If you ask an improviser to define status, I suspect many would struggle to pin it down. But I’m also willing to bet that most of them could show you status in a heartbeat. Because status, like stories and songs, is everywhere. It happens all the time in every interaction we have. We just sort of know how to do it.
Think about your status in your job, a social club you’re in, or even your family; you probably have a sense of where you sit in the pecking order. I have a friend who is so aware of status that every time she enters a room she ranks people in her head, numbering everyone off and working out where she sits in a group. If you don’t think about your status perhaps you’re the effortlessly high-status one? This isn’t intended as a slight. You can be a generous beautiful soul who is extremely high status (like Barack Obama in this clip here). And you can play a low-status person who is unpleasant, selfish, and unkind. If we detach status from being negative or positive, it may help us play with it even more in our improv workshops, rehearsal rooms, and shows.
Personally, I think status is a great tool for establishing relationships and dynamics in improvisation. So let’s get into it.
Playing at the extremes of status can be a great way to start. We often share this list of status indicators to break down how one can improvise status.
|High Status||Low Status|
|Talking Slow||Talking Fast|
|Complete, clear sentences||Broken, qualified sentences|
|Pause mid-sentence||Pause at the start of sentence|
|Symmetrical, open body||Asymmetrical, closed body|
|Straight spine||Curved spine|
|Smooth movement||Jerky movement|
It’s certainly not an exhaustive list and there are always exceptions. But if someone says be high or low status, the list above is a good place to start.
The Three Types of Status
The above are great shortcuts for showing status, but what if we’re looking to play a more nuanced version, or a character that will sustain for a show rather than a scene?
In Will Storr’s book The Status Game, he talks about 3 status ‘games’
Perhaps the type of high status we see most often in television and film, this is the type of status most often discussed in improv. Think about ‘House of Cards’ or ‘Succession’ or films like ‘Goodfellas’, or even ‘The Devil Wears Prada’. Status through dominance is the uglier side of humanity. Great for playing villains, but I would recommend exercising extreme caution in an improv setting where players do not know each other well and have not set boundaries and expectations for the group.
In this version of status, you win by being good at what you’re doing. The fastest runner, the most strategic chess player, the baker with the perfect souffle. I find that focusing on these details can really help with the specifics of building more fully rounded characters, especially in a narrative improv show. There is a potential pitfall though: just talking about the big football game rather than about the interpersonal dynamics onstage can shift the focus away from the scene. Be the best, but make that mean something too.
Inverting status, where the expected status of characters is reversed can often lead to the unexpected. It’s naturally comic. There are whole character-worlds based on this (‘Jeeves and Wooster’, ‘Black Adder’ and, more recently, Dina and Glenn in ‘Superstore’).
Playing scenes with flipped status is one of my favourite things to do in a status workshop. Here are a few favourites:
- Low-status boss and high-status interviewee
- Low-status school teacher and high-status pupil
- Low-status bank robber and high-status cashier
- Low-status royalty and high-status servant
Change and the Future
Of course, status is never static. Some of the best characters undergo change and this often comes with a rise or a fall in status. A big change in status can make for great comedy or deep tragedy depending on how you play it. How does changing status several times in one scene compare with one status change over the course of a full show?
As a performer and teacher, I’m trying to keep learning all the time. So In researching for our last course we also read Cecilia L Ridgeway’s book Status: Why is it everywhere? Why does it matter? Thinking more deeply about this subject has been interesting and thought-provoking in a way that makes me aspire to find more subtlety and sensitivity in my status work.
Both Del Close and Keith Johnstone talked a lot about status in their work. But improvisation itself has changed a lot since the 70s and 80s. Thankfully in our communities, there has been a shift towards an emphasis on inclusivity and psychological safety. So I would gently say to any improviser, particularly those in a position of power themselves (as a teacher or coach) to hold an awareness and care in status work. Taking into consideration that we all bring different life experiences into the rehearsal room means status and power have different connotations for each of us.
As Cecilia Ridgeway says ‘status is everywhere’. Whether we like it or not. Status is pervasive and powerful but status can be challenged and changed.