I have always been a character improviser. Hell, lets get real, when I watch home videos of myself as a child it becomes overwhelmingly clear that I have always been a character (yes in the theatrical sense, but also in the way your grandpa describes his funny best friend). I would run around, just being a total goof ball, finding the camera to pull a face or flaunt my ability to impersonate family members. I loved a) the attention of being funny, and perhaps more importantly, b) I loved to become another person.
So lets jump ahead a year or two, to when I was introduced into the wild world of improvisation. In my second year of university, on a whim, I auditioned for a student improv club. I had had plenty of theatre experience, but had never improvised before. The audition was mainly comprised of blind freeze and short scenes, which I used as an opportunity to show off every accent and character I had up my sleeve. Well it worked, I got on a team and found a permanent place to, let’s get real again, show off.
The team had an amazing coach, who made us all go over the basics (which was great, because I had none of them). He challenged us not just to “Yes/And” or not “block”, but also to research the history and styles of improv, to “Impro” and “Truth in Comedy” to “Harold” and “Armando”. I took to it quickly- finally my crazy characters knew what to say, how to build a scene, how to “expand and advance”. BUT, they weren’t funny. DEVASTATING!!! How was I NOT funny? I was puling out all the stops: crazy voices, weird bodies, limps, Pirates, Germans! It didn’t make sense!!!
We were having our final rehearsal before our first show, and I was determined to get a laugh, I created some fabulous piece of art (a moon man with happy beams that came of his stomach- pure genius). I tried SO hard. I was big, weird, had a dumb voice, was (of course) the protagonist, but ALSO I said yes, advanced the scene, told a story and yet, I wasn’t funny. I left rehearsal broken. That night I received an email from my coach. He simply wrote:
“You can play a crazy moon man with happy beams, but what matters is how does he FEEL when you take them away? The audience will never understand what it would be like to live as your crazy character- but everyone understands loss, self-doubt, despair.”
Real talk: the difference between comedy and tragedy is we have taken the same painful, confusing, deep and personal truths of humanity and twisted them, just enough, so that you can laugh at them. Characters are a twist, a mask, sometimes a bit of silliness that allows the actor to show the audience these truths, without it becoming too real; however, without real emotional stakes it won’t be funny, it certainly isn’t theatre, and in my opinion, isn’t worth watching.
Jess Bryson can be seen each week as a part of the Repertory Players.