Be yourself. Find the true you. Don't try to be someone you're not.
These are the encouraging words I use to coach my students as they traverse the challenging waters of (pre-)adolescence. Parents, friends, the media...they're often trying to get us to be a version of ourselves that fits their needs. This is all a bunch of bologna, really. Being true to oneself--in fact, finding and developing one's identity--is one of the main goals of the crossing the bridge between adolescence and adulthood.
So, how does all of this fit in with theater arts--improvised and/or scripted theater?
Be someone who is NOT you. Stay in character. How would your CHARACTER be feeling right now?
As I side-coach through games and scenework, I find myself contradicting my own words of guidance. How does this make sense? Oh, yes, but it does...
A few weeks ago, my eighth-grade students chose how they would like to perform as a part of our showcase before their promotion ceremony. Three students decided to perform as an improv troupe. As I write this, I am struck by how impressive this choice--in and of itself--really is. I've known adults who have practiced improv for years and are still intimidated by performance. When I formed a new troupe, we rehearsed and built our group dynamic for six months before we performed. These three had all of ten days to get to know each other in a totally different way, decide on performance games, work through warm-ups, build a knowledge base about characterization and scenework, and figure out their dynamic. A tall order for anyone...and one these students took on without a second thought. Incredible. But, I digress.
Back to character stuff:
As with many, many new improvisers and new groups, The Three were struggling with common issues about halfway through their rehearsals--always playing similar characters, starting out (and then staying) negative in scenes, and not allowing their characters to change. I stepped in to coach on a number of levels. First, we played with characters using gibberish, accents and a wide variety of names. Next, we played completely positive scenes--silently and then reintroducing spoken language. As a part of this, we explored Johnstone's concept of "Platform" and "Tilt"*. Finally, we came back to scenework through Emotional Coaching and Open-Ended Scenes.
[If any of my readers would like me to more fully describe any of those sessions, I'd be delighted to do so. Just request it via the comments section of the blog or email me directly. Ooh...digressions...back to character, Carrie!]
After a few Emotional Coaching scenes, Meg and Billy played in one of the most elegant, lovely scenes I've ever witnessed. It started out positive, developed some natural conflict, and ended with a surprising twist: Billy's character said "I love you" to Meg's character. And then Meg's character was genuinely affected. There was eye contact and a real sense of relationship. Their relationship changed in a meaningful...and eventually obvious...way. It was beautiful improv.
The thing that is so incredible about all of this is that we are talking about two 13-year-old kids rehearsing an improv scene in front of a peer and a teacher. None of the three students knew each other all that well. They were just true to the artform, true to their characters, true to that version of themselves that was not really them. For a moment, those two students--those two actors--moved beyond their own identities to embody characters who spoke through them and related to one another. That is what theater can do.
As we express the emotions and show the actions of someone who is not really us, I believe we come that much closer to finding our true selves. We can allow different, temporary versions of ourselves to be changed. And perhaps this character evolution will open a window into the shifts that may be possible in our own dynamic identities which are all too often smothered in a static sense of reality. Or, heck, at least it's darn entertaining theater.
I believe Meg summed it up perfectly at the end of the day with our Core 7th/8th-grade class. I asked the class what they thought was special about our school, what they treasured, and/or what they would miss as they were moving on to a new school. When it was Meg's turn to speak, she told the class, "I feel like improv has given me the gift to take chances and do things that I wouldn't normally do. Today, I was in a scene where my character told another character that she loved him. It wasn't even that weird. We were two different characters, we were real, and then it was over. I love that I can be a different character, not be judged and then go back to being myself."
*Keith Johnstone introduces these concepts in Impro and then fully analyzes them in Impro for Storytellers