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by Darren Held

I may have mentioned this once or 3,000 times, but my weakness in improv is characters. I’m pretty good with agreement, I can add information with the best of them, but committing to a character is a constant challenge. That’s where improv wanders into the realm of acting, and I am not so comfortable in that realm.

My friend and troupe-y Paul broke it down for me like this: acting = playing pretend. Believe it or not, that helped. I know; lends credence to the “natural blonde” theory, right?

Having characters in improv actually goes a little beyond, “Hey! I’ma pretend I’m a hoity-toity English woman and talk with an unidentifiable but snooty accent!” First of all, accents in and of themselves do not a character make. What really makes a character a character is a strong point of view and a specific want in this scene.

It’s tricky! Being a kindergarten teacher is not really a character by itself. But if you approach life with the point of view of a kindergarten teacher – relentlessly cheery, über-encouraging, explain everything to people in mind-numbing detail, suggest cranky people need a time-out – now we’re getting somewhere. What this character wants in any given scene could vary, but how he/she goes about attempting to get it will come from this kindergarten-teacher-point-of-view, and it won’t be the same as how a jaded former beauty queen or a lying politician would go about it.

A physical trait like a limp or a nervous cough or hair-twirling helps define the character, and using different voices and postures is also important. But if I stand on stage and nervously cough and speak in a deep voice, but everything I say is my personal point of view, that’s not a character. That’s just Sonnjea with a cold.

And guess what? If I have a strong egomaniacal, delusions of grandeur point of view, but I stand and speak and gesture like myself (Sonnjea hands!), that’s not a character either. Not only that, but it makes it hard for the audience to know who I am from scene to scene – if I always appear the same, they have to wait for me to speak to know which character I am this time. So you have to pretend physical traits and point of view to create a complete character.

The good news is, playing pretend is totally fun, and improv class is about the only place grown-ups can play pretend without being looked at askance. Come take a class with us! I’ll be the character who uses askance in a sentence.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

Darren Held
About Darren Held
Darren is the CEO and Creative Director of Held2gether, Improv for LIfe. He has been teaching and performing improv for 15 years, and has performed with H2g, the Groundlings, UCB and Second City. He loves Moto, red wine, and Madonna.

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