By Averie MacDonald
Welcome to the first installment of “Ask a Trainer”: the column where we pose YOUR questions to the very best trainers in the Canadian Improv Games and get the answers YOU DESERVE!
Name: Jayden Pfeifer
The CIG Gig: Regional Director of the Saskatchewan tournament
The Other Gigs: Director of the General Fools (arguably the biggest name in Sask improv), Festival Director of the General Fools Festival (Regina’s annual improv festival), Host of Red Hot Riot, a monthly comedy showcase performed live at Regina’s Artesian Theatre.
The Chops: Jayden’s approach to coming up with characters is a loose blend of skills he’s gained from experience in movement, mask, and clown work. He puts his character skills to the test as one half of the improv duo Skin & Lungs. Alongside Vancouver’s Ryan Beil, Jayden creates improvised one-act plays exploring the relationship between two characters in real time.
“How can teams develop more dynamic, interesting characters in all of their CIG events?”
“The thing that I often try and teach is that you don’t have to have a fully built character in a second. You just need to make one choice, and then you have the rest of the scene to develop it!
Look for something really subtle that is happening in the moment or that you notice yourself doing (fidgeting with your shirt, stumbling onto the stage) and just exaggerate it and treat it like it’s the biggest deal in the world. … It stops you from thinking about it offstage — thinking of the best possible character to play. Just find it when you get there!”
Q: How can you tell a team is making solid character choices when you watch a CIG event?
A: “When the character choices they’re making, not just the things they’re saying, are introducing offers into a scene. … It’s not just a matter of playing someone funny, I see it as (CIG players) choosing to give gifts to their scene partners. … If I just play myself … my team-members need to give me more back to make that scenario more interesting or valuable.”
Q: As improvisers, most of us have one or two “fallback characters” that we’re tempted to play every time we start a new scene. Why do you think that is?
A: “I think it’s just comfort level! I have a handful of touchstone characters that I go back to because I’m comfortable in them, and I know I can play them well. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having your team of stock characters, I think that’s great — because at least you’re making choices.
But I think another reason why people fall into stock characters is because the idea of building a character seems like a lot of work. … The irony of that is that if you play a character you make improvising a story so much easier! Your choices are so simple to make … Because you just follow what you think your character would do in any given moment.”
As you’re going on stage, pick a point somewhere on your body — like the top of your head, or the inside of your kneecap. Choose to make that little point a place of injury or a place of strength and see how it affects the character you become.
Example: Player X chooses their left shoulder and makes it a point of injury. It slumps a little bit and she/he spends the whole scene with a slumpy left shoulder. NOTE: This doesn’t mean Player X has to talk about the injured shoulder and it also doesn’t mean they have to play a weak character. The physical choice they’ve made will inform how they move, how they speak, and how they’re treated by their scene partners. Et Voilà! Player X’s character choice is affecting the scene!
PARTING WORDS OF WISDOM:
There’s no ‘right way’ to play a character, so keep it simple and take the pressure off! Improvisation is 100% good-looking failure, so don’t be afraid to make choices and stick with them throughout the scene. — Jayden Pfeifer
I made up the first question to get us started. Now it’s your turn! Send us all your burning questions about skills, events, team-building, or anything else CIG-related so we can get answers for you from the CIG’s top trainers. Leave your questions in the comments below, or tweet your queries with the hashtag #askatrainer to @CanadianImprov. You can even send ’em to firstname.lastname@example.org if you want