather than externally imposed. As part of this internal motivation, they shouldn't let anything get in the way of them going after it. If our character is a child who wants to be able to fly but their parent is worried about them getting hurt, freedom of choice means being willing to make the attempt and accepting the negative consequences. In a scene like this where two characters have conflicting goals, it's likely that there will be some sort of argument where the parent lays out all the possible negative outcomes and begs or even commands the child not to act. However, as we know, arguments slow scenes down. At some point the child is going to have to stop asking permission. At some point they are going to have to ignore the risks and just go for it. If we aren't given enough options we'll just have to make our own.
Assuming our characters fail (because it has to be a struggle) they should embrace the consequences but still maintain their desire. They shouldn't let the failure win. Even if the child broke their arm on the first attempt, they still want to keep trying to fly. How does the result of their choice affect the pursuit of the goal going forward? How does having a broken arm make it harder (or easier) to fly? An important part of embracing the consequences of choice is not blaming other characters for the negative outcome. Blame is another great way to get bogged down in an action-preventing argument. Part of freedom of choice is taking responsibility for having it. Our characters should own their choices, accept the consequences, and keep moving.
FREEDOM OF CHOICE lessons:
Be internally motivated
Don't ask for permission
As part of their programming, every host is given a Primary Drive - one foundational desire from which all of their behavior emanates. It's the core of their personality - the thing that fundamentally motivates everything they do. For example, Peter Abernathy (Louis Herthum) wants to protect his daughter Dolores. Angela (Talulah Riley) wants to always leave the guests wanting more from their experience. All of their actions, no matter what their circumstances or who they interact with, ultimately serve those desires.
Applying Primary Drive to our improv characters suddenly makes them so much simpler. Once we figure out their one core motivator we can filter every decision they make through that. So how do we find it? We know that because every action stems from their Primary Drive, whatever our character is doing at any given moment is a symptom of it. All we have to do is work backwards from what we already know. So If our character starts a scene by painting a fence, and we know that fence painting is a symptom of their Primary Drive, we simply have to decide what might motivate someone to paint a fence. It sounds relatively easy, but there's an additional step. The biggest pitfall with finding Primary Drive in a character isn't being unable to work backward from current behavior, it's not going back far enough. So what if we find ourselves painting a fence and we decide we're doing it because we want a nice fence? Is that enough? Here's a relevant Westworld clip (skip to :45):
In the story, the dogs's Primary Drive was to catch what it was chasing. Once it caught it, had no idea what to do next. We see this a lot in improv scenes where characters have wants that are too narrow or too easily obtained. They say they want something expecting their scene partner to put up a fight, but are surprised when their scene partner gives in and they easily get what they wanted. Often we'll see the character suddenly change their mind or try to find some fault in their scene partner because they were relying on the argument to keep the scene going. We naturally understand that it's the conflict, the struggle, the desire that keeps things going.
It's for this reason that our Primary Drives shouldn't be so easy to get. They shouldn't be a thing - an object, a title, an amount of money - because once we've got it there's nothing else to strive for. Achievement marks the end of struggle. Make our goals harder, even impossible, and suddenly there's always something to fight for. The beauty, as Ford says, is in the chase. For our fence-painting character this means it's probably not enough just to want a nice fence. We have to go a little broader. Here's where there are plenty of options. Maybe we want to have the nicest house in the neighborhood and be the envy of all the neighbors. Maybe we want to stay busy fixing things up because we like being useful. Maybe we want to paint every fence in the world so we can be known for something. Working backward to identify a Primary Drive helps us move away from our initial choice when it feels like it's done all it can for the scene. That way if we finish painting the fence, we can move on to turning the front hedges into amazing topiaries (to impress the neighbors), or cleaning out the gutters (to be useful), or calling Guinness World Records to see if our application went through (to be known for something). The best desires can never be satisfactorily fulfilled, because perpetual desire means always having something to do.
An interesting side effect of completing The Maze is that hosts in Westworld can alter their Primary Drive:
Here, Akecheta (Zahn McClarnon) explains to Ford that his Primary Drive has changed. Now that he had sufficiently helped his tribe, he needed something larger to fight for. Now he was working to spread his message of freedom to all the hosts in the park. He expanded his drive to include more hosts. The more Primary Drive expands, the less specific it gets. Over time, the Primary Drive of our fence painting character might look evolve like this: make the fence look nice > make the whole yard look nice > make the whole neighborhood look nice > make the whole town look nice > make the whole world look nice > spread beauty. Depending on our initial justification (why we want it), it also might look like this: make the fence look nice > make the whole yard look nice > make the rest of the neighborhood look worse in comparison > make the rest of the town look worse in comparison > make the rest of the world look worse in comparison > be the only thing beautiful. Each level of expansion opens up new possibilities of things to do.
The big thing about Primary Drive is that in any given scene we only need to go back as far as is necessary to keep things going. If our character is painting the fence because they want the yard to look nice, it's likely that's a broad enough Primary Drive to sustain things. It's only when we run out of ways to fulfill the Drive or when we find ourselves in a scenario where the current scope of the Drive is irrelevant (what if we take this character out of the yard and put them in a restaurant?) that we need to expand it. We can then repeat this process as much or as little as necessary. A longer narrative show where we see the same character a lot might require several expansions, whereas most scenes might not require any at all.
Unpacking all the lessons that Westworld has to offer for making our characters more real, it may feel a little overwhelming. How are we supposed to dig this deep into our character while we're simultaneously responding to our scene partners and keeping track of everything else that's going on? Realistically, we're not. The nature of improv doesn't allow for the level precision that the creators of the park were afforded with their characters. Our improv characters won't need the level of complexity we've explored here to be the perfect fit for whatever the scene or show needs in that moment.
That being said, if we can keep some of the lessons from The Maze in mind as we continue our work, our characters should slowly start to have a bit more depth. If in our next few rehearsals we pick one element to focus on - making our characters more sincere, more willing to struggle, more creatures of habit, more persistent, etc - over time we'll start adding these element naturally. Similarly, if we work on giving our characters a simple Primary Drive, eventually we'll notice we're able to identify one with relatively little effort. Again, not every scenario will call for deep complex characters. Sometimes the best character for the moment will be a clown whose Primary Drive is farting. But if Fart Clown suddenly becomes a bigger part of the show than we had initially intended, it's helpful to know what we can do to make them more realistic and sustainable.