Walk the Walk, Talk the Talk

By Randall | Improv Tips
11 Jul 2012

I’d like to preface this by saying this is a much longer post than usual, but it is 100% worth the read.

As promised, I would like to share a technique for creating new characters for each scene you do. I’ve heard many improv instructors provide this simple instruction for creating a character: make a physical and vocal choice. It took me a long time to realize just how powerful that advice was.

Every improv scene is a series of choices. Similarly, creating your character boils down to two choices: a physical choice and a vocal choice. As you step out onto stage, or in the seconds you have while the lights are down, change something in your body. Then decide to change the way you speak. The vocal change can be derived from the physical choice or can be unrelated. This doesn’t have to be something dramatic or attention stealing, or a refined accent. Your choices aren’t for the audience, they’re for you. They are gifts you give yourself, allowing you to experience the inputs you receive during the scene through a filter different from the one you use by default everyday. When I first started trying to put this into practice, I struggled because I felt like my ideas weren’t “creative” enough, or were too similar to something that someone else had just done. That doesn’t matter. How your audience or fellow improvisers perceive the change in your body or your voice isn’t the point. The reason that this works is that it changes your mind, and therefore your reactions.

There are two ways to create a character. Choose a character, then infer what his physicality and vocality would be like, which was my default when I started out. Or the opposite, which seems counterintuitive – choose a physicality and a vocality and let the character emerge. The first approach is invention; the second is discovery.

It is a common misconception that emotion starts exclusively in the mind, and correspondingly that characters start by choosing personality characteristics and working backwards to determine their physicality and vocality. However, studies have shown that the opposite process can work as well (here is a great blog article about this phenomenon). I like to call this character induction. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink,”  Paul Ekman discusses an intensive study that he and a colleague undertook in the 1960’s to break down and analyze the various muscular components of facial expressions. After working to make expressions of anger and distress, Ekman recalls “…one of us finally admitted feeling terrible after a session where we’d been making one of those faces all day […] What we discovered is that expressions alone are sufficient to create marked changes in the autonomic nervous system.” The autonomic nervous system is that part of the body that controls and regulates involuntary things, like heart rate, respiration, and blood pressure – some of the key components of emotion.

Dr. Susana Bloch took this a step further when she developed the Alba Emoting approach to express emotional states on stage, incorporating facial expression, posture, and breathing patterns to evoke a particular emotion in a given scene.

Even this site (among numerous other sources) lists using good posture as one of the “top 10 ways to instantly build self-confidence.” If you want to feel more confident, utilize good posture. The reason that people who are confident have good posture may be a chicken/egg situation – practicing good posture can make you more confident.

“But I thought we were talking about characters, not emotions,” you might say. True, but by making these changes to your posture, facial expressions, and breathing patterns through a physical choice and a vocal choice, you can change your character’s baseline emotional state, a constitutive element comprising their world view. Also, emotion is a central component to relationships, the entire point of having a character in an improv scene.

When you are first starting out with this strategy, it can feel overwhelming to make both a physical choice and a vocal choice in a space of about 2 seconds. I have found three keys to implementing this approach successfully:

  1. Stop judging your choices – it doesn’t matter how “believable” your accent is. Remember, we’re more interested in the end product anyway. Love your choices. Also, both of these changes can be very subtle, like “my character is going to walk out with a single finger in his belt, and he is going to take a deep breath in every time before he speaks.”
  2. It may be helpful to have someone who watches you improv often, or interacts with you in real life on a regular basis, to point out some of your “-isms.” These are idiosyncratic movements, gestures, or other tendencies that you have, that are largely unconscious and may be of a soothing nature. For example, while on stage you may have a predilection to avoid eye contact, touch your face, or rub your hands together when you speak. When creating a character, you want to start from as neutral of a place as possible so that the character you create is derived from choices you make, not habits you cannot break.
  3. Practice being in tune with your body, so that you recognize the physiological changes that occur because of your choices; explore these and extrapolate what they might tell you about your character. Of course, these are up to your interpretation, so don’t worry about being “right.”

