Confession: I’m a very emotional person. Watching my 2 year old son trying to blow seeds off a dandelion makes me squeal in delight. Trying to insert a signature into a PDF will make me fly into a rage. A grey haired sweet old dog shuffling slowly along in the park during their last days and clearly adored by it’s owner will bring a tear to my eye.
So yeah, I’m emotional. I have been told this all my life. The negative version; drama queen, attention seeker, too much. The positive version; sensitive, empathic, not afraid to express yourself.
Also, if you didn’t know, I’m British. Let’s face it, we Brits have a somewhat complicated relationship with our emotions. In thinking about this article I came across this report by The Social Issues Research Centre all about the emotional state of our nation. TLDR – we’re not very good at expressing ourselves. As a highly expressive person in a mostly buttoned down and ‘stiff upper lip’ culture I don’t always go down well!
But whatever you think, this sure has been a gift for me as an improviser. Put emotion into a scene and everything flows from there. Have an emotional reaction to anything and something is already happening. An expected reaction or an unexpected one, it doesn’t matter. If your character feels and cares, it’s likely that the audience will too.
The trouble with being an improv teacher who is also a very emotional person however, is that it’s not that easy to teach something you do so unconsciously. Joe Samuel, the improv musician I work with most, has perfect pitch. So when he is training up other improvising musicians there is a whole section of their experience of learning that he is not able to identify or help with. Unless of course they are lucky enough to have perfect pitch too. I wonder if this is similar for me and explaining my feelings about feeling. Perhaps I have perfect pitch when it comes to playing the emotional keyboard.
That being said, over the years I’ve tried to learn the best I can to teach the thing I do most and know the least about how I do it. So here’s a few ways of improvising with emotion.
If you’ve ever been in therapy (heyo) you’ll know that one thing you’re encouraged to do is name your feelings. Like many things in therapy (a whole other blog by the way) this is also great advice for improv. But what if you don’t know how to do that? What other emotions are there other that happy, sad and angry?
A tool I’ve used a lot is the emotions wheel. There are lots of varying versions of this available online but the one below is a well known one used by psychologists (and now improvisers) to help people identify their feelings.
Pick an emotion, start a scene and see where it goes. This is also good for getting really specific with your choices. Don’t play happy, play peaceful. Don’t play Angry, play resentful etc. If it’s really challenging, you can start in the areas you find easy and work round. If emotion is not a thing you do in improv ever you might want to layer this on top of all your improv exercises for a while, get it into your muscle memory. So even if you’re working on something more technical like edits or game of the scene or narrative, you can still add some emotion in there.
‘This is all very well’ I hear you cry, but how? Luckily many great people have many great resources on this. A couple here:
Nice article on breaking emotions down into physical actions like breathing and posture. Perhaps extra useful for teachers when sidecoaching. So rather than say ‘be more sad’ you might say ‘sigh, turn away, move slowly.’ More and better examples are in the article.
Along similar lines the late great Keith Johnstone also has a lovely concept of fast food Stanislavsky. Rather than purely physical actions, these are lists of behaviours that all add up to a larger motivation e.g to appear happy and contented with everything = Indulge yourself (chocolates, drinks, etc.), pet an animal, dance, sing. Again, tons more at the link below.
Also, as above, pick an emotion, try it on, stretch it around. I find status is often taught on a 1 to 10 scale but I find this useful for emotion work too. If you’re required to have a huge emotional reaction you could start at level 1 and work your way up to 10, especially if having a big explosion is not something you ever do.
I know there are tons of improv games and exercises that use emotions but here are a few of my all-time favourites.
Two characters start a scene with contrasting emotions e.g. a guilty student and an angry teacher during detention. The scene ends when they have swapped emotions. Can be a slow journey or a sudden flip. Play around with it.
One player is given a gesture e.g. polishing their glasses, the other an emotion e.g. despair. Starting the scene from neutral emotion, every time the first person polishes their glasses, the other sinks deeper into despair.
Get a location, start a scene, and an outside director calls out a series of different emotions. The players keep changing how they feel but justify why in the scene. For a show, the audience can suggest emotions.
Players stand in a circle. One walks over to another using their walk and expression and noises to convey an attitude or emotion. They stop in front of someone across from them
Person a: It’s Tuesday
Person b: It’s Tuesday and you are feeling x (name emotion) because y (a specific reason)
Person b then continues around the circle.
On the second round the players mirror each other and the dialogue becomes
Person a: It’s Tuesday
Person b: It’s Tuesday and WE’RE feeling x (name emotion) because y (a specific reason)
These can continue into short scenes
One person says the most boring line of dialogue they can think of. The other goes to 11 on the emotion amplifier. Can be an unexpected reaction or expected. Can be a quick 2 line scene drill or a scene start. Always funny or surprising, every time.
So there we have it. I hope you’ve enjoyed my journey through emotions and improv. Now please excuse me, I’m off to happy-cry at a youtube video of Otters holding hands.