Natasha Rothwell is a former writer for Saturday Night Live who is now one of the stars of the new comedy sketch show “Characters,” which debuts on Netflix March 11. We talk to her about training at the People’s Improv Theater and UCB in New York, her work ethic, how she got hired by SNL and her new show.
By far the thing I hear most from improv students when they first start working with me is: “I want to do characters. Teach me how to do characters. My last teacher said I need to do more characters.”
I get it. I have struggled with this myself. There was even a time when I was convinced that I didn’t know how to play characters so I would pretend like it wasn’t cool to do them, bragging to people, “I don’t do characters.” What an idiot. In some cases, I actually was doing them and didn’t even know I was, and the rest of the time I was judging myself and others for doing them. I was messed up.
Thank God over the years I have gotten more comfortable with playing improv characters, and now I find it fun and liberating. (That’s between us). I have come across some simple tricks to jump start me into doing characters. You are going to hate me for this, but there is no right or wrong way to create characters. It’s really whatever works for you. I have seen people approach character by a playing an attitude, or an emotion, or a physicality or a voice or an accent. All work, it’s just a matter of taste. What is important in playing improv characters is point of view, how they look at the world and how they respond to their scene partner through that filter.
Once I have that filter in place, and know how this person will respond to things, I am out of my head and I can start saying things that I would not normally say on stage or in life. I’m not playing me anymore. I may be a heightened part of me or someone completely different. All I know is it is so fucking freeing when it happens.
Here are three of the quickest way to create instant character:
1. Start with a strong emotion
That’s right. Come right out of the box and start the scene with a strong emotion: happy, sad, angry, afraid. I know what you are saying: “That is cheating. That is planning.” You are not planning the scene, you are not planning the dialogue, you are still improvising. Get over it. Nobody has time in most long form scenes to start out in neutral. You have to start with something or you’re dead. I have seen beginning students who were completely paralyzed on stage, until I introduced this concept and they were able to do scene work that took me ten years to achieve. A strong emotion will give you an instant point of view. End of discussion.
2. Mirror your scene partner
I love working with Susan Messing because nobody does strong characters like she does, and I am sharing with you a little secret that I use when I play with her. I just follow her and mirror what she is doing in terms of energy and character. (Let’s also keep that between us). I can hear you guys now: “But Jimmy, you are working with Susan Messing. She is brilliant.” Before you are so quick to judge, try it. I have often mirrored characters, and I have seen my students do it with tons of success. Why can’t you? When John Hildreth and I do “Jimmy and Johnnie” we usually agree before the show that we will start our first scene by mirroring everyone else’s energy and characters. We built that right into the form. Thank you Susan and Rachael Mason for that one.
Another variation on this is to play the opposite of your partner’s energy from the instant they come out on stage. If some comes out and plays a big, boisterous character, you could play the opposite — a meek or scared person. Either way, you’ll have a distinct point of view. I think you get it, so let’s move on.
3. Using a physicality
You’ve heard this one a million times, I am sure, and I have used this one a lot over the years. The secret to this is to be aware of what you are doing and then heighten the shit out of it. This typically comes from a very organic place. You may start the scene by wringing your hands together. What does that tell you about the character? They could be nervous or anxious. They could be washing their hands and being a germ-a-phobe. Ok, right now start rubbing your hand together and see what kind of attitude comes up for you. I’ll wait.
Another simple variation of using a physicality is adjusting your posture. I have done this where I simply adjust my naturally poor posture. If I enter a scene where I am standing up straight, I immediately play high status: a boss or a teacher a bully or an asshole father. I have gone into scene where I bend over and up play some sort of wimp or weasel or snitch or low self-esteem guy.
What do you use to create instant characters? Let us know. I am always open to keep learning more.
I am in improv rut. The last couple of shows I have felt like I’m experiencing improv-vu, doing the same flat, uninspired, boring scenes over and over again. I am pulling the same stock characters out, making the same choices, and I can’t for the life me understand why it’s not going better.
If you’ve been to any of my shows lately, you’ll recognize this. I play a stern, uptight dad who finds out his kids are doing drugs, and then when they admit to it, he tells them to keep doing drugs because it will make them cool. I’ve done this same scene hundreds of times, and it’s not even funny. Why do I keep going back to it?
Of course, when I’m doing this, I’m not listening. I am stream rolling or trying to control the scene. Worse, I do not feel funny, on stage or in my life, and as you can figure out, I am not having any fun. I am not challenging myself, I am going through the motions and watching as other improvisers that I perform with make smart choices, commit emotionally and are vulnerable — all the things I teach in my classes. I must be a fraud! It’s like I am incapable of doing what I have been teaching for years.
I feel like I have lost my edge, and the funny has dried up. I tell myself my improv career is over and that if I was a race horse, I would be headed straight to the glue factory.
How did I get to this place? When I retrace my steps, it is clear I have never been more busy in my career, traveling and teaching and doing Improv Nerd and not leaving any room to have fun. None. Fuck the self-care or taking care of myself. I’ve got to keep moving before all the abundance evaporates. Every artist needs time to just piss away, hang out in a book store for hours or go to a museum or go to lunch with a friend and talk and laugh until the wait staff starts giving you dirty looks because they want you out so they can set up for dinner.
This is different than wasting time. It’s the time you need to creativity re-stock the trout pond. There is no joy in my life, and I am not one of those people who can fake it or manufacture it on stage. I am “method” when it comes to joy. I need a little in my life to draw from in my improv.
I do not know how to get out of an improv rut. I do know that time usually helps, but, as you know, I don’t have all the answers. So I am open to your feedback. If you have been in an improv rut before and have some experience, strength and hope you would like to offer on this particular issue, I am more than open to it. Actually, I’m desperate. So go ahead, I’m all ears.
There’s still space in Jimmy’s upcoming Intermediate Art of Slow Comedy Class, beginning Saturday, Sept. 13! This class is limited to 10 people, so you’ll get lots of individual attention and stage time. Click here to sign up.