We continued our work on status in our week 5 class of Improv for Actors at the Second City in Toronto. It’s hard to believe there are only two more lessons left of this course. The time is going by quickly, a sign of an enjoyable class.
We started class with a check-in. Sitting in a circle, Chris asked for our impressions of the course so far, and any questions we may have. A number of classmates remarked that they’ve been using the improv techniques we’ve learned during their auditions, with positive results. Michelle teaches musical theatre classes to children and has been employing some of our improv activities in her lessons. I believe that everything we have learned in class, and will continue to learn in the study of improvisation, can be used in many facets of our lives. Particularly with the study of status, it’s helped me reflect on my relationships and my status compared to those around me, and how our actions and behaviours shape people’s perceptions.
I asked Chris while we were sitting in the circle about the mime exercise from week 3. In the exercise, we mimed activities while interacting with another player and building a relationship. Chris emphasized that we continue to mime our activity throughout the scene and resist moments where we would stop the action. I asked why that was important…
Why action is important
Chris explained that action heightens a scene. Even when a scene is interesting based on the dialogue itself, action helps to improve it. For example, if two people are having an argument, that can be good, but if two people are having an argument while they are having trouble putting up a Christmas tree, and everything is going wrong, it adds to the scene and makes it that much better.
Continuing with an action also rewards the audience for paying attention and noticing what is happening in a scene. If someone mimes reading the newspaper and puts the newspaper down, and then a few minutes later picks up the newspaper again – the people watching who didn’t miss those details are rewarded by the activity being continued, and it shows the audience that their attention is being valued. I found this really interesting. It makes complete sense, I had just not thought about this before. For instance, last week I watched an improv performance and noticed that one of the players put a clipboard down (at least, I believed that’s what she did). When she picked the clipboard back up a few minutes later, I realized that I was correct in my assumption, and felt kind of good about that.
Counting to 20 as a Group
We started class with our usual warm-ups, with the addition of one new exercise. We stood in a circle, with our eyes closed. The goal was to count to 20 without any doubles. It was an exercise in listening, awareness and intuition. One person would say “one.” Then another person would count out “two.” The tricky part was to not say a number at the exact same time as someone else – if that happened, you start over. So you needed to be careful and have a sense of the right time to say the number aloud. It took us three tries I believe, and we made it to twenty!
In pairs, we were given a character endowment and had to act it out. Some of these were:
- Fashion Models
- High school cheerleaders
- Bull fighter
- Pine trees
Kate and Christian acted out being snowflakes. What is the character endowment of a snowflake? That’s a tough one, but they did a great job. Christian fell to the ground as a snowflake would. When he told Kate he was on the ground, she said “I’m on my way there” and she lay on the floor with him. Laying on the ground, they philosophized about their lives as snowflakes and what would happen to them as they melted away.
Status determined by Playing Cards
A group of 4 people would perform at a time. Chris gave each person a playing card, but they could not look at it. The playing card would be held to the player’s chest so the audience and other players could see, but was not visible to the individual player.
2 is the lowest status and ace is the highest status.
By knowing the other three players’ status, and noticing how you are treated in comparison to the others, you should get an idea on what your status is, and how you should play it.
For these exercises, groups of 4 players were either at a corporate retreat or a high school reunion.
Amanda, Toni, Jill and Laura were at a high school reunion. Amanda had the highest status with a King, Toni was close behind with a Queen, Jill had a 6 and Laura a 2.
In their scene, Amanda and Toni stuck together but did not give much of their attention to Jill or Laura. Jill, in the middle, tried hard to appease Amanda and Toni and get in their good graces. She was good at putting Laura down, almost as if she was doing it as a service for Amanda and Toni, who were of too high a status to even bother with someone so low. Jill offered to get drinks for Amanda and Toni, and then got Laura to do it for her. Eventually, Toni made a drink for Amanda, as only someone of her status could do it right.
Quick offers of character endowment and status
This was a fast paced exercise. Two people walk in, create a quick scene, and walk out of the scene. One person casts the offer of the other’s character endowment (ie. “Get me my slippers, Jeeves). This immediately defines the other player’s character and status, and well as their own status (if Jeeves is a servant, then the player making the offer is of a higher status). The partner responds. Then the original offer-maker ends the exchange, and the scene is done.
Here is a video I found that demonstrates this general idea.
Jill and Steve had a quick exchange that ended in a bit of a twist. Jill was a call-girl, making an offer to Steve “Hey big boy, want to get together?” In this way, it is assumed that Jill is the lower status and Steve superior. Steve responds to her offer, and then Jill quickly exclaims “Never mind, you probably couldn’t afford it anyway”, putting her in the higher status position. This goes to show that status can indeed change in a scene!
We didn’t have time to finish this exercise, but we will continue next class.
Two people are facing each other (or standing side by side, or back to front). They stand there and take their time. One person might make a very minute gesture, such as their nose twitching, or squinting their eyes. It doesn’t have to be a big gesture, and it can just happen on its own. From there, the other person uses that small gesture and starts a scene. There doesn’t need to be any ideas as to how this will evolve, just let it happen.
Amanda and Tony did this well. Amanda was actually standing in front of Tony. They stood there for a few moments, and then Amanda brushed her fingers through her hair. From there, Tony asked what she thought of her haircut. He became the hairdresser and she the client. From that one small movement, the offer was made and the scene took off.
- Offering your partner a character endowment or status is a wonderful gift, as it eliminates endless possibilities. Once an offer is made, the status and endowment can be accepted and it makes the scene that much easier, as options are taken off the table.
- Having activity and motion in a scene, such as brushing hair, or putting dishes away, no matter how incidental it is to the dialogue, helps to heighten a scene and add interest.
- Continuing with an action rewards the audience for noticing details and their attention.
- When status is unknown, it can be intuited by how your character is treated compared to other players with known status.