Solo Improv Advice from Jill Bernard

Jill Bernard here!  People often ask me how to do solo improv, which is one of those questions you have to answer yourself because solo improv is uniquely you, it doesn’t have to work like group improv. You have no obligation to do anything but weave together a piece that highlights everything you love about improv and life, everything you’re curious about, everything that makes you happy.  All your weaknesses become your strengths, all your strengths become your superpower. You have every permission in the world to build something just for you.  Take some time and 1) Write down three pieces of art or music or television shows or movies or books that you love and *why*.  2) Write down what you are a nerd about, and what your special and unspecial skills are. 3) Write down what your favorite thing to do in improv is.  4) Think about whether you want the audience involved and how. 5) Think about whether you want one long story or lots of little stories or maybe just a lecture.   6) Put the answers to 1-5 in your head and swish them around, start to think of images and templates and possibilities until something curious occurs to you that would be terrifying but incredible to try.

Please do not do anything in your solo show out of obligation.  Also, there may be things that feel like “cheating” or “crutches” for example, knowing there will always be a song in the middle or “only” playing one character.  None of that is cheating. Take super-good care of yourself and respond to any fussy little baby sounds from your psyche with compassion.

Q:  Isn’t it arrogant to do solo improv?  A: Oh hells yes. You are saying to the world I don’t need these other jerks. Own that little piece of naughtiness, it’s okay. You can be totally humble off-stage for marketing purposes but know in your heart that all human beings are interesting enough to be alone onstage, and you are compelling. It’s all right.

Find someplace to test your piece – a cabaret, a friendly open mic, in between some group improv pieces. Once you’ve done a small test, the piece will tell you what it wants to grow up to be. You have to just try it and see.

Other advice: *most* but not *all* solo improv pieces involve switching characters. There are unlimited ways to switch characters, but three easy ones are the CHARACTER SLIDE, the CHARACTER POP and the CHARACTER ABSENT. Whether you prefer the Character Slide or the Character Pop will depend on whether you’re more interested in preserving time or space – one of which has to be suspended for you to play more than one character.

· In the character slide, I play the character of Janey, then go neutral and walk over to another spot on the stage and play Ralph. Time is suspended – normally dialogue would continue without the dead space. The audience accepts the travel time as neutral and ignores it, if you can make it truly neutral – the expression in your face or body should not be Janey or Ralph.

· In the character pop, I play the character of Janey and then shift positions while staying in the same space. It works on a pivot. If we pretend I’m standing on a clock on the floor, when Janey’s talking I look at 11 o’clock, and when Ralph is talking I look at 1 o’clock. For some reason, we as viewers accept that the two are standing straight across from each other as you would be in an actual conversation, even though you’re portraying them at a 45 degree angle away from each other. A variation is the totem pole: I shift characters by changing my physicality and voice, but I stay looking in the same direction. The totem pole is nice for creating crowd scenes.

· In the character absent, I talk to the empty space where another character would be. If I choose, I can do a “fill” where eventually I run over there to fill in as that second character, often as a punchline. Leave space in your dialogue where that character would “answer” you.

All of these can be used in combination with each other, and there might be a fourth way that’s unique to you. Like anything in solo improv, you’re the expert.

Things you may want to watch for in playing multiple characters:

· Use realistic eye lines. If I’m playing a little kid talking to an adult, I should look up when I’m the kid and down when I’m the adult. This is especially tricky when using a chair, the temptation is to talk to the chair back, but a human’s eyes are about a foot and a half higher.

· Make your characters distinct in voice, physicality, tempo and emotion or you’ll lose track of who’s who. Especially when shifting characters, make sure the change is complete from head to toe. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve switched characters and looked down to see I still have the other character’s feet. Or god forbid their wine glass.

· Audiences get boners for when you make physical contact with invisible characters. Fights, dances, even a simple shoulder touch are so pleasing because they define the imaginary.

There are some solo improv warm-ups I can teach you even though it makes me giggle. The first is a variation on WHAT ARE YOU DOING? Find two initials in the room you are, like L.B. Then just make little verb/object or adjective/verb combos out loud, i.e. Lighting Bridges, Losing Brian, Listening Boringly, Limiting Barry, Lightly Baking, Listlessly Burying, etc. The second is a one-word story where you blink to separate the thoughts for yourself. [Eyes open] “once” [eyes closed] “there” [eyes open] “was” [eyes closed] “a” [eyes open] “grandmother” [eyes closed] “who” etc. This is hard to sustain for long because your brain catches up and starts unifying your thoughts into one thinker. The third is to do four little mini character monologues with the same first line of dialogue, spreading out around the room and taking different physicalities – that one comes from Andy Eninger, the golden god of solo improv. The fourth is to put on your headphones and dance around to your favorite song completely unleashed and free of inhibition. The fifth is to think of a way to adapt your favorite group warm up. There are other great suggestions in the book “Improvise” by Mick Napier.

1-2-3 go do it!!