This is a new exercise we’ve invented to add instant depth to otherwise 2-dimensional and clichéd characters.
I actually love using clichés in improv. I think using a clichéd or stock character can give you instant character posture, movement, attitude, voice, face, gait, genre, point of view, attitude, philosophy, accent and more. They are also very good at getting beginners to go bigger, open up, and extend the range of possible characters that they can improvise. They also knock people into a more playful spirit that stops improvisers thinking or worrying too much.
The criticism against clichéd or stock characters is that they are 2-dimensional with no depth, but I don’t think it has to be like this.
The cliché or stock character is just the initial inspiration for physicality, from which never ending depths of character, emotion, behaviour and objectives can be layered on top.
And the greatest tool to give instant depth to otherwise clichéd and 2D characters? You! That’s right, whatever stock or cliché character you are doing, there’s still a massive ‘YOU’ underneath it and that opens a never ending world of inspiration.
In the book Truth in Comedy they refer to wearing your character as a straw boater, meaning it sits lightly on top of you but the main thing is that there is a big honest you underneath.
Honest. When we’re honest in improvisation we have never ending inspiration of background to the character, and never ending possibilities in how we respond to each offer. Too much fear and honesty breaks down, as we think too hard in measuring our response for the best offer rather than just responding straight away.
Here are some exercises to practice so you can see what I mean:
Exercise 1: Solo Character
- Everyone in a supportive circle.
- One person at a time is given a clichéd stock character to perform. For example goblin, hunch back, vampire, old lady, witch etc.
- On count of 3 they commit fully to delivering the cliché of that character. This gives them a sudden change of voice, physicality, attitude etc, and the emotion change inspires a direction in improviser for the next step.
- After a couple of seconds they then say something incredibly honest about their actual real life and view of the world, whatever comes there and then, but keeping all the previous physicality and behaviour. Don’t fake, actually be honest and let you the thing you’re blocking and think you can’t tell anyone.
For example when I first lead this I ended being give Dracula that started like this:
“Mwa ha ha ha ha ha, the night is out and I have risen, mwa ha ha ha ha”
Which after a couple of seconds ramped into this:
“Mwa ha ha ha ha ha you see the thing is actually, that I got engaged the other day but the thing is I’m not allowed to actually tell anyone yet because my parents aren’t back from holiday, but I just have to tell someone because otherwise its stuck in my head and that just doesn’t feel right.”
This was honest about me there and then, and it added a new angle and a vulnerability to Dracula. And also a lot of story and scene potential – Dracula’s engagement and relationship with his middle class parents hasn’t been done before I don’t think.
You’re not just playing a dracula/hunchback/goblin, you’re playing your dracula/hunchback/goblin and what makes that one special is putting you into it.
This exercise also lead to goblins talking about their relationship history, a hunchback complaining about dentistry fees after a cap had fallen off his tooth, and an Old Lady pondering whether she should do an Open University Physics degree or not because she was “not sure if life is about avoiding madness and regret, or accepting that you’re going to have madness and regrets and living with them anyway”. All of them were very fun to watch, and very exhilarating for the group to play.
Exercise 2: Pairs
- Get two actors up at a time.
- Two actors are on the back wall.
- Give them the cliched stock character to perform. For example goblin, hunch back, vampire, old lady, witch, pirate etc.
- Count 1,2,3 and then they launch themselves with full commitment into that cliched character, throw caution to the wind.
- After a couple of seconds and a shout from the director they keep all that energy and behaviour but then talk about something honestly and real from their own lives. They also respond honestly and real with their own point of view.
For example two pirates jump on stage and after cries of ‘shiver me timbers’ and ‘walk the plank’ one said “I’m really getting tired working all these long hours”. The other responded honestly with huge amounts of empathy, and it prompted a really cool scene about pirate working hours culture.
This also has the benefit of getting people to be honest with their responses, and honest with their initiations.
Sometimes ‘improv freeze’ happens when people feel like they have to make everything up. But actually you just have to be yourself in the present moment. The character will release a different side of yourself you might not know about or try to hide away usually, but it’s still you.
You’re not making stuff up, you’re responding to the situation – just like real life.
Blog by Steve Roe, Director of Hoopla Impro