by John Ratliff

Last night I saw I Didn’t See You There, the Austin Sketch Fest solo showcase. It was great, and it reminded me that I tend to underestimate the importance of characters in improv.

Like a lot of improvisers, I often play characters who are pretty close to myself. Which is fine: it makes it easier to play real, and I don’t have to wonder what the character would do in a situation, which I sometimes do when I wander farther afield.

But just as players who always play wacky characters need to learn to play a believable version of themselves, those of us who are more comfortable playing ourselves owe it to our improv (and our scene partners) to learn how to play a wider range of characters.

I think one reason I shy away from characters is that over the years I’ve seen so many that work against good improv. Characters who are too broad, or who make no sense (even to themselves), or who are just rehashes of exhausted cliches — sorry, tropes — tend to destroy the kind of improv I like, the kind where believable characters are interacting with and affecting each other.

But if you’re doing non-narrative improv, then good characters become that much more important. Not having to follow a story is freeing, sure, but then what makes things happen? The characters being themselves, that’s what. There’s a reason why it’s convenient (if a little misleading) to divide improv scenes into game scenes and character scenes (even though most good scenes are both). They’re both things that move a scene forward without resorting to plot.

So even if — especially if — you think of yourself as a grounded, realistic player, you should look into expanding your universe and venturing beyond the frontiers of yourself occasionally.

You’re like: Ratliff, how do I do that? Well, Bunky, I’ll tell you.

Our good friend Chrissy Shackelford is in town for Sketch Fest, visiting from New York, where she teaches at UCB and is apparently becoming some kind of goddamned Queen of Comedy. (And rightly so. Just don’t forget where you came from, Missy.)

Chrissy is teaching not one but two workshops on characters this weekend, and all I can tell you is that if you’re like me, you have a lot to learn from her. Not only is she one of the best actors ever to come through ColdTowne, she’s very friggin’ smart about what makes comedy work, and here she is, spilling all her secrets like honey on the forest floor.

I think you know what to do.

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