Samuel J. Tanner 5 minute read

Playing Characters

My sons Solomon and Samson were fighting in the other room.

"You're Pa Pa Booey," Solomon screamed at Samson.

Samson howled. "No, I'm not. I'm Samson! You're Pa Pa Booey."

"No, I'm not Pa Pa Booey. I'm Solomon. You're Pa Pa Booey!"

"No, I'm Samson. You're Pa Pa Booey!"

Solomon is four. Samson is two. Their fights mostly involve intense yelling. And howling. Gnashing of teeth.

My wife Katie broke the boys up. She told them that nobody was Pa Pa Booey.

The exchange above has happened any number of times over the last two months. Solomon accuses Samson of being Pa Pa Booey. Samson denies this. He accuses Solomon of being Pa Pa Booey. Solomon denies this. The cycle continues. They fight. Katie breaks them up.

Who is Pa Pa Booey? Beats the hell out of me.

Later, Solomon was brushing his teeth. He looked up at me.

"Dad, I'm not Solomon. I'm Pa Pa Booey."

Solomon had scrunched his face, and was speaking with a deep baritone. Was he playing a character? Yes, he certainly was. This was Pa Pa Booey.

"Are you Pa Pa Booey, Solomon?" I asked him.

"I'm not Solomon," he yelled at me with a deep voice, "I'm Pa Pa Booey."

"Okay," I told him. Solomon continued to explore this new character. Each sentence began in third-person, before moving to first-person. Like this:

"Pa Pa Booey is nine years old. It's my birthday tomorrow. I'll be ten."

"You'll be ten, Pa Pa Booey?" I asked him. "What do you want for your birthday?"

"Pa Pa Booey wants a really fast watch. With Toejam and Earl on it."

Solomon has been playing the classic video game Toejam and Earl on our Nintendo Wii.

Solomon wanted a Paw Patrol watch for his fourth birthday. With Ryder on it. Clearly, Solomon's performance of Pa Pa Booey was rooted, as all acting is, in his own experience. Pa Pa Booey was older than Solomon, and it seemed clear he would want a Toejam and Earl watch instead of a Paw Patrol watch.

Solomon marched out of the bathroom. He strode through the house with his fists at his side, and with great confidence. He spent about twenty minutes as Pa Pa Booey before returning to Solomon, to himself.

I was impressed by my son's performance. I was an acting teacher in a previous life. I coached students to conjure characters. I provoked them to make choices with their bodies, voices, and faces to embody different people. Solomon made strong choices when he walked around our house as Pa Pa Booey without any coaching.

Improvisation is all about creating characters.

Happy Valley Improv continues to flourish. I'm teaching a level one improv class this spring. It's joyful. I'm so glad to be teaching improv again. Still, I remember what hard work it is to get people to explore different characters.

"We are always playing characters in our real lives," I've told any number of classes during my career. "Acting simply requires us to better understand the people we play, and transform into different version of ourselves."

Metaphysical, right? I believe this, though. Ninenty-percent of the the challenge of getting people to succeed at improv is convincing them to let go of their normal selves, whatever that might mean to them. The teacher or director or whatever needs to create a space where people are provoked to imagine and inhabit different people. They have to really believe in this transformation for it to work. Tricky work.

People seem so convinced that we have a true, normal self. Imagining that we might become (or already be) different people seems ridiculous, scary, whatever. This is the power of improvisation for me. Acting too. If we do it well, we actually transform what we are. And I believe that people have a transformational relationship with reality. We transform and are transformed by our relationship with the creation. Improv provides a particular way to embrace the shifting natures of what and where we are. We tell and inhabit new stories and, if we do this with sincerity, we can't help but be changed by the process. Deep, eh? Maybe. Seems deep to me, anyway. Important.

It seemed so natural for Solomon to imagine and inhabit Pa Pa Booey. And he did so without any shame. He was so sincere. I embraced his transformation. Like a director of improv, I coached Solomon to further explore this new character.

I asked questions. I played with him within the context of his improvisational game. What is Pa Pa Booey's favorite color? How old is Pa Pa Booey? What does Pa Pa Booey do for fun? Etc.

Pa Pa Booey was so different from Solomon. Solomon is somewhat shy. He's timid, too. Pa Pa Booey was powerful and assertive. These are traits that Solomon doesn't usually exhibit. It was interesting to watch my son use his character to play with different elements of his being. Transformational? Who is to say? Still, I believe it is always good for us to explore different facets of our being. Children might do this naturally. Maybe adults learn that it's not appropriate to act out of character, to improvise. Certainly, I was admonished when I acted out of character as a teacher. At least out of the character my peers and supervisors expected me to play. I think that adults should improvise more. We might better understand ourselves. We might open up more possiblities for our relationship with the creation.

We should take our lead from Solomon. We should play more. It might be good for us.