Every improv show I’ve been in has brought out a different quality in me. Some have been good, like say…embracing chaos and movement in One More Night. Some have been a touch difficult, like competitiveness in Apocalypse. And shows like Dusk have brought both good and difficult things out of me, for instance power and maturity and also this particular feminine self doubt, a doubt that I myself was not archtype-ally female enough.
I think this phenomenon has to do with embodying a world certainly. Actors have to be willing to open the self to the world of the play, to the world of the character. There are countless stories of actors losing themselves in parts (and also countless stories of acting techniques designed to increase or decrease that effect).
Improvisation is a trickier animal because there is no script. So if I’m onstage playing that I hate someone and want to kill them, I have to make a choice to a) be campy and kind of over the top about the emotion, b) utilize feelings of dislike for the person I’m working with to transmit an honest emotion, c) call up other incidents of hate and project that on my partner. And of course one is never sure who that partner will be because there is no script or pre cast characters. One night I might have to hate John Doe, the next I might have to be in love with him. Sometimes that might even happen on the same night with me playing two roles against the other actors two roles.
I find this a challenging aspect of narrative longform improv because I tend to be drawn to more grounded and realistic acting styles. I’m not big and broad, known for my characters. I’m more gentle onstage, more collaborative. I’ve been told I have an endearing vulnerable quality. And I find I take on the emotions I am playing. It scared me earlier in my acting career, the taking on of emotion that wasn’t actually mine.
I’m about to say some potentially “woo-woo” kind of stuff. Emotions can be created by simply moving the physical form of the emotion in question. I read an article once, and just spent about 30 minutes looking for it online to no avail, about a scientist who was studying facial expressions. He would make the expressions in a mirror, fear or anger, or grief and he found that the more he would make the expression, the more he literally felt the feeling associated with the physical expression. And this affected the researcher very much to the point that after practicing “grief” in the mirror, he was totally upset for a day after.
And there are psychotherapeutic modalities in place to identify emotional connection to physical response. There are also theatrical forms that rely on keeping an open channel to the emotional field of participants so that improvisational work can occur for catharsis, clarity and connection.
So what happens when you do a show about love, like One More Night? This show was based on the Tales of Scheherazade, where stories and love prevail to heal a broken heart. That show had an incredibly tight and loving cast and the stories were mythical and magical. In a show like Dusk? A parody certainly, but about angst, romance, and jealousy? We had a cast filled with sexual entendre. Apocalypse? There were tones of competitiveness, rougher qualities, but heroic ones, sacrificial ones, overall. Good? Bad? I don’t know.
(I have been in rehearsals where a character brought up a topic, completely randomly, only to have another actor kind of freak out, because that was actually going on in their life at the moment, unbeknownst to the first actor. I am honest in admitting I resist the call of the spiritual and metaphysical, but there are times onstage where I believe in some “other” that we are all capable of channeling.)
I have long been realizing that there is a bit of a powder keg possibility in any improvised longform narrative unless there is a conscious choice on the part of the director to make explicit the “cast” and the “characters” so that actors who may have to hate, or love, or kill, or fuck each other onstage don’t merge those physically created emotional boundaries offstage. Or that if we do merge them, that we are aware of the tensions, dynamics and power (metaphysical or otherwise) that we are dealing with. If we go big and broad and campy, there is no real worry. It’s when we start to get “real” while not being real, when we allow our persona to wear a persona (is it more or less of us there onstage?), that the adventure begins.
I’m not entirely sure what Showdown will bring out and to tell the truth I’m a little tentative, worried about what in myself I might face, but I’ll take it on, since it’s in me anyway, isn’t it?
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