In improv, you’re supposed to play characters as a thin veil of yourself.
Instead of playing a doctor as I would expect a doctor to act from my vast array of experiences (i.e. my own doctors, Grey’s Anatomy, Scrubs), I should play Liz-as-a-doctor (i.e. Liz if she was given the responsibility of determining someone’s treatment plan, Liz if she was sleep deprived and trying to understand a complicated medical thing.) This makes the character more real – instead of being a walking, talking prototype, the character is a real, earnest, genuine person who you could imagine interacting with in real life. I can only speculate how a doctor would respond to making a wrong diagnosis, but I can imagine vividly how I would feel about screwing up my data analysis (oh, grad student Liz.) Using that emotion (the feeling of having screwed up as a PhD student) to compel me forward in the scene will be much more sincere and engaging to the audience than seeing me mimic what it might be like to screw up the job of an MD (of which I have no experience.)
Playing scenes this way, close to home and the heart, is the focus of my Level 3 improv class at iO. A lot of people in class have an issue with playing scenes this way and my teacher has to continually push them: “How does this make you feel?” Why do they have such an issue with it?
People don’t like to be vulnerable. Being vulnerable makes us weak. Vulnerability gives people the opportunity to see what makes us tick, but they could use that against us. But being vulnerable also makes us humans. It shows that we need other people (after all, we’re an innately social species… of course we need other people.) Being vulnerable lets us connect to other people. Being vulnerable shows that we’re willing to trust others – “I know you could hurt me, but I am willing to open up to you anyhow.”
One reason why we’re hesitant to be ourselves on stage is because we don’t want to go to deep in front of an audience of strangers. We think to ourselves, “Oh, surely I can’t play ‘heartbreak’ sincerely because I might risk touching upon my own experiences with heartbreak. I might let others see how much I was hurt.” (Personally, I find it exhilarating to do this, but that’s because I’m weird and love to do things that terrify the hell out of me. For instance, I’m afraid of heights and going skydiving this summer.)
I have this theory that every time you interact with someone – your boyfriend or girlfriend, your mother or father, your neighbor, a stranger on the street – you give them a piece of you (metaphorically) that you can never get back. But you do so willingly, in hopes that they’ll give you something in return. You take the risk, you trust someone else.
In improv, it’s the same way. You give a piece of yourself to your fellow improvisers and to your audience. You trust them to invest in your scene, to make you look good, to believe your characters. You trust that they will only make you love improv even more.
On stage, make statements about how you genuinely feel. Be authentic. Otherwise, what’s the point? The scene will not know depth that makes it believable – the scene will be a caricature with two cartoon actors. I know heartbreak sucks and it’s scary as fuck to take another stab at it. I know asking for help makes you feel small and incapable. I know sometimes your decisions don’t work out the way that you planned and admitting those mistakes means admitting confusion and possible defeat. But in real life, we have to make statements about how we genuinely feel. We need to open up and be authentic with the people that we care about. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Our ability to be vulnerable makes us beautiful.
Writing this post, I googled “vulnerable improv” and was (a bit naively) surprised at how frequently the topic has been discussed. (Even though this idea is new to me, it’s clearly not objectively new.) Here are a few:http://thefiz.biz/Vulnerability%20in%20Improv.htm http://forum.austinimprov.com/viewtopic.php?p=73000 http://www.yesandspace.com.au/?p=2008
This post was partially inspired by this great TedX talk, here: http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.html
I think it’s ironic that I haven’t told you what else inspired it – for fear of putting too much of myself (of being too vulnerable, perhaps?) on the www.
An introspection: vulnerability explains why the people that I improvised with in college became some of my closest friends.
And finally, I leave you with this quote:
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket- safe, dark, motionless, airless–it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.” – CS Lewis