Building on the work that we did on animals, we have moved onto character work for the second half of the term. The teachers asked us to bring in costumes two weeks ago, and since then we have had to dress up as our own original characters for class.
The Lispa approach to character is, as usual, a physical one. The place we have arrived at now comes directly from all the animal-based improvisations and physical explorations that we did in the first couple of weeks. Though we are proper walking and talking people at this point, the way we walk and talk is still very much inspired by animals. Instead of coming in prepared with answers to questions like “do-you-have-any-religious-beliefs/are-you-married/what-is-your-greatest-fear/what-kind-of- childhood-did-you-have”, we came in with little more than an outfit and a name. Then we started immediately on our feet.
The teachers gave us many provocations. How does our character stand? Does he/she stand with feet in parallel, or does he/she stand with her toes splayed out? Pigeon-toed? How does he/she hold her pelvis? Does it trail behind the feet, or does it jut forward in space? From there, scanning the whole body, we worked our way from the feet all the way to the top of the head, creating as it were a silhouette, an attitude of the body. Whenever we felt lost, we could always refer back to the animal inspiration to figure it out. For example, for my first character, the idea was this sheep-like little old lady in a nightgown and shower cap. So I would go back again and again to this image of a sheep, and try to embody its state. What is it about a sheep that is so appealing to me? What kinds of qualities do I want to use for my character?
After creating the physical structure of the characters, the teachers then took us through a series of exercises to help us figure out how they would move in the space. Whether they would push or pull the space, or be pushed or pulled by the space. Whether they would glide along, scuttle, waddle, float or stomp. From time to time in these experimentations, I found that the physical structure of my character (pigeon-toed, stooped back, craning neck) had become too inhibiting to normal movement. That meant the animal state had become too extreme, and subsequently, I had to lower the “dosage” to make it more natural.
In the first week, a number of us went for extreme characters such as psychopaths, drunks or transvestites. They are interesting in theory, and are easier to get into, but when put in situations with other characters, they become hard to play with, simply because they are such marginal people in regular society. Most people would ignore such people, and find every excuse to avoid interacting with them. So that would make improvisations like working together in an office, riding the tube, or having a tenant meeting in an apartment block hard to pull off. The ongoing challenge is to create a fully three-dimensional character that is interesting, real, and believable, but without falling into cliches and stereotypes. Also, how to hold on to the essence of your character, but still let it be loose and fluid enough so that it can change depending on the situation. After three weeks of doing this, I have to admit that I am still a bit lost, and am still not sure how to create a character that “works”. As they say often at Lispa though, I apparently have a lifetime to figure that out.
Here is a taste of the characters that people have come up with: a parrot-inspired, fashionably suited interior designer called Stjohn; a hamster-inspired lisping woman (complete with over-sized red fleece top and moccasins) called Cecile; a penguin-inspired man sporting a gelled center-part and pulled up jeans called John; a poodle-inspired beret-wearing French woman called Hortense; and a sloth-inspired conservative office lady called Irina. As for me, my two characters are Doris, the sheep-like little old lady in a shower cap, and Cecilia, a snake-like sexy secretary.
One of my favorite classes in this unit so far was one with Amy that dealt with counter-masks. The counter-mask, as I understand it, is the hidden side of your character that slips out in response to strong provocations from other people and the environment. To make that visible in the body, that meant switching from one animal to another according to the change in emotional state. When a bunch of people get stuck in a lift together for example, not everyone reacts in the same way – their states may change differently. The poodle-dog woman might get really pissed off at a shrieking, terrified mouse woman and become like a tiger in her anger. Or a parrot man may be reduced to a panting puppy in his fear.
Anyway, so in Amy’s class, we worked with the idea of each of our characters having a secret, and that secret being the counter-mask of our characters. To start with, Amy give us a hilarious scenario to improvise with individually. Our characters are at home alone, and suddenly, we hear our absolute favorite song come on in the radio. Slowly we start singing to it, we turn the song up, and then bit by bit, as we get more and more into it, we start dancing, until we work ourselves into a near frenzy. Then out of nowhere, the doorbell rings. Pause, We check ourselves abruptly, turning the music down, smoothing our hair, panicked that the visitor will discover us in such a state. Except that when we open the door, no one is there. We look around, no one. Oh. Relieved, we gradually go back to our singing and dancing. Then the doorbell rings again. And so on and so forth. The idea is to see how increasingly fast you can switch between your character’s “mask” and “counter-mask”. Afterwards, Amy actually made us get up there one by one, and sing and dance as our character in front of everyone!
For the final improvisation, each of us was to come up with a secret hobby that we are very enthusiastic about, but that we hide from other people. This hobby should be different from the general persona of your character, and when doing it, should reveal a hidden state. Like a hidden thirst for violence, intolerance of imperfection, unexpected tenderness, or pent up sexual desire. For example, the conservative office lady Irina may secretly enjoy belly dancing, because the dancing provokes a sensuality in her that she doesn’t get to express in her general everyday life. The sensuality is the counter-mask, and it co-exists with tension with her character’s conservative mask.
Once we have each found our secret hobby, the improvisation then, is the encounter between two people, and the negotiation that happens when they both try to hide this secret part of themselves from each other. Then at one point the mask slips, and the counter-mask appears. Slowly, the moment of recognition, and then, the bonding of souls.
This improvisation was incredibly hard, because while you are playing your character, your counter-mask has to appear every now and then, and then it has to build and come out more and more, upping the tension, until you build to the moment of exposure and recognition with your stage partner. It is highly rhythmic, technical in execution – one of those exercises that is easier to figure out from the outside, but easy to get lost in on the inside. Amy would keep stopping and starting us just to help structure the improv, in almost a play-by-play sort of way.
For example, the girl playing Irina was improvising with a girl playing a very timid mouse-like woman named Zoe. Both of them work in a dull office environment, but secretly, they both love to belly dance. So the scene opens with Zoe alone, cleaning the office window. Then as she watches her reflection, she slowly starts to do a few dance moves. Irina walks in at this point, and Zoe abruptly reverts back to her window washing duties. Zoe leaves to use the bathroom. Then Irina spots the gleaming window. The first time around, she immediately goes over and starts dancing. Amy stops them, and says that it is too much too soon – there needs to be more of a struggle with the sensual belly dancing counter-mask before it surfaces completely. So in the next try, Irina first checks to make sure Zoe is gone. Then slowly, she inches towards the window. Hesitantly, she starts to dance, still peeking around her shoulder to see if Zoe has come back, then gradually, she completely forgets herself, and just as she is at the climax of all this sensual dancing and singing, Zoe comes back, and Irina is caught red-handed. The first-time around, the girls just stared at each other, then went back to their work as if nothing had happened. Amy stopped them again, and said that Irina should try to cover up her dancing (like pretending she was practicing a speech) while she makes her way back to her desk, but in the glances between the two, we can see that the seeds of recognition have already been sown. Afterwards, then, the pace can pick up, and when Irina looks up from her desk later and catches Zoe dancing, it would not be long before she joins in, and they are both completely revealed to one another.
Where does all this mask, counter-mask work leave us? The ability to play with who are characters are, I think, and also, the ability to change states quickly from one moment to the next, which is helpful for the work we doing right now for our final presentation – a farcical comedy involving six actors and twelve characters. Think Fawlty Towers. Think Charlie Chaplin. Think virtuosic costume changes. Curious? Stay tuned.