Improv and Writing: A Parallel Training

I’ve been talking in the voice of a sophisticated Southern belle for about 24 hours. It rendered my husband speechless for hours and annoyed my children to the point of embarrassment within only a few minutes. Last night, I tried it out on stage in my improv class at the stellar Upfront Theatre.

I’ve been reading the book Acting on Impulse by Carol Hazenfield. The latter part of her book emphasizes the deepening of characters and story. I realized that each exercise Hazenfield proposes in her chapter “Playing with Fire: Creating Richer Characters” would also help me create deeper characters in my writing. By inhabiting the character, becoming them, physically, emotionally, and vocally, their thoughts, dialogue, and vocabulary come forward organically. I don’t have to “think” about it, she’s just there. After “becoming” the Southern belle, Sallie Mae, for only a few minutes, my posture, sentence structure, temperament, the speed and harmony of my voice, and even my vocabulary changed instantly. I’ve heard many of my teachers say, “we can act at the top of our intelligence.” I only yesterday realized that my intelligence also included the superficial wisdom of a proud Southern woman who likes to flirt and be pampered. I only needed to let her out.

Perhaps as revenge, my husband has issued me a challenge: to next inhabit a character from Fargo, ND. I’m not sure if his challenge was simply to escape Sallie Mae’s relentless drawl, or to see if she is just a fluke of my imagination, but I’m going to give it a try. Although I’m having a difficult time getting Sallie Mae to leave, I’m looking forward to finding my new friend from North Dakota, and perhaps someday, developing her as a character in a book that I have yet to conceive.

I encourage every writer to “become” their characters for more than a few hours to fully understand their inner workings, their approach to the world, and their motivations within a story’s setting.

Which character are you ready to become?

6 responses to “Improv and Writing: A Parallel Training

  1. This sounds like so much fun. I’m a nut for improv–Robin Williams and Jonathan Winters are my idols. Too bad it’s way up north near the Artic Circle (Bellingham) and I’m down here basking in the sun… well, rain, in Redmond. Perhaps there’s a local theater or company that’s doing this. One more for the bucket list.

  2. As to inhabiting my characters… that’s what I do for some of them in my book “The Owl Wrangler”, but they’re not all men. Actually, none of them are men, they’re all forest elves, but I try to get in the head of the female characters too–but it’s not as easy. Should I put on a little black dress? 😉
    I also try not to use stereotypical characters (ones that are ‘all bad’ or always ‘good’). My characters are often driven by hormones, fear and wanting to be accepted–like the rest of us. I also find that when I’m writing the characters just come on stage and act. All I have to do is transcribe what they’re saying and describe what they’re doing. Sometimes I wish I knew where they’re taking me…

    • You make a good point William: playing characters of the opposite sex is probably more of a stretch. But this makes me wonder–I often feel like the motivations of men are more linear, easier for me to follow and understand while many women I know can be more complex and difficult for me to comprehend–so maybe I’ll have some luck playing (and writing) male characters more convincingly? You putting on a dress brings to mind the movie “Tootsie,” where Dustin Hoffman was an actor who learned much from playing dress up. Perhaps donning some high heels and pinchy undergarments could teach you more about where your female characters are coming from? Please let us know what you discover. I certainly didn’t enjoy the tie I tried on a few years ago, feeling like a noose, although I do appreciate the simplicity of the rest of the male wardrobe.

      I agree about stereotypes. Hazenfield’s book emphasizes that we’re taking on the character’s essence as an individual, but that doesn’t mean we have to submit to the negative stereotypes that some have assigned to any particular group. Thanks for commenting. I do appreciate your eloquent participation in my little blog here and look forward to you future ponderings.

  3. Your Southern Belle was enjoyed by myself and others. Intrigued and excited to witness the “Fargo”.

  4. I’ve watched Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Tootsie a dozen times and I never seem to tire of it. I do think women are complex, no two of them are the same but men can be complex too. We’re expected to be strong and fearless and independent but too often we’re just as afraid and perhaps more lonely than we put on. That said, some women simply want to be wives but not lovers while some want to be lovers but not wives. I haven’t figured out how to tell the difference. Over the years I’ve encouraged my daughters to be independent women and unfortunately, they are. Sometimes, I would rather have them come to me more for help–but they come around when I need help. Frankly, I relate better to women than men and in this industry, where most of the writers, editors and agents (by far) are women, I find that handy. I do try to wear women’s shoes metaphorically, but my size elevens won’t fit in any woman’s heels. I did see a nice pair of pumps last week… 😉

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