Who can I be?

Liz Allen is a wonderful teacher (one of the best in my view) and I was very lucky to take some improv classes with her recently when she came to London.

One of the things I picked up from Liz was this idea:

When you’re improvising, just ask: ‘Who can I be?’

Liz put it like this:

When you are going into a scene, or coming off the backline DON’T think about ‘What can I do?’ or ‘What does it need?’ 

Just find a feeling for ‘Who can I be?’ or ‘Who do I want to be?’ or ‘What would be fun and enjoyable?”

This is so liberating. When we use our feelings to find characters that we want to be then we come off autopilot and get rich and memorable scenes (I still remember some scenes from years ago) with intriguing characters.

Liz had a lovely quip to go with this: “You don’t need to have it all in your idea for who you can be. Make it smart from the neck down. How’s that for confusing?!”

This is bang on the money, and a super memorable phrase!

When we are guided by our body’s intelligence we sidestep the ego (a.k.a. showing off or being defensive) and we can really commit to the reality of the moment. When we make it smart from the neck down then what unfolds is always compelling.

The people we love

Here’s a question that gets me wondering…

Why do we like, love and spend time with some people, and not others? 

We definitely don’t like all people equally but why is that so?

I think the simple answer is that it’s about character and point of view.

Here’s a thought experiment to bring this to life:

      1. Think of a comedian you like.

      1. Think of a comedian you don’t like.  

    Why do you laugh at the first one?

    It’s because you like their character. It’s not that everything they say is genius. We just like the feelings they give us. 

    We laugh when what they say and do fits their character. It’s an expression of them and the ‘fit’ is enough to make us laugh, cry, shout or scream.

    Bringing it back to improv

    It’s the same in improv. When a character feels real to us then all they have to do is make a fitting remark, or even just a noise, or do something that fits with their character and we are rewarded with a flood of dopamine. Yes they would say that! I totally knew they were going to do that! 

    When you choose (or follow a feeling) for who you want to be you’ll find yourself playing a character that the audience gets invested in. Your wants, needs, viewpoint, blind spots and the inevitable moments where you change, grow, learn, heal and belong, or not as the case might be.

    So what makes us laugh, cry, shout or scream when we are watching improv? 

    Is it the players’ clever ideas about what they are doing? No, sir. No, it’s not.

    Is it when the someone has an intellectually witty line. Again no.

    Is it when the actors get into conflict? Thrice nay, say I.

    We laugh, cry, shout or scream because we are feeling the feelings the characters are feeling in the moment that they are feeling them (to use Dave Razowsky’s phrase).

    And for that to be true we have to be invested in those characters. And for that to be true we need to play characters that we want to be.

    This is where improv has a special gift, an extra gear of sorts. We get to see real human beings with real names and actual jobs stepping into an imaginary world together, and supporting each other with close attention, trust and generosity. That alone evokes lots of feel-good feelings – this is intimacy, community, co-creation.

    AND when these real people are playing characters that they want to be, we get the rich experience of the emotional ride they take us on. 

    So let’s ditch the focus on ‘What should I do?’ and ‘What does this need? and follow Liz’s liberating maxims:

     – ‘Who can I be?’

    – ‘Who do I want to be?’

    – ‘What would be fun and enjoyable?”

    As well as all the benefits of being characters we want to play and the audience wants to see, we also get another huge benefit: we don’t end up at the side of the stage frantically thinking, and paralysed by analysis of what we should do, or what’s needed.

    We simply find a feeling and start somewhere.

    We bring just one brick: who can I be?

    Do something less boring instead

    One last thought here.

    I’ve taught improv classes for a few years now and I’ve seen people play the same characters again and again (and again). 

    Sometimes they are fun, sometimes they are boring. Either way they are safe and predictable, like a anecdote that has been told too many times. They lack spontaneity and aliveness. 

    It’s such a missed opportunity to play all those other parts of ourselves that are clamouring to be seen, heard and acknowledged. 

    When we improvise we have the permission of the stage, the mask of the dramatic persona for the characters we play.

    So instead of thinking ‘What can I do?’ let’s feel for ‘Who can I be?’

    Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

    A few more ideas

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