There are two exercises that I think can both demonstrate the versatility of this technique and help you put it into practice as you are starting out. I don’t know the real names for either of these exercises, so I’ll call them The Walkabout and The Chair Exercise.

The Walkabout

Have a coordinator lead the group in this exercise, and verbally prompt the group to ask themselves the questions mentioned below.

In an open space, start walking around. Try to get as neutral as possible. Then choose a part of your body and do something unusual with it. You can either move it in a way that is unusual for you (swing your arms more than normal, pull your shoulder blades together) or lead with that body part (adjust your posture so that your chin precedes the rest of your body, or start your walk with your knees in front). As you walk around like this, let it affect you. What kind of walk do you have? Slow and confident? Unaffected? Nervous? Begin to notice how you feel, how you might nonverbally interact with someone. If you’re doing this in a group, how do your fellow group members make you feel? Are you warm and open, or insecure and closed off? Begin to go delve deeper into your character. What kind of job might they have? What is a normal day like for them? Where are you going to or coming from? Next, verbalize something. Don’t force this, just open your mouth and let a sound escape. It doesn’t even have to be a word or make sense. Is it different from your normal speaking voice? Higher or lower? Strained or more relaxed? Finally, as you pass the other people in the room, speak to them. Just a couple of words. Never stop moving. Don’t worry about having a conversation or starting a scene, don’t worry about what they are saying to you. Once you try this for a minute or so, return to walking in silence, then finally go back to a neutral body position and slowly come to a halt. This entire exercise can stretch over 5-10 minutes or so, and should give you great insight into how a simple physical choice can inform a character. For bonus points, repeat the exercise and make a different physical choice.

The Chair Exercise

This is one of my favorite exercises because people always do surprisingly impressive work. Set up the room so that one chair is in the front, facing the “panel,” and the rest of the group is sitting in a row of chairs facing the single chair. Have one improviser leave the room (offstage in the wings is fine, but they should be out of sight). Give them about 30 seconds to make a physical and vocal choice, then come out as that character and have a seat. It is crucial not to preconceive anything about this character beyond your two choices. The rest of the group will be sitting in the row of chairs, and ask the character questions. Start with background stuff – have the character name himself or herself and give a little bit of background information, then explore whatever comes up. As the interviewers, be especially attentive not just to what the character says but how they say it. If he mentions that math is his favorite subject and his face lights up, explore that. Or if you ask her about her friends, and she smiles when she talks about Trey, delve deeper into that relationship. As the character, follow your instincts, and you will be surprised at how well your verbal responses will match both your physicality and your voice. Try to have specific answers, but don’t get hung up on the details. Answer with confidence – this is your “life” and you are an expert on it. Draw from personal experience if you need to, but never break character. If you commit to the process, you will be amazed at how easily you can answer any question that the panel throws at you, because you will have a defined world view. That is the paramount goal of this entire process, to define a world view. After the exercise is over (we usually go about 7-10 minutes with a 3-5 minute discussion afterwards), you will have a flushed out character that you can bring back for future scenes if you want.

I have also done a more advanced variation of the chair exercise, where the group starts out by choosing a location, then each character is someone who could logically exist in that location. As new characters are introduced, they may share details about the characters that have gone before them, and how they might know each other or interact. Finally, once everyone has gone, we do a series of scenes in the chosen location, and bring in different combinations of those characters to interact in a long form set.

If you implement these strategies, you will have an infinite supply of new characters to try out, without finding yourself limited to the same archetypes you always play, or feeling overwhelmed by analysis paralysis. If you’d like to share your results using this technique, or have any questions, post in the comments below!

And thanks for sticking around to the end.

photo credit


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One Comment

  1. This is so helpful! I actually had an idea for a character while reading it! :)

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