Locked in stocks

I’ve noticed, and had a lot of conversations with fellow improvisers at about my own level of experience, that it is very easy to fall into “stock characters” or at least “stock” characteristics/mannerisms that may feel spontaneous but are in fact, our standard defaults.  It feels spontaneous because we didn’t think about it in advance, we just found ourselves in a scene and started reacting… then, realizing oh damn, I’m this guy again.

How can we break out of these stocks? (Pun intended.)



Filed under technique

11 responses to “Locked in stocks

  1. Dan Hodapp (one of the latest WIT emigres to NYC) emphasized the importance of making a character choice at the moment you’re stepping on stage – not before (that’s cheating), and not after (puts you in your head).

    The character choice could be a voice (“I’ll have a high voice”), a physicality, an emotion, a point of view, or even (another Dan tip) a character you know from pop culture (or, I’d add, a person you know in real life) – not that you’ll impersonate them, but for example, if you think “Monica from Friends,” maybe you have the instant association of “clean freak” – and there’s your inspiration.

    If you’re nervous that nothing will come to you in that magic moment, you could spend some time writing out lists of all of the character elements above (voices, emotions, etc), so they’re registered somewhere in your brain. Flexing those muscles during your down time might make it easier to conjure something up when it comes time. But I’d really caution against locking into a choice ahead of time – “I’m always so chipper, I’m going to play someone sad in tonight’s Jam” – because (a) that’s not improv, and (b) that cuts you off from the other performers, and really, from yourself in that moment. A show (even a jam, or a run-through in class) is richer if you allow yourself to really be in the moment and make your choices there.

    Wow, this got really long. I hope this counts as a few comments, Katie 🙂

  2. ineedaword

    No limits, Amanda – by all means expound.

    I like the idea of writing down character elements in your down time… just to put some fresh grooves in the old brain matter.

    Also, I tend to like the idea of going on with a physicality or mannerism because it does not dictate what my reaction should or will be to what happens first on stage, but somehow I find it nearly always informs my character somehow – in unpredictable ways. So I’ve given myself a tool without stealing the spontaneity/improvisation.

    Also, I think your advice about making an association with a person we know something about (real or fictional) can even help to save those default characters – if you tend, like I do, toward a nurturing Southern woman, at least if you were inspired by Monica on Friends and your Southern woman was a clean freak you’ve at least added some depth to your stock character, and that is an improvement.

  3. Dan_Mac

    Patrick Gantz taught me a great tool to use, and that’s to make a random sound to yourself as you enter the scene, and let that sound, be it a grunt, chirp, sniff, or exhale, inform your character’s voice, physicality, and/or emotional state. It ensures that you’ve cleared your mind of “Jersey Vito” or “Party Girl” or whatever stock character you had in you mind that would “kill.”

    Additionally, it’s the job of the improviser to react to what your scene partner(s) brings as far as information and needs. If you make a character choice that has been made in the past, don’t freak out. Just listen to what the other person is giving/needing from you, and supply it. The scene will find its own unique space. So long as you listen and react accordingly, you won’t feel the urge to fall back on that stock character’s stock moves.

    My advice for the weary improv brain who looks back on a run of shows and sees one too many occurrences of the same/similar characters is to read a book that’s different from your usual reading material, or rent a classic movie or period piece that takes your brain into new terrain. It will shake up the snowglobe just right.

  4. Off of what Dan touched on, I think mirroring my scene partner can be incredibly affective (effective?) at breaking me out of my normal tendencies. Especially, when I mirror in a specific way, not just mimicking, but really studying and mirroring my partner. It puts me in a totally different headspace.

    Also, Topher said something the other day, that was along the lines of, “feeling tired of your improv? change your shoes.”

  5. Justin Purvis

    Stock characters are just that; stock. Like in a soup, they are the base flavor that you build a delicious meal off of, by adding spices, vegetables, meats, etc. But you never want to remove the base, because that is your foundation. You can add elements to the recipe, but if you take away the base, you take away the soul of it. Adding dialects, physicality, emotions, you alter the recipe slightly and get a variation on the original. Like putting strawberry jelly on your PBJ instead of grape.

