Acting. Webster’s defines it as: the art or practice of representing a character on a stage or before cameras. Fine. You’re acting when you’re pretending to be someone else. Then what’s “good acting”? Representing that character better. What’s “bad acting”? Representing that character worse. How does that relate to improv where the character only exists in what we do and what the audience sees? What about the 4th wall – so prominent in improvisation – that calls attention to the actor and the audience?
I like this definition for acting: Being convincingly in-the-moment.
You can be playing a mom who can’t find her toddler, a space pirate captain who just discovered a new world, or a regular guy caught on a regular day in his regular cube.
Be convincingly in that moment.
How do you do that?
GOOD AND BAD ADVICE AROUND BEING YOU
“Feel how YOU would feel in that moment?” Good advice. When making up circumstances, bring your self along for the ride. If you can “be” how you would be if that moment happened to you, great – that will certainly appear to the audience to be a natural reaction, because, well, it is; it’s you.
But can it be “natural” for a mom character to laugh when she loses track of her toddler? Of course.
“Play it REAL” is, in my opinion, terrible advice. Face it, in real life we’re mostly boring. We are rarely vulnerable enough to lay out and commit to big emotional reactions. We’re wary. We’re careful with our choices. We are too caught up in being “cool,” which Webster’s defines as “being detached.”
“Playing it real” can work for an improviser with a lot of caveats. And advice that requires a lot of caveats is bad advice.
CAVEAT-LESS ADVICE FOR ACTING NATURAL
Two concepts will enable an improviser to be convincingly in-the-moment:
* Focusing outward on your environment, fellow players and your own physicality
* Committing to however you choose to feel
Scripted actors are taught to not make it look like they’re waiting for their next cue. In unscripted acting we don’t have cues, but we still too often stand around clearly looking like we’re waiting for the next thing for us to contrive a reaction around.
In Improv As Improv Does Best, we acknowledge that the audience knows we’re creating a reality moment to moment. The audience wants to see you IN that moment, vulnerable to discoveries, affected by this imagined reality.
You can’t be in the moment if you aren’t seeing the moment. And if we appear to see the moment then however we choose to feel is born of that moment and will connect with the audience more than any contrived cleverness.
Imagine two scenes…
In Scene One your partner says, “This is my candy store,” to which you respond quickly, “Fuck, yeah; I love candy.”
In Scene Two your partner says, “This is my candy store,” causing you to look around at the myriad shelves and barrels filled to overflowing with candy before saying, “Fuck, yeah.”
Q: Which evokes a stronger response from the audience?
A: The one that expands the reality of the moment and sees you affected by it.
When we’re committed to seeing things in our character’s reality, then our character can have in-the-moment realizations. And, man, is that fun for the audience to see.
Two characters are talking about golf carts they’ve tricked out. In heightening, Player One talks about the skull he’s placed atop his gear shift. In grabbing that skull and seeing the shifter, the improviser realizes that golf carts have very limited gears, so when he says, “It makes me feel powerful when I’m shifting…into forward,” the audience goes nuts because they see the character make that realization in-the-moment.
When you are focused outward you will see your world. Then when you react to that world as you see it, the audience believes in your character.
Reaction to active elements on stage in-the-moment = Natural.
COMMIT TO HOWEVER YOU CHOSE TO FEEL
In improv we are creating our characters’ reality moment by moment. If you are consistent in how you chose to feel throughout those moments then damnit that’s your character’s reality. Your scene partner pulls out a Pez Dispenser and you start sobbing. True to your real life? Probably not. But if this character can’t not sob every time s/he sees the Pez Dispenser? That’s this character’s reality.
It’s in how we react to stimuli that the audience “knows” our characters. That first reaction might be random, but the second time is purposeful and the third time is expected. If at some future point Pez Dispenser emerges and you don’t sob, then the audience doubts your reality.
I don’t care how you choose to feel. Feel. Then keep feeling. Your commitment defines your character’s “natural” state.
We don’t need to justify our emotions with backstory or motivation. Improviser think explaining backstory grounds the character’s reality, but it often feels artificial and more often than not flatlines the emotion. In our true lives, when we explain why we’re feeling like we do we’re attempting to explain away our emotions. “I’m sorry I got mad; I had a tough day at work.”
Imagine two scenes…
In Scene One a player initiates with “Argh,” and then justifies that with “I’m in a bad mood because my cat dedicated in my shoes.” To which the second player responds, “Oh.”
In Scene Two a player initiates with “Argh,” then growls another “Argh” and then “ARGH.” The other player asks, “What’s wrong?” The initiating player says, “I don’t want to talk about it.” To which the second player responds, “Oh.”
Q: Which shows the audience a more compelling story about the initiating player?
A: The one that prioritizes continued, heightening emotion over explanation.
Never stop feeling to explain your feelings. Commitment to what you’re feeling is all the justification your emotions need.
There are exercises that’ll help key into natural play. Here are four: Active Emotions Exercises.
But if you ever find yourself explaining rather than expressing…
If you’re indicating more than you’re acting…
If some coach gets you in your head thinking “play it real” or “just react honestly”….
Focus outward and commit to feeling however you feel.