Prioritizing Character Over Plot exercises

“I love opium.”

It’s a fine line between a character evoking a plot and a character reacting to their reality. A very fine line. But I believe that attention to that line can mean the difference between a scene where improvisers force a sequence of events dependent on an audience’s satisfaction with a resolution and a scene where characters are engaged in the moment of their reality with an audience reacting to – and investing in – a character’s consistency regardless of “sense.”

The following is a series of exercises geared toward prioritizing characters in-the-moment over improvisers setting-up-situations-to-be-negotiated.

The following is all about how to make our plots “nothing” and our characters EVERYTHING. The key will be having emotions and letting repetition be their explanation.  Exercises that court plot-heavy scenes by focusing on genres allow players to practice prioritizing their characters over figuring out a situation.

WARMUP –  Get in a circle, Crazy 8 it.

And while still in a circle…

ROUND(S) OF PERSONAL FEELINGS – Feel something about something YOU feel passionately about. I like to do this in two rounds.

Personal Feelings Round 1: Around the circle, give a Self Contained Emotional Statement about something YOU personally feel – it’s about YOU; it’s assumed to be habitual even if it’s not consistent (ex, “Marvel’s better than DC,” “I struggle with living”). Express that feeling aloud as you would in your head, as opposed to a tempered statement you might give at a cocktail party – where you might curb your enthusiasm out of fear of seeming uncool. Example: “Blues Traveler sucks” vs “I guess I’m just not that big a fan of Blues Traveler.”

Personal Feelings Round 2: Same sentiment, same way around the circle. Now put extra emphasis on making the feeling activated by something imagined in the scenemaking explicit the something that is making you feel in that moment. Players are to try and do a more actively triggered version of their line in Round 1.  Example: “Booooooos Traveler!”

NOTE: In the spirit of Seinfeld’s “not that there’s anything wrong with that” approach, either the “reaction in my head” or the “reacting to something,'” initiation can establish patterns of emotional behavior – so no real need to nit pick. But. Reacting to something is always more engaging than talking about how you react to something. “Yeah, drink Calvin’s piss, Number 23!” vs “I love NASCAR.”

CASCADE OF MUTATING/TIME JUMPING/STARGATING PERSONAL FEELINGS – Still in a circle. Player One shares a feeling – something they habitually feel about themselves or about something active in their lives. Extra points for a reaction to something active over an emotionally-flat explanation of the way that you feel about something.

Around the circle, Player Two maps Player One’s personal feeling onto a character in a different world – those of our actual world and others. Player Three filters the same feeling through a new genre/persona. And around the circle such that Player One is the last to change the details that evoke the same feeling. Player Two then starts the next cascade with her own personal feeling. And so on.  For example, “I hate being in a cubicle,” followed by “I hate fences,” as a cowboy, followed by, “I hate gravity’s confines,” as an alien, etc.

Realize you can say, “I hate my commute!” and “Flurking teleportation!” with the same conviction that makes an audience “buy” your feeling without an explanation.

And remember Tag-outs, Split Screens and Pivots with a helping of Help Desk dynamics (and a side of To The Ether) – repetition and commitment are the only explanation needed. An idea often runs out of steam, even with tangents and evolutions; but a feeling has eternal life because it has infinite catalysts, especially in improv where we can imagine anything. In a plot-driven show, Tag-outs, Split Screens and Pivots are limited by their ability to contribute to the narrative. In a show driven by character and emotion, these tools that transport us to different scenes can deliver us to new – but resonant – worlds. “Oh, my mom’s going to be so happy!”/”I (as Mom) am so happy,” vs “I love big dogs!”/ “Clifford, you’re my favorite!”/ “Cerberus, you’re my best friend.”

And while still in a circle…

ROUND(S) OF FORCED FEELINGS – Feel passionately about a random suggestion. I like using the game Taboo or Catch Phrase to generate a random word. Again, let’s do this in two rounds: As if expressing yourself to your best friend and then as if directly reacting to the object that evokes your feeling.

