Updated: Jul 18
Each Improv class has a focus.
From the confidence building and inhibition breaking of beginners lessons, to awareness and learning to listen, through to the mechanisms of endowment and status to wider narrative and acting techniques as you progress.
On a mild November night in a central Newcastle hotel our Long Form class engaged in a sessions focusing on “character”, on embodying someone else, using all the tools we had available, accent, posture and the focus was something we hadn’t done before.
An exercise created by School of Improv director Bev Fox.
Exercise: Character Cafe
“Take a couple of minutes to think of some people you know who are interesting characters. They can be people you know now or from the past. You may know them well or not much at all, like or loathe them. You are looking for people with distinctive characteristics, such as the way they speak, their posture, mannerisms and traits, their overall demeanour and attitude.
Write a short list of their names on a piece of paper. Two or three will do to be going on with.
You are now going to pick one to portray in a scene between two strangers in a café.”
Bev sets the café with 2 tables and 4 chairs, and the entrance door is decided. There is a serving counter at the back, and she explains another improviser will play the small role of café owner if and when needed.
“Your focus should be on playing your character truthfully, how they interact and respond to the other in this given situation. Commit to the character fully. Don’t fall out of role or judge yourself if the voice or movement isn’t exactly like them. It’s not an impression. We don’t know who you are playing or ever need to know. You don’t need to use their real name.
Concentrate on inhabiting their skin and try your best to bring a true sense of this real person to the table.
Let’s start with one character already there, and the other will arrive.”
Improvisers Kate Murphy and Ian Mayor took on the exercise.
Three years into improv and I’m rather aware I’m not the best actor in the world (heck, I’m barely in the top five), so I started this exercise thinking of personalities that were big. Someone distinctly, almost clumsily, not me.
This drew me to extremes.
There’s a guy I’ve worked with a couple of times who is almost aggressively animated. Arrogant, loud, larger than life. This felt possible but maybe too domineering and I was uncertain what energy that would bring to a scene. He was French too, and I wasn’t sure I could hold the accent.
Another colleague came to mind who has an very “visible” way of thinking, her face and focus are amazing, seemingly shocked by the ideas presented to her. This really held appeal.
Then, weirdly my mind turned to George Clooney. Charming, laid back, comfortable in his skin. If ever there was an opposite of me, it’s this guy.
There are also many different Clooney’s to choose from, the smooth Danny Ocean Clooney, the narcissist Ryan Bingham Clooney (Up in the Air, great film)… the super skeevy Clooney of Burn After Reading. And they all possess an inherent Clooneyness which could be fun to riff on and I could maybe do the accent…
I wasn’t sure where I’d go, exactly, but when the scene was called, I stood up, Kate stood up and in the time it took me to step on the stage I’d settled on some manner of Clooney.
Doing accents is hard. Especially when you’ve got it in your head you’re not going to have a good time when you come to do it. Looking back, that was where I’d been going wrong: thinking about how it’s going to go before it’s happened, thinking about it going badly, and thinking.
In five years of improv I’ve learned that using your head is a bad idea. When you stand up in front of people, whether those people are a small group in a workshop with just their socks on, or a dark room full of gently glowing audience faces, half-eager and half-nervous above their honey-coloured beers, if you start thinking – and worst of all, start thinking about yourself – you’ve sent your scene to an early grave.
If instead you forget you ever had a brain in the first place, you’re in for a beautiful night. You don’t need it. You’re better off getting up there with nothing more than a stupid grin on your face and a big heart in your chest and the rest will take care of itself.
My heart was pounding hard when I got up in front of my workshop friends and their socks. ‘Enter a café as someone you know, with complete commitment to their voice and face and everything they do’. Okay, who do I know? I know a Geordie nurse who has taken my bloods a couple of times over the last few years and gives me my flu jab every twelve months, and I feel something like love for her; she is soft and strong and says “Good lass” when I breathe in for the needle. I look forward to rolling my sleeve up for her every October. But I have something of hers already – a similar accent – and if this exercise was going to be worthwhile, I was going to need something bigger. I also know an extrovert from Wyoming, who wears sports caps and works her local stand-up circuit.
I adjusted the dark-green peak of my cap as I waited for my order at the counter.
The “Cafe” was four chairs, set out as if at two tables.
Previous performers doing the exercise had sat on the different tables but my instinct was to sit with Kate. This was a mainly a stagecraft decision, we’d already seen people sit apart and talk across the stage.
In my head I was entering scene as a jet-lagged, slightly weary Ryan Bingham, the travel loving, charmingly amoral business-Clooney from Up in the Air. But when I entered stage right, I was already (inevitably) a more clumsy and less slick guy, I “picked up” a tray with a large coffee balanced on it, shuffled towards Kate and asked:
“Do you mind if I sit here, Miss?”
I’m always somewhat disappointed in my own voice and here was no exception. The words that left that my mouth felt warmly American, but it certainly wasn’t that of a Clooney type. The mere act of speaking had unlocked someone different, more timid, far less movie star.
