The winter semester of classes at Washington Improv Theater (WIT) kicked off this week, and boy am I rusty. Level 3 (although technically my fourth class, since WIT splits the first level into 1A and 1B) is all about scenes and what makes them work. Theoretically, this is where we take everything we’ve learned from previous classes and integrate them into some coherent funniness.
What I did last night in class, though, was neither coherent nor funny. I had difficulty jumping on stage immediately with strong, bold character choices. Sure, I came in with a requisite action or emotion so I didn’t rely on scene-killers like “what’s up?” or “hey.” But what I didn’t have was a good handle on my character’s “deal.”
For example, in one scene, I started obsessively using the lint brush on my wife. In another, I was sobbing uncontrollably for having lost Uncle Tom’s medallion. And in another, I was demanding to be dressed by my illegal immigrant housemaid, Maria. Some good starting points on paper, right?
But in each of those cases, I wasn’t really clear on my motivation or on what I wanted, so it took a while for me to get to where I needed to go.
Here’s a confession from last semester: I have trouble with character. My Level 2 teacher, Topher (WIT’s Managing Director) astutely observed that I usually play best when I play straight characters—a dad reading the newspaper, a businessman waiting for the train, or a frustrated boyfriend doing the laundry. I tend to falter a little bit at playing, say, a menacing terrorist captor or a twitchy elephant trainer.
As an even-keeled robot, I have difficulty letting go of my emotions, the tone of my voice, or even my body language. I’m convinced that’s what made me the scene-stealing star of my high school’s production of Oklahoma! as Ali Hakim. What made it funny wasn’t that I convincingly embodied the role of a sex-starved Iranian merchant. What made it funny was that the audience saw Archie (super brilliant nerd) playing the role of a sex-starved Iranian merchant.
And I think maybe that’s the area where I need to work a little bit. Up until now, I’ve approached improv through the filter of my personality. I could be a second grader who keeps getting shanked in school, but in the end, the audience is still painfully aware that it’s me playing the role of the shanked kid. The kid’s actions and reactions are being filtered through Archie rather than through the character. As a result, the responses are either too contrived or nonexistent, because in real life, I don’t usually react. At all.
In any case, the lesson here is: I need to let go. I think I’ll have to start digging into my acting roots again and raid that closet for tips and tricks so that when I play an angry donut shop manager, you’ll believe it.