New exercise: Cast of Thousands
This one’s still baking, so I don’t really know what it’s about about yet, but I do know I like doing it.
Everyone takes a back line. One brave volunteer steps out and the rest of the improvisers character-paint them with visible characteristics, like:
- "He’s wearing a neon pink top hat."
- "He walks pigeon-toed, but with a bounce in his step."
- "He has on sunglasses with hearts for frames."
- "He’s wearing a denim vest and this pocket is overflowing with tabs of LSD.”
After you think the character has been painted well enough, ask them to do an in-character monologue. Maybe ask them a few questions, too. Solidify this character. Make sure they have a name! Then have someone else come out and be painted, too, until every improviser has done at least one character.
Now do some silent tag-outs. Someone comes off the back line as one of the characters the group has just created - not necessarily their own! No lines, just being the character. As soon as someone else on the back line knows exactly who this is, they tag in and they become a different character. Do this for a little bit, maybe a minute or two.
Do one more round of character paints, then have everyone do a round of tag with all of the characters that have been created. (If you’ve got five improvisers, they have ten characters to choose from.) Ask them to do different things. “The next tag, I want to see how this person paints a wall. Great! Next tag, you’re using a rotary phone.” Again… no dialogue.
You can also try calling out two people at once, or having someone join the character onstage, and a fun way to end this exercise is by giving an environment and having everyone come out at once and inhabit that environment.
What do I think this exercise works on right now? We love seeing recurring characters in a set. It’s mandatory in most longform formats and it is fun for montage. Part of successfully reincorporating characters is being able to evoke them quickly and clearly - you don’t want your partner to think that you’re Cell Phone Guy when you come in as Balloon Girl. The tag round here helps us nail down what I’m calling tags (ha clever!), the posture and physicality that says unambiguously who we’re looking at. You might not think five people could spontaneously invent ten physicalities that are distinct enough to do the tag round, but they totally can! Even if the improvisers accidentally paint two identical characteristics (two characters both wearing giant-ass belts, for example), they’ll find ways to tell the two characters apart. During the tag round, they’ll nail down the two different sets of tags for these two different people. Being able to do it with a little bit of practice sets it up for being easier to do in the moment onstage.
Second, it helps people out of their character comfort zone. Improvisers who have trouble making big physical choices will be helped by giving stuff that informs their physicality (a guy in a tuxedo will behave differently than a guy in patchouli-stenched cargo shorts) and their attitude (you can literally watch someone’s face fall when they’re painted holding a wilted flower). But we still want to have our own gifts, which is why you’re only allowed to paint things onto other people that you can see!
And third, it’s fun learning that you’re not as restricted as you thought you were. The no-talking rule during the tag round looks like it might be difficult to pull off, and for some people (points at self) who default toward talking-heads, it can seem daunting. But you can do it! And once you know you don’t need words, getting to also bring back characters with their voices and their attitudes and beliefs makes it feel cake easy to do reincorporation.