How To Make & Play Big Characters — Specs Drop-In Class 03/08/19

These are my notes from the 03/08/19 Friday Specs Drop-In at STAGES Theater. We focused on how to create and play big characters. Hope these notes help you out!

By Fernando A. Funes

Hey everyone thanks for coming out to the workshop on characters today! Here are some notes and reflections!

What makes up a character?

A character is just a person that is not yourself who we get to see for a brief snippet of time on stage. A character is made up two things: a want and a worldview. A want drives behavior; a worldview is how they respond and react to the world.

That sounds cool, but how do I create a character from scratch?

Keep this formula in mind: character building blocks = emotion + physicality + mantra.

Choose an emotion. Choose a physicality to embody that emotion. Live in this action for a moment. When you’re ready, say a statement inspired by what you’re doing. This is your mantra. Add it to what you’ve already been doing, and you now have the building blocks of a character.

How did this look like?

One of our students, Stephanie Zhou, started with the emotion of determined and began pacing back and forth while pounding her right fist into her left hand saying, “I’m getting paid today.”

What happens next?

Once students had the framework of a character, I asked their characters questions about themselves using the Socratic Method. Every question I asked was inspired by a response to the previous question, and by doing this enough times, we would arrive at some deep character revelation, or we would have enough information to infer a character want and world view.

Example using Stephanie’s earlier character.

Fernando: What’s going on right now?

Stephanie: I’m going to ask my boss to pay me the same as my other co-workers. I’m getting paid today!

Fernando: He doesn’t pay you the same?

Stephanie: No. He only pays me 80% of what everyone else makes. I’m getting paid today!

Fernando: So you feel you need to be paid the same?

Stephanie: Yes! In fact, I deserve to be paid more because I’m the best worker here and everyone knows that. I’m getting paid today!
(Stephanie did this while maintaining her physicality and emotion).

This is awesome, but how do I stay focused and not drop character?

Dropping a character is one of the easiest things to do in improv. It’s hard. You’re focus gets dropped. You think about other things. You get overwhelmed just by being in front of others and having to make stuff up on the spot.

Repeating your character pattern — emotion + physicality + mantra — keeps you grounded in the present and POV. Holding on to these three things will keep you in the now, out of your head, and prevent you from judging yourself and your ideas.

Think of it like a candle in the dark: trust the light of the flame to get you where you’re going, wherever that may be.

These are hacks, but they’re good hacks, especially if you’re new and have a hard time staying in character, reacting as your character, or breaking.

Is this how you play?

Yes and no! When I’m playing a character, I choose an emotion, a physicality, a name, and maybe an occupation, and I do all this fairly quickly in my head, and I just trust myself to discover and live this character throughout the scene. What I’ve outlaid here is the process of how I was able to arrive to the point that I could do all that stuff in my head very quickly.

Alright, so how do I do this on my own when I’m at a show with no one to side coach me or walk me through the Socratic Method?

First off, trust yourself to go out there and do these things and to create a believable character you can commit to and live in for a while. Second, keep track of all your statements. Every statement you make is a fact of your character and gets us closer to a want and worldview. Once enough facts are shared, those two things will emerge. Once you have a worldview and want, playing this character will get a lot easier. Remember, worldview = how they respond and react to the world, and want = what drives their behavior.

All great characters have wants and worldviews.

Michael Scott-
Want: to be loved
Worldview: everyone can be your friend if you just try hard enough

Spiderman-
Want: to atone for the death of his Uncle Ben
Worldview: with great power comes great responsiblity

And I’m sure you can think of more! These are just the two that come to mind!

Writers know this & craft it into their storytelling.

However, as improvisers we don’t have the benefit of sitting at a desk and thinking about it. We have to create a character in real time out in front of a paying audience who is expecting to be entertained. We have to write at the same time as we act, and we have to trust our instincts and training to get us from beginning to end. (This last sentence was inspired by John Conroy of Big Yellow Taxi who got me to start thinking of myself as an actor and not just an improviser).

If done right, a great character will leave everyone affected — the audience for having witnessed a great performance, your teammates for having a great character to play off of, and yourself for being an actor and living as someone else.

Where did I learn all this?

From all the amazing long form teams I’ve been on! For years I played on a long form narrative team called Improvinitus where we would improvise 30-minute one act plays with heroes and villains and character arcs.

Then, I was on American Buffalo, a monoscene team where we lived in one scene for 25 minutes. I learned there that characters lived before the scene and will live after it, and that a worldview is a reflection of that.

Then I was on Ghostlight Improv, a team that improvises full blown movies from beginning to end, and this is where it was really ingrained into me about character wants.

Finally, Sarcasm & Sincerity, a two man monoscene team I had, was an encapsulation of all the lessons learned from my previous teams, and where I, quite frankly, did some of the best character work I’ve ever done on stage.

So now what?

Go out there and play characters! Fail big and repeat! This is a process, but I promise you, that if you keep at it and keep pushing yourself you will grow.

Thank you for reading this super long post and have a good one!

Fernando

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