One of the biggest issues that I see with newer improvisers is how they define the concept of “being a character.”
When I was just starting out, I remember thinking a character could be achieved by an accent or a limp. Seriously—in my mind, that was all it took.
I remember my level one class at iO Chicago with Charna Halpern. One day, after doing an exercise, Charna said, “The only one allowed to play characters in here is Sean.” And she was right…despite our hurt feelings at her bluntness. Sean Stomski was the only one doing actual characters—aka, he was the only one playing with a solid point of view.
POINT OF VIEW!! What an eye opening turn-of-phrase. It is exactly what it spells itself out to be; yet it still can be confusing. Some of us think a POV is a job: I’m a doctor and I do doctor things. One that’s not quite a point of view and two, I don’t even know if I believe that. Very milk toast. But what if you heightened it? I’m a doctor because I like to have power…now THAT’S A point of view.
I will be the first to say that characters are not my strongest suit. But POV is something that I’m finally getting a handle on. I look at it as a filter… a lens, if you will, that your character sees through.
Take a look at your favorite comedic characters from the past ten years. When I ask my classes, Leslie Nopes from Parks & Rec comes up a lot—so does Michael Scott from The Office. Both offer up amazing examples of POV.
The character that makes it very clear for me is George from Seinfeld. Sure, at first, he is a seemingly simple, cheap, single guy. But this man has layers: He is lonely, yet VERY PICKY about the women he dates; he wishes he was an architect; he lies often ; he is made jealous easily; and if he has to give a fake company name, it will always be Vandelay Industries. This is how George sees the world…that’s his lens…that’s his POV in a nutshell and all those tensions and tendencies are what make him a beloved comedic character.
We love George because there are parts of him to which we can so easily relate…and we also love his eccentricities because they are so specific and authentically motivated. We see the logic to them but we also find them fascinating and just left of center enough…it’s brilliant…and actually based on a real person: Larry David.
And when you think about it, yes, it is a tall order: Play real with just a touch of ridiculous, just enough ridick so you don’t lose your realness.
So, for those of you out there still struggling, take Charna’s advice: don’t play characters…until you have a real handle on them. Forget the funny voices that have no context and stop finding yourself so boring. There are characters in there—they just need to be carefully measured and poured.