"your task is not to seek for love,
but merely to seek and find
all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it."
Let’s take a walk.
Improv level two, an exploration of character development, invites us on an exercise to inhabit our bodies, to walk around the room in a neutral posture. Walk how you normally would. We begin, our various saunters and traipsing steadily moving forward and around in our unique way.
Now, change something. We take on a limp, or a sneer, an arm contours, or a hip kicks out. Walking around in this new style and posture, we begin to explore ourselves: Who is this person? What is their background and story? What motivates them? What are their goals in life? What are they about?
What unfolds is a character; in scenes and on stage we discover a power our bodies hold, to initiate and describe what we’re working with and who we are. From these starting places we build identities and narratives, justifications and motivations.
Yet, I imagine you have found as I have that in the work of crafting characters, a familiar (or perhaps unfamiliar) voice begins to pour through: mine (or yours). We are given names and backstories as gifts from our co-creators on the improv stage and in our scenes, yet our own authentic reactions and emotions often come pouring through the metaphorical masks we wear on stage, emerging from authentic stories, relatable postures, and familiar histories. The movie V for Vendetta articulates it best, “Artists use lies to tell the truth.”
Improvisers are artists; while playing make-believe on stage we tell true stories of being human. Many a teacher has said to my classes, ‘the best scenes are about relationships,’ and as an audience member I know I personally encounter deeper laughter when the stage is revealing something so deeply human and relatable.
We discover ourselves and our own internal narratives in the work and play of our characters; on the stage and under the masks we can discover what’s really going within us. Through the process of improv, we discover strengths, wounds, gaps, and values.
I didn’t realize I felt this way.
I’ve always wanted to express that but never knew how to say it out loud.
I had no idea that made me so sad.
Why is this emotion so hard for me to express?
Ironically, through the mask of character work we are given a chance to unmask, to see through our layers, and to discover our inherent and remarkable selves. The practice of improv provides a chance to encounter ourselves on stage so that we might show up in more wholeness and truth off the stage, and in that light, improv begins to create for us mindfulness and space, a fork in the road where we once saw only one option for our behaviors and patterns. Character practice gives us choices and opportunities to play the story as someone else, and to respond differently as ourselves.
From the stage into our own story: Who am I? How have I arrived to this moment? And who do I want to choose to be this time?
“That we are here is a huge affirmation; somehow life needed us and wanted us to be. To sense and trust this primeval acceptance can open a vast spring of trust within the heart. It can free us into a natural courage that casts out fear and opens up our lives to become voyages of discovery, creativity, and compassion. No threshold need be a threat, but rather an invitation and a promise. Whatever comes, the great sacrament of life will remain faithful to us, blessing us always with visible signs of invisible grace. We merely need to trust.” - John O’Donahue
Evey McKellar is a Level 6 Improv student, a writer and UMC clergy. She works for a nonprofit, lives in Dallas, and loves Cane Rosso.