photo by me via Flickr

This post is a bit out of order, but I feel compelled to post it now. On the same day of Susan Messing's Insane Story Theatre Workshop, I went to a session run by Seth Thomas, an actor and hip hop artist based in Chicago. His hour was a presentation of an approach he developed to help you create believable characters. It's called The 70, and it's hot.

Here's Seth's pitch or theory

  1. Usually when people submit their time and will to someone else, the person submitting their will gets paid. It's called a job. I submit my time and will to some company in exchange for money.

  2. Theatre is different. In theatre, we demand people's time and will, and we demand payment for it (not quite "we" since I'm hardly ever paid for being onstage, but I see the point).

  3. Given that people are paying to see a show, give them an actual show. They are not paying to see you. They are paying to see you act, to be someone else. To be another human.

  4. On to humans...

  5. Human beings are constantly communicating. Constantly

  6. 30 percent of our communication is verbal. 70 percent is non-verbal.

  7. In improv, you're still a human (thank God), so the same rules apply. In improv, 70 percent of your communication is non-verbal (think about that for a sec before moving on).

  8. Because it's improv, the words aren't a given, so let's focus on the 70 percent non-verbal communication in your scenes. Thus, The 70

  9. Off stage, everyone has a complete set of non-verbal characteristics. It's called your Living Set

  10. On stage, you character also has a complete set of non-verbal characteristics, called your Playing Set

  11. That character set must be created consciously

  12. Every non-verbal activity you don't create for your character will be borrowed from yours

  13. That's too much of "you" on stage, and see number 3 above. No one wants to see "you" they want to see you act

That's the context for him teaching us what he did. Essentially, you should be someone else on stage, and you can use your non-verbal communication to define that other human.

One other point: how do you practice for an improv show? If you have no script (no verbal), what can you do? Seth's approach is to practice being human, and he spent the rest of the time going over ways we do just that.

There are four main areas we can define within The 70: Mind, Body, Soul and Persona

#1 Mind Choices

This first area consists of three mental choices or choice styles your character needs to choose

1. the dominant proof

2. life condition

3. button word(s)

4. (and anything else you find out on your own)

The dominant proof choice is about how your character thinks. Does your character go to bed at 9pm because his proof is:

  • LOGICAL? He needs to go to bed at 9pm because he needs to wake up at 5am to get to work, and he needs eight hours of sleep a night

  • EMOTIONAL? He feels tired at 9pm, so he goes to bed then

  • PERSONAL? Oprah said 9pm is the best, and he trusts Oprah, so 9pm it is

The life condition choice is about your character's mental and spiritual fitness.

Button words are what they sound like. Are there certain words that trigger a reaction in your character? "Nigger" is the classic extreme button word, but maybe your character's word is "Phoenix" because he experienced something horrible there.

Now, you don't walk into a scene thinking, "My button word is Phoenix. If somebody says "Phoenix," I'm gonna freak out. Instead, you discover during the scene that you've found a button word.

#2 Body Choices

Within the area of your character's body, Seth identified 9 different attributes you could play with:

  1. default position (physical position of your character when not reacting to stimuli)

  2. affect displays (physical movements that accompany a certain emotion)

  3. emblem (your physical substitute for words)

  4. illustrator (physicality that accompanies words)

  5. regulator (i know what regulation is but can't remember how that plays into the body. sorry)

  6. level of territoriality (how big is your character's need to create, protect and maintain personal space?)

  7. personal bubble (how close can other characters get to yours before discomfort sets in)

  8. touch value (how does your character respond to touch)

  9. life condition (dunno?)

  10. (and anything else you find out on your own)

#3 Soul Choices

  1. Personality (pick an archetype to model your character after, but then pull back some. Is your character a jock? What kind of jock? The kind that studies or the kind that puts date rape drugs in his girl's beer?)

  2. Message to the World/Subtext (being proactive with the things you're saying. Is your character's subtext that "Life is Great!"?)

  3. Purpose (what do you want to do. "If your character has no purpose in life, it has no place in the scene." - Seth)

  4. life condition and anything else you discover....

#4 Persona Choices

  1. Silence (when is your character silent and how? Be clear)

  2. Articulation (articulation is the combination of your mouth, teeth, jaw and tongue to produce a sound. By manipulating these, you can create different voices)

  3. Pronunciation (does your character say words correctly? BTW, articulation + pronunciation = enunciation)

  4. Non-Word Sounds (what does your character do?)

  5. Voice Pitch Level (hi or low?)

  6. Voice Inflection (inflection is change in pitch and is often connected to emotions)

  7. Voice Quality (husky? raspy? nasal?)

  8. Voice Rate

  9. Voice Volume

  10. (that which you discover)

Seth's recommendation is to "work on your human" and practice it. Save the characters you find interesting. In terms of practice, one technique is to create your character, then have him watch TV, and react as your character would, out loud. Try walking differently. If you're right-handed, build strength on your left side.

Final note. No, you should not be thinking about all of these things in a scene. You can use these tools, however, to better define your character as distinct from you. Practice this, and your playing set will come more naturally.

That's a wrap.