I travel a little with work and I’ve met a million people who have a kind of shell shocked jetlag about them. They’ll occasionally chat to you in the hotel bar or an airport cafe, tell you about their family or their job. All they really want is a conversation, simple human connection while far from home.
Heck, I’ve been that guy, so now that’s who I was. Older than me, wearier and probably with a moustache. Oddly paternal. I was “George”.
As I took my Large white chocolate cappuccino with a “Thank you so much” from the side of the stage, this voice already felt worlds away from the few I’d tried in the past. Until now, I’d never ventured far from my own accent, and with this one, I couldn’t rush through it or hide from anything. It’s a slow, loud, indulgent drawl; every word is relaxed and emphasised, as if she has just learned something surprising and is simultaneously experiencing a great idea in its foetal stage.
Ian’s fellow American entered – gentle, looking like his head was busy with fast thoughts, like a human greyhound, and wearing a beige satchel in my imagination – and asked to sit in the empty chair next to me. Though the person he’d brought on was reserved, he was equally as attentive, and bold, with a strong sense of being ready. He’d asked to sit at a table with a stranger, after all. It was going to be interesting to see how someone like this responded to what he’d let himself in for.
Kate, or Susan, as she now was was an avalanche of words.
Energetically attentive, easy to play off and by glorious accident we were both American. The call and response of the scene was me uttering a simple sentence and her responding with long strings of prose.
My stagecraft brain told me I could just get out of the way and let her gab, noting her flurry of observations about the coffee, sorry, white hot chocolate we were drinking, which was both a world building note (this was a now a Starbucksy, coffee place) and hint of mania (what maniac orders white hot chocolate?), there was a real character here and it was great fun to watch.
I figured George wouldn’t be wearing glasses, so I took mind off and, in an oddly fumbling gesture, slid one of their arms into the neck of my sweater. This act aged me about ten years.
I then settled into myself, my chocolate and a very one sided conversation.
He was, of course, welcome to take the chair beside me. Vladimir Putin could ask to take a seat next to my character in a cafe and she would welcome him with the same enthusiastic geniality. The woman on whom I was basing my character envelopes someone when she talks to them, like she were extending her arms in a hug shape and bringing the person into her, without having to use her arms at all.
I was having to move my mouth in a similarly enveloping way to get the words out as they would come out of her: “Oh, you got the white chocolate too?” I’d never taken this long to say a seven-word sentence before. It was like fitting my mouth round a head-sized ball of hardened toffee with every word. Ian’s American accent was a nice contrast, a voice just like the demeanour he was inhabiting: considered, soft, and collected.
The next minute was filled mostly by my voice, telling him about the other drinks I’d had here, and how they come in Extra Large. He gave me the floor, looking in stunned silence at me as I closed each of my long sentences, so after I finished one, I began another. Our audience were enjoying this.
We’d found The Game.
I like improvising with Ian because I can strike an unspoken deal with him early in a scene. He’s a good listener, and within the first few moments I know what has been agreed; I know which side of give-and-take we’re each starting on, meaning we can quickly establish The Game. It’s the thing I love most in improv – the ‘click’ moment you and your partner fall onto the same page and both know where you need to go. The moment the playing begins. Ian also has a way of telling you, “I’m enjoying what you’re doing, keep doing that” without moving his mouth or even his face much.
So the audience and Ian were having a good time. I was uncomfortable when I’d started this, but now the warm wash of laughter, the second-best approval sound in the world, was in the room. Things were good. Because I was doing an exercise where I was unsure of how it was going to go, I found myself in a state of having absolutely no control – a shaky, unfamiliar, amazing feeling – and at the same time a state of knowing I could be responsible for more laughter if I kept going. An improv maxim regularly reiterated by Bev and Ian (teacher Ian) was at play: if they like it, do more.
The exercise was one of character, being someone else in demeanour, voice and thought. And I felt we were doing more than ok. We’d found a groove, were having a lot of fun and the audience were clearly into it.
Susan/Kate was a beacon of energy and enthusiasm. Overwhelmingly and remarkably so, her accent was a joy of drawling vowel sounds and ear-catching phrasing.
And she was a hoot, too.
Impossible to confine to polite smalltalk, keen to regale you with any detail of her life that was vaguely, tangentially or thematically related to the conversation in hand. I’ve met this character, or people close to her, a babbling stream of friendly consciousness which I realise now is usually a defensive trait, I wish I’d seen that at the time.
Anyway, my character’s job was to weather the storm of her verbal assault with stoic good humour. I couldn’t resist an aside to the audience, an exasperated, non-verbal acknowledgment that I was trapped by my own manners at this cafe table. The room laughed.
Honestly, letting Kate riff and just riding out the storm displaying slight variations of polite frustration would have been enough for the scene. I had so much react to and the audience were clearly enjoying the disparity of our characters, but I wasn’t giving much in return.
When Susan talked at length about her job, eight years as a stand-up comic (part time), I saw the chance to turn the tables, Or at least slightly railroad the optimism train by asking the very loaded question;
“Is there a future in that, miss?”…
Let’s see how Susan handles that.
END OF PART 1 (Part 2)