Looking for a fun improv warm-up with some character-building tools?
Everyone stands in a circle.
“Everyone think about someone you know really well. Think about their tics. How do they talk? How do they stand? What do they do with their hands?
“One at a time, in no particular order, each of you is going to enter the circle and – for 30 seconds – act and speak as the friend or family member you’re thinking about. You don’t need to have this person talk about themselves; I don’t need to know their name, their relationship to you, etc. Just inhabit them for 30 seconds. It can help to imagine what their doing right now while we’re doing this and do that. At the end of 30 seconds, I’ll clap, that person will exit the circle’s center and the next player will enter it.”
- “Acting is a series of tics.” In our most famous examples of “good acting,” a la Buzzfeed and the like, what’s credited is what the actor does while doing what the script says. Brando stroking the cat or washing his face. Pitt literally chewing during conversations. We know our loved ones’ tics, and respect them enough to play them real. I love entering stage and choosing to talk/act like someone I know well. It’s a fast way to jump into a rich character.
- A character without an emotional perspective is a caricature. We know our acquaintances’ chacteristics; we know our “friends”‘ behaviors and we know our loved ones’ patterns of emotional behavior. The funniest moments in this exercise come when a player explores something their person cares about.
- You can build your character off of one choice. Their posture. Something they always say. How they react. Something they react to. Start with one choice – commit to it – and you’ll find the rest. Our subconscious knows our loved ones.
“Everyone think about a celebrity impression they can do. It doesn’t have to be a “good” impression, just a committed one. Again, think about their tics. Again, your impression can be built on just one thing. How do they talk? How do they stand? What’s a famous line?
“Now, think of a regular old occupation. Fry cook. Carpenter. Surgeon. Doesn’t matter.
“One at a time, in no particular order, each of you is going to enter the circle and – for 30 seconds – act and speak as the celebrity doing that occupation. It doesn’t matter if no one gets who you’re trying to be as long as you’re committed to trying. Inhabit their tics, speak in their voice and just focus outward on the task at hand. At the end of 30 seconds, I’ll clap, that person will exit the circle’s center and the next player will enter it.”
- One line can fuel the rest. In a show where each improviser played one character throughout, I was given the suggestion of a German. I didn’t want to do “angry nazi” and I struggled to think about a German accent. And then I remembered Val Kilmer‘s “It’s so early; let’s get some coffee” character from The Saint. And I was set for the show. An impression – however, terrible – gives us a quick filter through which to engage our scene.
- Contrast is fun. Think of a high status person confined in a low status job – Liam Neeson suffering stupid people behind a theater’s popcorn counter. Or a withdrawn person in a commanding job – Mitch Hedberg, say, launching a battalion. Now, coming up with one thing out of the ether in-the-moment is a success, coming up with a contrasting thing too can be asking too much (outside of this exercise). But A) try it, it’s fun and B) after your scene partner has come up with one thing, you can endow them with the contrasting thing.
“Everyone think about an animal. Go around the circle and say what animal each player was thinking about. Now, shift left; each player has the animal of player on their right. Go around the circle and review players’ new animal. In this round you are going to personify that animal. This isn’t Richard Scarry – you are not a humanoid animal – you are a human with the animal’s characteristics. Posture? Voice? Facial expression?
“Now, think about something you personally care about. Anything – as long as you feel about it.
“One at a time, in no particular order, each of you is going to enter the circle and – for 30 seconds – personify the animal while sharing your perspective on that something you care about. At the end of 30 seconds, I’ll clap, that person will exit the circle’s center and the next player will enter it.”
- Again, Contrast is fun. A mouse squeaks about predatory lending. A jackal cackles about meditation. Enjoy here and try it on stage too.
- A vulnerable character can make a hard truth more palatable. You can rip into a political party and if you act like a duck while doing it members of that party might tolerate it. They might even laugh.
- We can find ourselves in strange places. In class, Jessi Schmale got “giraffe.” Thinking about how she’d personify the animal and what she cared about personally led her to enter the circle, stretch herself tall as she ate greens and talked about how she only ate healthy because delicious bad-for-you food didn’t sit well with her. If she was given llama, she might have talked about her love for yoga.
“Player One gives a name – for example, Pepper van Diesel. Player Two gives a story inspired by the name – for example, Texan oil fortune heiress. Player Three then enters the circle and for 30 seconds embodies that character and does a monologue – for example, (with a sassy southern accent and a cowboy’s posture) ‘No body’s smarter, faster nah-oar coarser than this gal…’
“At the end of 30 seconds, I’ll clap, Player Three will exit the circle’s center and Player Two will now give a name, Player Three will give the story and Player Four is on embodiment/ monologue duty.”
- Pimping is fun.
- Enthusiastic acceptance of an endowment is fun for everyone.
“One at time, in no particular order, each player will enter the circle and create five characters. Try using the learnings of previous rounds. Pick a posture. Engage an environment. Endow yourself. Then speak a line of dialogue in that character’s voice. Then everyone else also assumes that character and speaks that same line. Then the player in the circle does a new character and then everyone on the circle mirror. Repeat. After her/his fifth character, the player in the circle says, “One,” in that fifth character’s voice. And everyone else mirrors the delivery. Same with “Two” and so on to “Five” – all in the voice of that fifth character. Then a new player enters the circle, and the exercise resets.
- Instead of counting “One” to “Five” all as the fifth character, try going back through each previous character – one for each number.
- You each have a wealth of characters you can do.
- You can each do each other’s characters.