Improv What You Know

Five Basic Emotions by René van BelzenPlaying a character on stage is not always easy or comfortable for a lot of improvisers. Usually, actors have costumes, masks or props that help them get into characters. Improvisers don't have these luxuries. They make do with imaginary worlds and items. There are many ways, though, you get into a character. One easy way is to change your voice. Another is to have some sort of physical attribute (e.g., a limp, a nervous tic, etc.). You can also pretend to be someone you know and impersonate them.

Pretending to be someone you know is similar to the phrase, "write what you know." It's a phrase that's often misunderstood, according to author Nathan Englander. He says in a recent Big Think video that writing what you know isn't necessarily about writing from an autobiographical viewpoint. It's about something else.

“Write what you know” isn’t about events, says Englander. It’s about emotions. Have you known love? jealousy? longing? loss? Did you want that Atari 2600 so bad you might have killed for it? If so, it doesn't matter whether your story takes place in Long Island or on Mars--if you’re writing what you know, readers will feel it.

The same advice applies to improv. Create characters based in emotions first, and you'll have solid scenes. Get comfortable expressing emotions. Then it won't matter if you're playing a ditsy grandmother or a Bronx bully, because audience members will remember how you made them feel, how they related to your emotions on stage.

How do you get into characters? Do you find it easier or harder to perform improv as a character? Please let us know in the comments.

Bonus Video: Nathan Englander on writing "what you know."

(Photo via Flickr: René van Belzen / Creative Commons)