It was Friday afternoon in Rebecca Sohn’s class, the final one of the Annoyance intensive. I had just left the stage after a scene work exercise about connecting with one’s scene partner, and it felt really good. All I had done was react emotionally and honestly, and it was the easiest scene I had done all week. As I walked off the stage, one of my classmates actually called out that he thought it had been the best scene that I’d done all week. And with that, I felt like I was missing something fundamental. When Rebecca opened up the floor for questions, I asked why what we’d focused on during the second half the week, i.e. reacting to our scene partners, felt like the opposite of what we’d focused on in the beginning of the week, which was holding on to and expanding upon our characters?
To understand the confusion better, before this week, the way I would play grounded was fundamentally different from the way I would play a character. By way of example, let’s focus on the gradient from sadness to happiness. Playing grounded to me meant that I would find something to react to about my scene partner, and depending on whether that made me feel happy or sad, I would leave my neutral emotion and push in that direction, possibly returning to my neutral or shifting to the opposite emotion depending on how the scene evolved. In other words, I could oscillate around my neutral based on what my scene partner gave me, which made scenes really easy to play.
For a character, my thought process was that a happy character needs to get happier, and a sad character needs to get sadder. In other words, I was trying to project a future desire on how I wanted the scene to go based on my initial character choice (see the warning from Mark Sutton on this). In that sense, the idea would be to look for things from my scene partner or the environment that would help me heighten that emotion. This approach would break down for me if my scene partner took away something that I mentioned as an earlier source of happiness or sadness. At that point, if I didn’t react to the loss or change, something felt dishonest because it negated what I had said earlier. On the other hand, reacting to it as a happy person by becoming sad would betray my character choice, and I would lose my character in the process, effectively turning into my neutral self, and often times going completely to the opposite emotion as my scene partner would try to heighten.
Rebecca’s response clarified my confusion. Yes, the happy character needs to react to the changed circumstance, but if that character’s point of view is fundamentally happy needs to return and recommit to that point of view. Likewise, a sad character would need to recommit to being sad after reacting to the changed circumstance. In other words, characters could still oscillate the way grounded characters would but just around a different neutral of happiness/sadness.
And with that, I felt like one of my biggest sources of confusion as an improviser for these 2.5 years had been addressed. We had our grad show a couple hours later, and a bunch of my Chicago friends, former EndGames alums, were there to support and watch. It felt so easy to play.
After the show, I realized that the answer to characters had been in front of my face during a recent Netflix binge. Mr. Peanutbutter, one of the happiest characters on BoJack Horseman, displays emotional range. He summarized it well:
The universe is a cruel, uncaring void. The key to being happy isn’t a search for meaning. It’s to just keep yourself busy with unimportant nonsense, and eventually you’ll be dead.