Who are we?
The first question in our Formula of Improv is who are we? This establishes who the characters in the scene are, how they are related to each other, and what they hope to achieve in the scene.
As you are no doubt aware, in improv, we don’t plan anything beforehand, so when we enter a scene we don’t even know who we are! We could be the King of Prussia, a crab, or simply Fareed, the neighbor from downstairs. We listen to our scene partner(s) for clues and we endow ourselves to establish who we are in a scene. The characters we create should have two fundamental elements, an embodiment and a perspective.
How does this character move, talk, and stand? This is the embodiment of that character. Do they have an American accent, do they have a slight limp, or do they look and sound much like the person who’s playing them? All of these are choices that we make in the early stages of the scene to begin to establish the person (or animal, or inanimate object, or planet, or…) that we’ll be playing in that scene.
How does this character view the world they’re in? Are they annoyingly positive, or skeptical, or blissfully unaware? What does this character love; what do they hate? Generally, what’s their deal? These are all questions we ask to find our character’s perspective. The more broad and all encompassing we can be, the easier it will be for us to know how our character will react in any given situation.
Generally, it’s better for scene partners’ characters to know each other. Are they siblings, or lovers, or a boss and an employee? Any relationship we might have or be able to imagine is acceptable in an improv scene, so long as we establish what that relationship is early in the scene. Being strangers will slow the scene down as we get to know each other, meaning we’ll have more work to do in the scene before we get to our game, or, the fun thing we’re doing in the scene.
What does your character want in this scene? Do they want to fall in love, or establish a fool proof plan to rob the museum, or just catch a fish? Each improv scene is a brief slice of these characters’ lives. We like to ask, “Why did the curtain rise at this moment in time?” Why is this an important situation for these characters? When we know what our character wants in the scene, we can then play the scene knowing whether we’re getting closer or further away from fulfilling those desires. In fact, the heightening pattern (we’ll get to this later) might even be to help or hinder one character from reaching their desired outcome.
Characters are quite clearly a fundamental part of every improv scene. The more thorough we are when creating our characters, the easier it will be to create humorous situations for those characters to play in, and the easier it will be to find ways to continue the scene and heighten to hilarious new heights. The first lesson in character is in Week 2 of Level 1 in our improv curriculum. You can sign up for new sessions here and learn how to create hysterical characters of your own!