Sizing Up Status


Week 4 of the Second City’s Improv for Actors class focused on the study of status.

Status is an interesting concept. We all have status – be it high, low, or somewhere in between. Status can be defined in different ways. High status generally indicates power, which could come from birth, wealth, confidence, knowledge, etc. Two high status people can be quite varied. One could be dominant (using intimidation or fear) whereas another could exhibit pride and self-assuredness. 

* See further reading to learn more about status

I’m enjoying the work we’ve been doing on status, because it helps me to reflect on my relationships with family, friends, colleagues, etc, and pay attention to how status comes into play in our everyday lives – particularly, what is the role I play? How is my status perceived, and does this change depending on the relationship?

Walking with Status

To start our work on status, our instructor Chris had all of us in the class walk around the room randomly. Occasionally, he would tell us to stop. Then we would start walking again – very simple.

Next, we were instructed to walk around and make eye contact with the people we pass. Once we made eye contact, we were to quickly look away.

Secret Agent, Arch-Nemesis and Shield 

Premise: you are a secret agent and everyone else is an ordinary citizen. With this knowledge, you walk around the room with self-assuredness, cool and collected in the fact that you have this power.

Next: one person in the room is your arch-nemesis (you can choose anyone at random – only you know who your arch-nemesis is). Walking around the room, you are still confident knowing you are a secret agent, but you try to stay clear of your arch nemesis, who you do not let get close.

Finally: one person in the room is a shield (again chosen at random, and only you know who your shield is). When walking, you should try to always maintain a straight line between yourself, the shield and the arch nemesis, with the shield in the middle for your protection.

When we performed the exercise, many people in the class selected Alexa to be their shield. This was done unknowingly, but as Alexa moved, everyone was gravitating towards her to keep safe. 

Walk of Shame 

Individually, each student in the class had to walk through the room, attempting to make eye contact with other classmates. We all stood still on the spot, except for the one player walking through the room. The premise was that every bystander was an ex-lover, and things did not end well. The person walking through the room hopes someone will show some compassion or pity, but everyone just stares at him or her disapprovingly. It was difficult to walk through a crowd of people like this, being very low status. Generally, the player walking through the room felt sheepish, intimidated, scared, unworthy. As soon as eye contact was made, it would be broken. It was a neat exercise, and though it was not real, it was kind of uncomfortable feeling that low.

 High, Medium, Low Status 

In the next exercise, three people were in a scene at a doctor’s waiting room. Chris assigned status, one high, one medium, one low. In the waiting room, each player acted out their status, while also treating the other two people according to their statuses.

In this exercise, I was assigned high status. My classmates commented that I wasn’t snobby or mean, but instead I acted aloof rather than superior, and was still nice. There are many ways that high status could be played. (See next example)

When Status is Determined by…Coughing

A notable group was Nick (high status), Tony (medium status) and Christian (low status). Nick entered the scene very self-important and with purpose, I saw him as a corporate executive. Tony was coughing in this scene in the waiting room. Instead of Nick continuing to play out the scene disgusted by the coughing, or acting impatient with how long he was waiting, the scene changed gears when Nick started coughing too. Nick coughed louder and longer than Tony. It became a coughing match – with the superior cough having the higher status. It was a fantastic display of status and very original!


Less Words = More Status 

In the next exercise, Chris put three students together in a scene. Two people were seated at a table at a restaurant, and the third player was the server. Each player was assigned a status. The high status player was allowed to use only one word at a time. The medium status player could say two words, and the low status three words. There was no speaking order, but someone else has to speak before you could speak again.

A typical scene could go like this:

Server (medium status): Order please? (2)
High status player: Wine (1)
Low status: I’d like beer (3)
Server: What kind? (2)
Low status: Heineken please – cold! (3)
High status: Chardonnay (1)
Server (returns with drink): Your drinks (2)
High status (inspecting glass): Unacceptable (1)
Low status: Not very good (3)
Server: What’s wrong? (2)

What was interesting about this exercise, was how much can be said with very few words, and how much can be expressed using gestures and physical communication/body language. 

Lessons Learned 

  • Status can define a character.
  • Eye contact can be an indicator of status. Those with higher status are generally more comfortable making eye contact.
  • Low status indicators include trouble maintaining eye contact, lowered head, nervousness, fidgeting, etc.
  • Status can be revealed in both verbal and non-verbal (physical) ways.

Further reading:


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