Touchstones, Repetition, your Brain, your Heart and your Tummy!
Since August 2020, I have been teaching several online courses centered around the intersection of Improv and Acting. Over the last year, I have had the pleasure of instructing global performers who are both actors and improvisers and often time both. I have learned so much from them as a teacher and as a performer. I think improv is often seen as just comedy and not as acting. The online community has embraced unscripted drama through improv and I couldn't be more excited about that.
I LOVE comedy! Truly, I do. And for American Improvisers, that is what we are taught. Find the game, deliver the pun, edit fast. We're taught relationships and forms as well but most of those are grounded in comedy. Now that I've had the opportunity to jump into the dramatic playground of improv and acting further, I feel like I have found my niche.
Dramatic improv can be a scary concept. It's foundation is vulnerability. In real life, I struggle to be vulnerable and open up but on stage (or on screen) this is where I thrive. Recently, someone asked me why and I didn't have an answer. So here goes, for me dramatic improv, acting and vulnerability come down to getting out of my head. Shutting the thinking and analytical part of my brain down and allowing the emotional and imaginative part of my brain to take over.
Now, I was a theater major who barely passed biology at University so I am probably the last one to try to explain all the logistics of the brain. But I found some tools and methods that help me to heighten to the right side of the brain to allow me to tap into it deeper in performances and scenes.
(image source healthline)
The first is listening with your heart and your tummy, which I have referenced before in a previous blog; https://www.dingledrama.com/post/getting-vulnerable-in-your-performance. It's a quote from the US Actor, Vincent D'Onofrio. When you listen with more than just your ears and focus on how the words are making your feel in your gut and how your scene partners facial expressions and vocal tones are registering in your heart, you'll being to respond truthfully instead of formulating words and phrases to give back to your partner. You'll open yourself up and allow your partner in creating stronger dynamics and performances. You'll tap into your intuition, non verbal cues, and start visualizing your feelings.
The second is repetition. Through repetition, actors and improvisers learn to observe and respond truthfully. Many theatrical trained actors, spend time studying the Sanford Meisner and his technique grounded in repetition. The Meisner technique is a great tool for improvisers as well. It–sharpens your observational skills and takes you out of your head and into your body. This is where you can allow your emotional responses to run free and ultimately, free up your acting so it is truthful, emotional and responsive. Otherwise, it may sound and feel planned out and disconnected. I love repetition because I am not a good listener. I have to focus on the words, the face, the tone so when my partner repeats things back to me, I am able to fully process and respond on so many levels. I often use repetition for my actors in scripted monologues. The words we chose to repeat dictate what is important in that scene, to those characters and how they feel.
The final tool I have focuses on are touchstones. The dictionary has several meanings for a touchstone but I'm drawn to this one: a fundamental or quintessential part of something. And that something is you. Find the things in your world that tie you to emotions and characters to enhance your performance. In improv and acting, touchstones can be actual items that you own that you can touch or visualize to spark an emotion or memories. Once you have that touchstone, you can go back to it over and over in your scene to enlarge and extend your responses. Other touchstones can be words and phrases or a physical action. Spend time with your touchstone, then step away from it for a bit. Once you find yourself needing to reset or dig back into that emotion, go back to your touchstone. Repeat that phrase, do the action or hold the item. Take a moment to let your touchstone reinvigorate you and affect you, then continue your performance. Find a rhythm and a flow that will allow you continue to emote and feel.
How do you do these things? Take classes that allow you to explore these avenues. Find play partners you trust and explore together. Tape your scenes and watch them back like pro athletes and their game tapes. Don't be afraid to look ugly or feel foolish. It is in those moments that you are most truthful and your work will be the most compelling and fulfilling for yourself and your audience.