Ben Whitehouse is our guest contributor this week. He started learning and performing improv way back in 2001 and has been obsessed with it ever since. Ben has studied with pretty much everyone at UCBNY plus Armando Diaz at Magnet (among others). He performs regularly with LD & The Scientist and co-authors the excellent improv blog Improvoker. He is often found sauntering around UCB Theater in various degrees of unshaveness and loves when people say hi.
Keeping Your Perspective
Ah improv, right? One minute she’s your sweet, sweet girl and the next she doesn’t come home and instead calls you at 4AM stranded with her “girlfriends” at Detroit Metro Airport. Oh yeah, right, her girlfriends?! Come on, who does she know in Detroit… So improv can be frustrating — one minute you feel like you have it down, the next, it leaves you in the lurch.
The other night I had an epiphany. I was on stage with some very accomplished improvisers during an improv lottery, where we all put in our names in a bag and they were pulled out at random. The suggestion was “Star Trek” and we were doing really well for never having worked together and being a little trashed. Then I initiated a scene by pulling out a chair and saying “Okay, for the last time, it was only a television show in the 70’s. It wasn’t real. None of it was real. I am just an actor. I can only answer questions about the television show.” This statement set up my character’s point of view pretty concretely; I am only an actor who can’t answer your questions. It also told the rest of the improvisers on stage what I expected from them: ask me more questions about things I would never be able to answer so I can get angrier and angrier. All the pieces were set for a scene that could sustain itself indefinitely. However, about 2 minutes in, after some dialog about it all being fake, I flipped my characters point of view, or game by talking about the show like it was real.
I felt it happen — it was horrible.
All that pent up energy was let loose and the scene fizzled. I knew I was doing the wrong thing and could hear my coach, Amey Goerlich, like Obi Wan in my mind saying “Keep your perspective, Luke. It’s your roadmap for your scene… Vote for change.” But the damage was done. The scene continued, people had to heighten from nothing and we eventually got back to a place where we had some stakes to care about. But it didn’t feel good.
The lesson I learned, the hard way, is once you have your character’s perspective and behavior (game), that’s all you need. Try not to think it’s not enough, because it is enough. Once you have that perspective, in my case “I am an actor who is asked ridiculous questions I won’t answer”, stick with it. The truth is, I could have played a version of that game in any situation and if the other performers are keyed in on my game, they can present situations that allow me freak out, like getting pulled over by a cop. Once you know it, nail it down and explore the situation on stage. Guaranteed you will find new and exciting ways to play with that perspective as you explore the scene… and don’t let your girlfriend fly to Detroit. Who the hell does she know in Detroit?!
Previous Guests: Charna Halpern, Jill Bernard, Marcel St. Pierre, Josh Fulton, Brendon Bennetts, Terence Bowman, Gil Browdy, Alan Marriott, Jason R. Chin, Ian Parizot, Bill Arnett, Pippa Evans