    Characters should be close to you, because if you don’t allow part of yourself to shine through the character you are portraying, then it is a caricature and people will be less likely to really accept the reality of the scene. Realism in your character is what, I think, is most important. I am of the mindset that there are two kinds of improvisers; ones who are great at playing multiple characters, and ones who are great at playing themselves. As long as you are letting yourself be connected to the characters you are portraying, then it doesn’t matter if you have a huge stable of characters, or ones that are very close to yourself in actuality, it will be both entertaining and believable.

    But, for me, some of the tricks I have tried to make myself do to create new “characters” have already been expressed. Making a noise, immediately upon entering the scene, and allowing that noise to inform your character is one way. One of my favorites is to spend some time in myself, just walking around, feeling what I lead with, and when I figure that out, I reverse it; if I lead with my chest, what happens if I lead with my butt? How does that alter my movements? And while I move around in this new body, I think about how this person might speak or think.

    Physicality, both environment and body work, is another big part of helping you create characters. Holding something in your hand, really feeling the object is there, and allow that object to inform you. What is it? A tumbler of Scotch? A winning lottery ticket? The urn of your arch nemesis? Why do you have this object? Why did you NEED it in this particular scene? Everything you do in a scene is important; nothing is a throw-away. In movies, when the camera pans across a fireplace and a poker resting near the flame, you know that the poker will come into play in this scene, maybe to kill the bad guy, or to just stoke the fire, allowing the protagonist to “stoke” his own inward emotions. You don’t know what it is there for, but you absolutely know that it MUST be used in the scene.

    Many people say that doing improv is like moving forward walking backward. You have no idea where you are going, only where you have been. When in doubt of where to go next in the scene, go back to what you started with, and see if it alters. Your character work is the same way. If you want to know how to create new characters, you must look at your old ones, and see how they alter.

  6. Gosh, I wish improvisers weren’t so stupid and inarticulate.

  7. Stephanie Svec

    Reading this is like taking a mini-class in my living room. Thanks!

  8. ineedaword

    Give me your tired [improvising],
    Your poor [choices],
    Your huddled [physicalities] yearning to breathe free,
    the wretched refuse of your [biggest bore] –
    send these, the [fumbling, scripting, lost] to me:
    I lift my [blog] beside the [stage] door.

  9. Karen Lange

    I also like fooling around by being somebody else’s stock character (another form of mirroring). The character looks different on me, and can spawn interesting new choices for me as a player.

    The temptation to predetermine your character can be strong – especially those “I play X all the time, so I’ll be Y.” I find that being observant, listening, and letting the scene lead me helps override that urge. Instead of “who do I want to be?” I think of “what does this story need? What can I offer to serve the story?”

    Then other times I go out as a pirate.

  10. Dan_Mac

    Karen’s right, just be a pirate if you want to nail an out of the parker.

  11. Jeff Stehr

    Coming out as a stock character doesn’t bug me much as long as you take The Purvmeister’s suggestion and use it as stock for your soup. If you play it exactly the same as you always have, the audience will be bored because YOU will be bored, not creating, and not innovating, just sitting around in the left hemisphere of your brain waiting for the next round of electroshock. If, on the other hand, you take your stock and see how he’d react in a new situation, I say go. Why not have a pirate in the car wash? If it’s the same pirate you’ve played 20 times because it’s safe, then get off the improv stage and go do sketch (or go edit crosswords). But if the pirate reacts to a new situation, brings something new, then cool.

    The only thing that really horks me is when you’re on stage doing something, creating a little something to interact with, and you see someone coming on stage with nothing. Not even them plus 10%. It’s them minus 20%. Hands in the pockets or maybe clasped in front with a “can I do something for you” look on his/her face. Thanks, twerp. Yes, you could do something. How about, oh, ANYTHING? Now I’ve got to make a character for you, too. Mick Napier says “do something”. So do! I don’t care what it is. Pick up a hammer and take a swing at me. Have the pirate walk into the lumber yard and ask for planks. Just bring something to the scene. Otherwise, why’d you walk on stage?

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