Location, Location, Location: An exercise about Connecting through Characters and Relationships

GUS, the delightful and talented team from The Baltimore Improv Group, opens its sets these days by asking the audience for “Three non-geographic locations.” Asked to come up and lead a practice, I brought this exercise with me. We had a lot of fun with it. You will, too.

Have you ever been in The White House? Ever gone into space? Ever visited an old West saloon? No? Well have you ever seen a television show or movie about one of those locations that you felt was “relate-able”?

The audience relates to Characters and Relationships even in “unrelatable” circumstances. As improvisers, we can go to wackier and wackier places as long as we center our scenes in knowable characters and relationships. And, remember, we know our characters and relationships through their patterns of emotional behavior.

As an improviser, have you ever been suggested a location or activity you’re not personally familiar with and as a result you end up playing a character who is “new” to the location/activity or just openly inept?

When the audience is engaged with Characters and Relationships they care way less about the authenticity of your mime and/or details. It’s the old Back To The Future Versus The Matrix dynamic: Because we were invested in Doc and Marty as people, knowing that once 85 MPH was achieved the Flux Capacitor sent you back in time was all that we needed. Conversely, because The Matrix was mostly filled with unemotional characters, nerds ruthlessly attacked the world’s nitty gritty.

Bottom line: This exercise will allow your group to more confidently explore far off worlds by finding a connection in Character and Relationships.

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION: An exercise about Connecting through Characters and Relationships.

At least 3 players are required. 6 players max will get on stage during any one run through the exercise.

In the post below (as well as in hyperlinked PDFs HERE and HERE) are lists of locations you can use for this exercise. Just print’em out, cut’em up, and put’em in some sort of bag. Or come up with your own. You can do this without the paper as prompts, but I believe that not having to rely on memory for the locations is one less reason to be hesitant starting the next iteration of the exercise.

STEP ONE: Designate 3 separate areas of your stage/practice space. In a room? Make upstage center one area, downstage left another, and downstage right the third. If you have a long enough stage, cut it in three sections. They don’t have to be big and they can ultimately overlap, but it’s helpful to have generally distinct areas to play in.

STEP TWO: Have players choose three locations from the bag. Tell them not to look at them yet. Now, a player can read one location aloud and place it face up in one “area.” Another player can read the second location aloud and place it face up in the second area. Now, two players will enter the remaining undefined area. They will read aloud the location off the final piece of paper. And then they will begin a Two Person Scene.

STEP THREE: Initiate first Two Person Scene by engaging in the environment/mime, articulating Self Contained Emotional Statements and reacting emotionally. Wherever you are, be affected. Feel something about something. This keeps scenes from being negotiations or plot-heavy – which often occur when players are focused primarily on addressing their locations. In the Gus practice, we’d been focusing on Personal Statements which ground us in our own attributes (our passions as well as our tics) as a proxy for “acting.”

Example – Location #1: Police Station. Player One initiates with the personal opinion that they might have more of an effect on crime with compassion. Player Two bristles at the notion, asserting that they are there to do their job, and that job is to uphold the law.

STEP FOUR: Map Location #1’s Relationship onto Location #2. Remember that we want to think about Relationship as defined by how two people interact, not by their roles. “Boss & Employee” is a relationship based on roles but it informs nothing about how improvisers react in a scene. Conversely, if one character keeps talking about high level concepts, frustrating another character who’s focused on the nitty gritty, that relationship provides a road map for the scene, regardless of the characters’ formal roles in relation to one another. Again, in the Gus practice, before getting into this exercise we ran a single Two Person Scene and had the cast define the characters’ relationship based on how they interacted. This set them up to successfully port relationships from one location to another.

Logistically, it was Player Three who edited the Location #1 scene by stepping into the designated space for Location #2 and engaging that environment. With only three players total in the Gus practice, one of the players in Location #1 stepped into Location #2 to join Player Three. With more players, you all wouldn’t necessarily have to have players in more than one location – but you can!

Example – Location #2: Laboratory. Player Three opines that their reported findings should include how the experiment made them feel. Player Four scoffs at the absurdity, convinced that decisions need to be based on data alone.

Note: Help Desk game tools are useful here but shouldn’t unnecessarily confine play. For example, while it may be fun to revisit moves across locations, it’s not necessary for players to try and recreate the exact sequence of dialogue. In Gus’ Police Station scene, the compassionate Player tried to hug the law-and-order Player but we was rebuffed. In the Laboratory, an attempt to make physical contact was echoed and similarly dodged.

STEP FIVE: Map that Relationship again onto Location #3. This time Gus was in a Concession stand. One Player desired to just give everyone free popcorn, feeling dirty about luring people in with entertainment and then gouging them when so much product ultimately gets thrown away. The other Player deemed this line of thinking communist.

Another example of 3 locations – Location #1: Dive Bar. Characters have feelings about whether or not Die Hard counts as a Christmas movie. Location #2: Barber/Salon. The market strategy of being all things to all people is tested. Location #3: Parade Float. Nerd Culture meets Popular Culture as Superman and Captain America share a space.

Note: Relationships are defined by how Characters interact and all one improviser can control is one character. Know this exercise has the same value (prioritizing emotional reactions over plot and details) if we’re following a Character through multiple locations or a Relationship. For example Location #1: Outer Space. Player One is an awkward analyst trying to express his love of Player Two’s super cool and understanding astronaut. Location #2: Arcade. The same Player Two is still super cool and Player Three hopes her high score will impress him. Location #4: Construction Site. Player One’s bumbler and Player Three’s swooner meet and both want to accept and impress the other while both reel from the screw-up they’re facing on the construction site.

STEP SIX: Debrief on any value derived from the exercise. From Gus’ perspective…

  • Focusing on how being in a location feels rather than justifying the reasons why someone is in a location helps scenes to be more about Character and less about Plot from the very beginning.
  • Focusing on heightening a Character/Relationship through the Location was less pressure than focusing on coming up with clever ideas for heightening what could happen in a location.
  • Following patterns of emotional behavior, it was easier to make endowments without deference to “sense.” For example, in the Laboratory names for made-up elements flowed but never took focus.
  • Remaining close to established Characters/Relationships enabled them to go Deeper. A concession stand became a place to explore capitalism’s waste. The tension between accepting all peoples and being able to give everyone what they need was the crux of a barbershop scene.

Too often when we get a suggestion of a Location, we feel we need to honor that Location by focusing all our attention on it. As a result, our scenes there become about “why we’re there,” “what we’re doing there,” and the assorted related details of “there.” All of that distracts from the Improv As Improv Does Best enabled by focusing on Characters and Relationships. And the beautiful irony is that when we stick to knowable Characters and Relationships, we can go out of this world.

Try it yourself.

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