Middle school was a trying time – awkward voice cracks, hair in new places, morons constantly reassuring me that I would hit that growth spurt (still waiting). At the time, I was into some pretty not-cool-for-middle-school stuff like making home videos with my friends, board games, and reading.
I didn’t want to be a freak, so I did everything in my power to be “one of the guys.” I hid all of that stuff that made me, me, and pretend, instead, that I cared about the difference between a first down and the first quarter.
And yet, I was still the weirdo.
Frequent readers know that in college, I was hardcore into Magic: The Gathering, which, if you consult Roget’s Thesaurus, is synonymous with “social suicide.” Except that, somehow, it wasn’t. I actually had more friends during that period (and not just tabletop gaming friends) than any other time in my life (excluding now, since I’m friends with all of you improv dorks).
Between 2004 and 2014, nothings changed…except how much I cared about other people’s opinions of what I liked.
When I improvise, I also bring this dorky baggage with me and try to take advantage of the art form to make “unconventional choices.” This past week, I played a scene with Scott Gresham where we were both hungry raccoons. In a workshop with Katie Klien, I played a nervous sheep about to be shorn.
The typical improv advice may be to play real, but I’ve had more fun (and often, more success) being an iPhone, a cat, or Luigi over another bratty teenager or all-American dad. Sometimes, playing it weirdo can be even more fun and rewarding than going with the expected, normal choice.
So how can you make playing like a freak work for you?
- Create. There are no rules or boundaries in improv. Without the burden of costumes, props, or set pieces, the limits to your choices are the limits of your imagination. The cat doesn’t just have to be a silent walk-on. It can be a fully fleshed-out character in its own right. You can be the shepherd or the sheep; a bimbo or Barbie. If you think of something, there’s no reason you can’t be it – animal, vegetable, or mineral.
- Contextualize. You can’t just be a weird character for the sake of being weird. Your improv still has to connect with the audience in the same way the bratty teenager or all-American dad would. You have to ground your absurd choice in the reality of human emotion and experience.
- Commit. Most important of all, you can never drop or bit out your choice to be something different. Raise it up as if it’s the coolest thing in the world and everyone else will be a weirdo for not coming on board. If you bail on your choice or make the butt of a joke, the audience will also think it’s lame.
Getting weird on stage can be a great way to get out of your head and see the world from a new perspective. We’ve all seen the angry dad/pot smoking son scene 100 times. We haven’t seen the disappointed tree/unruly sapling scene. Same relationship, new approach and point of view.
But these three rules aren’t just for improv – they’re for all of the weird and awesome stuff you love. If you are interested in something – from Magic: The Gathering to model trains – there’s no reason you shouldn’t give it a try. Then contextualize it by sharing why you love it so much. And finally, commit. Don’t talk down on it or self-deprecate to make it seem like it’s less than it is. It’s what you’re into and that should be enough. And if someone else isn’t getting it, well, then that makes them the freak.
Header Photo Credit: Fox, Bob’s Burgers