I've looked closely for years for that which separates the good improviser from the excellent improviser, and I began to notice this one particular positive pattern. Many superior improvisers will create a personal object or a mannerism for themselves in the scene.
Earlier, in the section about specificity, I mentioned the value of an object for a character in regard to the content of the scene and what it is about. I would like to elaborate now on the value of the object or mannerism to give your character more substance, believability, and integrity.
Imagine a scene where an executive is standing, waiting for an elevator, talking to an employee about his marriage. The scene is good or not, who cares. Now, imagine that while this conversation is going on, the exec has his hand out in front of him, palm down, and is flicking his ring finger up and down occasionally. It becomes obvious, after a while, that the executive has a yo-yo while this conversation is taking place. It now transforms from an archetypal executive to an executive who is yo-yoing. More dimensions: a fun, unexpected choice for an executive and another layer for the scene.
A personal object provides insight into the personality of the character. And probably some more laughs. Specificity allows the audience to see a fuller picture of the characters and the scenes, and quite often is what they empathize with and laugh at. Having the courage to create this piece of business and environment will add great substance and specificity to your character.
Even if the improviser created an object that wasn't an opposite choice, like a pointer, it still adds depth to the character. This is the difference between when object-work and environment become a crutch to go to when you're in your head and when they become powerful tools for bringing more to a scene or a character.
If you don't want to use an object, then try a personal character mannerism. Human beings rarely just stand there, arms to the side or in their pockets, and talk at each other the way we often do in improv land. People have ticks, mannerisms, and other behavioral attributes that make them more individual. If you can tap into that behavior. then your characters will become more individual, as well. Think of the executive talking by the elevator; maybe he's obsessed with stroking his right ear. Fun and peculiar. He's not the ole boring exec; he's a bit quirky. A southern belle who does a little wave after everythingshe says is far more interesting and fun than the typical sitting-on-porch-with-southern-drawl. Audiences love idiosyncrasies in people, and that little touch on your part is a doorway to another part of the character.
Your commitment to personal objects and mannerisms for your characters has you show up in ways that you might not otherwise, breaks you out of stereotypical patterns, and creates fuller and often funnier characters. Practice at home.
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