Do styles put you in your head? Or do they feel like too much icing and not enough cake?
Outside of performing in genre or style: Do you sometimes plateau and feel that you’re doing the same thing many nights on stage? Do you find yourself pigeon holed as certain types of characters or identities?
Do you perform with improvisers who have a formulaic approach to styles that doesn’t change with the suggestion? People who roll across the stage as a tumbleweed in every Western, but then struggle to make the scene about anything more than a duel between two strangers?
Have you ever watched improvised film noir fall apart under the weight of three monologists, four femme fatales, and no motivations beyond a vague drive toward sex and murder?
I have! I’ve been both the audience and perpetrator of many of these practices. It wasn’t until I started really studying genre and styles that I found ways to break out of these patterns. Not just watching, but researching and asking why things were the way they were.
Most of us who have watched a movie in some style have an outside (or extrinsic) understanding: Meaning we remember the “good bits,” and filter out all the rest. We remember the pratfalls in a silent movie, and remember caring about the outcome, but we don’t pay a lot of attention to why.
Great improvisers (and directors) of stylized improv develop an inside (or intrinsic) understanding of the style.
Have you ever watched a playful genre show performed by improvisers with a deep understanding of the style, and thought, “This feels right, even though I don’t know why?”
Have you ever found yourself grinning as a noir detective picked the loose tobacco off his tongue from his unfiltered cigarette, and understood that he is contemplating whether to let go of his personal code to help the woman sitting behind him, the whole stage looking like a one shot to the point that you can just imagine the light playing across his eyes?
Have you watched a performer in a Jane Austen piece take the time to carefully adjust her skirts before turning to address a new character, and in doing so, tell the audience more about her status and upbringing than any words would do?
To be truly free to play a style joyfully, an artist must have intrinsic, instinctual knowledge of the style: they must know it well enough to make all the choices a performer must make each moment without conscious thought, so that their consciousness is invested in the consciousness of the character they embody.
We all have extrinsic understandings of things we have watched as audience: most improvisers can throw out a few “thou’s” and “ayes”, along with some rough pentameter and rhyming couplets, to roughly approximate Shakespeare.
But the improviser who has a good understanding of when Shakespeare USED rhyming couplets, and why, and how Shakespeare was performed at The Globe, and to what audiences, will be able to make instinctual choices that “feel” like Shakespeare to an audience without that audience understanding why.
The improviser who understands how The Globe Theatre was built knows to deliver lines that mock the upper class to the the the groundlings below. And they know the patrons who are well fed enough to be interested in existential questions sit in the galleries above. Your contemporary audiences doesn’t need to know those details to appreciate that the difference in the delivery simple “feels right”.
Similarly, the performer who understands that Raymond Chandler was far more invested in writing about the corruption of average life than he was about gangsters and crime knows how to play the detective. The performer who understands the social constraints of a woman married to wealth in 1940s America understands why and how the femme fatale must play a game of chess with her pawns, all while hiding the fact that she’s playing a game at all. The two performers who knows that celluloid was too expensive for two-shots knows that scenes must be played outward, both performers facing the same way, so that the scene can be captured by a single camera.
Again, the audience doesn’t need to know any of these things to appreciate the effect. They don’t even need to know that you are performing in a style to absorb that something is different about what you are doing on stage.
The importance of intrinsic understandings isn’t limited to deep styles. How many new improvisers struggle as they try to recreate the feel of “comedy” by pieces together just the funny moments? The performer who really studies anything from slapstick to contemporary comedy may be surprised to discover that, as audience, they quickly forget all the more sincere moments that raise stakes, set the context, and encourage the audience to invest.
Over the next few months, I’m going to post a series of articles as a companion to the styles workshops and classes that I teach, in hopes that it might inspire more improvisers to develop and explore their craft in new and interesting ways.
The performer who takes the time to really invest in understanding a playwright, an author, a cinematic genre or a time period will discover that styles are no longer constraining: that they, in fact, offer countless possibilities in every moment. And by choosing the roads offered by a deep understanding of style, the story often takes care of itself.
Tony Beeman has lived in Seattle as a writer, performer, director and software developer since 1998. In addition to performing, directing and serving as Artistic Associate at Unexpected Productions in Pike Place Market, Tony performs regularly with 4&20 Improv, Seattle Experimental Theater, and Improv Anonymous. His Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is INFP.