Comedy Acting Techniques for Character Performers, by Colin Underwood. Surprise is vital for character entertainers and…
Essential Techniques That Professionals Do Not Share:
This article I consider one of the most beneficial methods to enhance your character.
Let’s have Action with lots of Reaction.
I was first introduced to this concept by a very talented actor/producer—Kurt Wurtsman. He booked me for many acting-type roles, with my ‘skills’ coming second to the main character. I had to play for three thousand delegates for a Microsoft convention at one of our large resorts—‘Sun City’. I was sharing the same stage and dressing room that the likes of Rod Stewart and Michael Jackson had performed on. The space is large—hence the name ‘Super Bowl’.
Anyway, I was the only solo performer appearing on the stage in a cast of about 50. There were many dance sequences and many eclectic characters, too many to mention. I was a link character—very much in the vein of the Circus Soleil shows . . . an honour, when I look back at it.
Kurt showed me this Action/Reaction technique to help me play bigger in such a space. Let me say that this ties up with the last two articles on Surprise and Suspense. I suggest you re-read those articles first.
Action/Reaction for me is to act, and then to react.
For every action you make, a contextual reaction must also take place. You need to break up your actions into many smaller sub-actions, very much the way you did for the Surprise technique; and, in fact, the same cue points for the Surprise technique will be used—but the appropriate response might be different. With these points in mind, you apply the appropriate response to the action. This might be surprise, or sadness, or whatever.
What this does is stop you becoming a ‘robot performer’, and makes your show spontaneous. There are so many bad magicians—not because their technique is bad, but they do not believe in the ‘magic’ and the character they portray. Yes, they make certain stock lines at the appropriate moments, but if they portray genuine astonishment or emotion appropriate to the action at the same time as the audience does, the better they will engage in the moment. The more you show the same or exaggerated emotion the audience does, the more you bond with them. Salesmen will mirror their clients’ body positions in sales meetings as a way to link with them.
To highlight this technique, let’s take the actual scenario I was in on that ‘Super Bowl’ stage many years ago.
Here’s the scene as I remember it: Lights down and in walks this crazy character with big shoes and large, exaggerated eyebrows—with a lot of rouge on his cheeks and reddish lips. (Not by my choice.) With the previous acts walking past me to the backstage, I now proceeded nervously (according to my character) down a long ramp into the spots and three thousand (mainly) men standing around the stage area in a large horseshoe arrangement. Immediately I am aware of the comments and murmuring. (I am thinking: ‘It’s the damn rouge.’)
I am carrying a briefcase close to my chest, hugging it for dear life. I place the briefcase down on an office chair with jacket draped over the back rest, which conveniently was pushed in by a large fairy. I think he was a fairy—not because he was gay, but because of the strange wings and the pink tights he had on. I proceed to take my gloves off, and all goes well until I find my left glove is getting longer and longer from my sleeve. I am in panic mode! I now make exaggerated poses trying to release my arm from the clutches of this crazy man-eating glove.
Finally, after what seemed like hours, I escape; move over to the suitcase very slowly and open the lid. I immediately back away in panic, slamming down the lid. I look at the case, the audience, and back to the case . . . moving back and reaching down to the lid—again jumping back, as a large sound effect from backstage makes me jump. (By now the audience is engaged, with some people shouting that I can do it. Tough crowd!)
I pick up the case, open it, and very slowly reveal a bowling ball. I am surprised look horrified. Then I smile, and—with a slight shrug and sigh—toss the ball over my shoulder. I once again recoil in fright as the ball makes a loud bang falling onto stage. I turn around and, in one action, I have a revolver from my pocket pointing at the ball. My pose is an over-exaggerated police pose, pointing the revolver . . . and in my mind, saying: ‘Freeze!’ I realise my silliness in over-reacting, shrug, and place the revolver back in my pocket—but accidently shoot my foot . . . etc., etc.
To summarise the rest of the act: I survived the ordeal, produced another bowling ball, vanished it, and then produced a soccer ball from the jacket. I left to great response, and exited stage left.
How can this apply to your show and comedy?
Take the Nesting Wands set and the Breakaway Wand as examples.
I can hear you say that you have done them before, but probably just like this version here.
The child is next to you and you give him the wand. Immediately the wand breaks, and you give him another one. Now it turns blue, and a little smaller, followed by another.
. . . Boring!!!
How about this?
“Mr Johnnie—the magician—folks! ‘GIVE HIM A BIG HAND’. What does he need to do magic?”
Children reply: A magic wand, Hat, Bunny, etc.
You reply: “No! Money—lots of it!”
“Now, who has seen a magician give the magic wand to a child and it breaks?” Pause. “Well, I don’t do that, as its old fashioned.” The timing for this is to make sure the word ‘breaks’ happens at the same time as the wand breaks. You look at audience as you finish the sentence.
Act surprised at the broken wand. Pause. Respond by saying: “I just told you I don’t do that.” Repeat this, getting more worked up. Take out the blue nested wand and say: “This used to be my best magic wand—given to me by uncle so-and-so—and when it worked its magic it would turn . . .” Give child the wand as you expose the red wand as you say: “RED!”
Freak out at the sight of the red wand, and ask the child how he did that. Go on your knees and start begging him to tell you—even pretend to cry—and say that you also want to be a magician. Carry on crying and move to an adult, and cry on his/her shoulder—pointing to the child and saying to the adult that the child won’t tell you how to do the magic. (This is not in everyone’s stage persona, but I can highly recommend it if you feel crying could be a viable comedy option.)
BTW: This crying technique took a lot of guts to do at first, before it became standard in my arsenal of techniques. It’s very funny for both kids and adults watching the children’s entertainer burst into tears . . . especially over something silly. Both children and adults know instinctively that crying is used to get your own way.
If you think I am making this up, I am not. This is the exact routine as seen in my show. If you do choose someone to cry on, I generally chose a rather happy, jolly type of woman—rather than the blonde in a mini skirt; although my real preference would be the latter! (I’m a guy—come on!) I also sort of come in at an angle, and rest my head on the shoulder without my body being totally in front of her. As an extension of this, if the woman pacifies me by patting me on the back, I proceed to become calmer—and then let out a loud snoring. I immediately jump backwards acting all indignant, saying something like: ‘Come on,’ or ‘Stop it’ to the audience.
If you have any pertinent comments, respond below or e-mail me. Regards, Colin.
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