Everyone can now sit down – except for two players.

GENRE HOPPING – Two Players on stage.  Players are instructed to start a scene as shades of themselves.  Give a suggestion of a location and encourage players to “feel something about something.”  Then, with those base feelings established, tell players they’re now doing the same scene in given genres: Soap Opera, Western, Horror, Fantasy, etc.  Feel free to make it super specific, “Star Wars,” “High School Musical,” “Diablo Cody,” etc.  The game Smash Up is a great reference for different, and specific genres.  Give each set of players several genres to work through.

The “danger” becomes two characters who genuinely felt about their initial situation now focus too much on the details of the given genre.  Players should accept the world of the genre but prioritize being characters who genuinely feel about each other and their surroundings.

This is the “nit pick” critical to this exercise: Who are we (the audience) hearing? The character or the improviser? Hearing the improviser navigate though genre twists has some appeal – as long as they are accepting and as long as the improviser doesn’t lean too hard into either being “the bemused visitor” in “our guide to Crazy Town.”  Still, it’s always more satisfying to see a genre-based scene where the focus is on characters’ feelings with genre as a backdrop, rather than the genre being the scene’s main character.

WORLD HOPPING – Two players on stage. The rest ready on the wings.  A more blown-out version of this exercise is already on this site, but the point here will be on forcing moves to new worlds while staying focused on characters and relationships.

Two players start a scene inspired by the suggestion of “a relationship.”  Players are instructed to both make decisions about each other and how they’d feel about themselves and their surroundings if they were alone on stage.

Players ready on the wings are to either heighten a particular character through a Pivot or the relationship through a Split Screen.

Pivoting Through Worlds – With the Pivot we’re going to focus on heightening one character through showing him or her through the lens of different worlds. In transporting the character, we seek to provide additional stimuli to evoke the character’s Personal Game from the initial scene – how the player felt about who s/he is, what s/he has and/or what s/he is doing.

For example, suggestion is “Host and Party Planner.” In the initial scene Player One has terrible tastes that Player Two, in subservient mode, tries not to betray how terrible she feels Player One’s decisions are.  Player Three pivots on Player Two to bring them both to a Vampire’s world and expresses a desire for black leather everything.  Player Two knows to heighten being subservient while disliking choices (ex: “Black leather vampires might be played out, but certainly still works for YOU”).  After the scene is allowed to progress, Player Four pivots on Player Two and says, “I want my guests to see the heads of those who disagreed with me on pikes as they’re walking in.”

Splitting Worlds – With the Split Screen we’re going to focus on heightening the relationship through showing it through the lens of different worlds. In transporting the relationship, we seek to provide additional stimuli to evoke each character’s Scenic Game from the initial scene – how the players felt about who each other are, what s/he has and/or what s/he is doing.

For example, suggestion is “Father and Daughter.” In the initial scene Players are at a baseball game. Dad is ignorant to baseball but trying to pretend he isn’t. Daughter knows and loves the game and is embarrassed by Dad’s ignorance. Player Three pulls Player Four into a Split Screen as Father and Daughter watching a jousting match in Medieval times.  After the scene is allowed to progress, Player Five pulls Player Six into a Split Screen where Caveman Dad is pretending to seem knowledgeable about rocks while Caveman Daughter rolls her eyes.

Keys to deciding when to do a Pivot or a Split Screen:  If one character is always reacting to their fellow character, pivot that character into a new scene.  If characters are more or less in agreement, heighten their relationship in a Split Screen.

Throughout these activities the focus is the same: Even if we’re brought to some strange world, we want our characters to react as though they actually live in that world.  Throughout time and space, people aren’t calling attention to the worlds that are their day-to-day and as improvisers we shouldn’t either.  

We want to play with worlds and “crazy” situations beyond our own day-to-day lives but the fun is not in our choice to make those worlds but in our ability to live in them.

Surprise is improv’s given. It’s acceptance of imagined choices that’s improv’s surprise.

3 thoughts on “Prioritizing Character Over Plot exercises

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