How to Survive an Improv Marathon: Part Three

Within minutes of the start, I turned to one of the only two people I knew and whispered nervously, ‘I think I need to change my character!’

I was second guessing my choices, trying to control the nerves about being in a new theatre with new people and picking the ‘right’ character to play for the next 26 hours… The lights were going up and I’d just changed my intended character accent back to kiwi. The facilitator was introducing the show and I changed her background (to fit the kiwi accent). As my character was being called up to do a scene and I still hadn’t decided whether her overarching objective was money or rural serenity…

Part Three: the Improv!

It’s been four months since I was in Bristol to play one character in the 26 hour improvised soap opera, Time Busters, run by Closer Each Day in association with Bristol Improv Theatre (BIT). How did I stay awake, stay in character and remain a functioning improviser? With folks I had never played with before?

In Part One I wrote about the things I learned about surviving an improv marathon physically and in Part Two: surviving emotionally.  Here is what I leaned about the actual improv in a soap opera improvathon.

The Library


Fortunately, I got lucky with my last minute character crisis. I ended up defaulting to a version of myself rather than the more interesting characters I had ambitions to play. I walked on stage with my own accent, my own rural background and no pre-determined characteristics other than my job title in the world of the soap opera.

Del Close famously said that “character should be worn as a thin veil” meaning that the audience want to see the actor’s truth. I’ve always struggled with that idea, wanting to be anything but myself on stage and the marathon was no exception.

But the beauty of playing an aspect of your own truth is that it’s easier and more grounded in reality, therefore much better for creating the relationships, character perspective and character based comedy that drive an improvised narrative.

Here’s a tip from by Jason Shotts and Colleen Doyle of IO: thinking of a scale from one to say, twelve, where one is you and twelve is a cartoon, begin with the character layer at about a three. This means you have room to grow (even to a twelve if appropriate) and take your audience along for the ride rather than losing them at the beginning or having to scale back the extreme to connect to the other characters.

Listening to yourself

OK. Listening is standard improv and obviously standard improv stuff applies to the soap opera. But we’re often so busy listening to others that we forget to listen to ourselves. So we drop things we’ve named at the beginning and hunt to invent new things for ourselves. Instead we want to commit to what we’ve already created and play it stronger.

In my panic I ended up with no pre-determined character layer before I stepped on stage. Whether that was ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ might depend on your current improv philosophy but at first I thought I’d made it harder for myself and I was disappointed. I felt lost. Like I was wavering in a wishy-washy no character in that first scene.

That’s where listening to myself and playing what I discovered about my character harder really helped. Despite my thought that I’d like to play a character who was driven by money my character’s first words were about companionship. So that was my character veil, her thing, her point of view. When I listened to her value for companionship and played the positive and negative aspects of that character layer harder; relationships with other characters, scene games and story arcs were formed in a grounded way. The soap opera became more relaxed for me.

Plotting together
Plotting together

Concession not conflict

John Lomas of Closer Each Day advised us all to play positively to make the soap opera format work best.

“Make scenes about people working together not conflict. And to help this: play positive characters. Characters with negative attitudes inevitably end up blocking or coming into conflict. Form relationships and allegiances. This is a soap and soap is driven by relationships, be they romantic or otherwise. Let these relationships develop and play the long game. If you are playing an antagonist, then team up with other antagonists and work together. Again, make the scenes about concession not conflict.”

This piece of advice was all I remembered in the character paralysis of walking on for that first scene. It would have been so easy to block or play negative in that state of mind but the advice reminded me to help make that very first scene a no-trouble platform scene where all the characters in the pub liked each other. We got rich characters and background to use for the rest of the show out of that one generous scene.

I also noticed later in the show how difficult it was to further the story and the relationships when I did slip into conflict with my character’s ex-husband. One trick for making it work and still being true to your character is to play conflicted instead of conflict: internalise the conflict while trying to find agreement within the scene. For example: think how much we love watching a character do something they don’t want to do. Much more funny than them refusing or doing it easily with no affect on their emotional state.

Character point of view

Despite my note about listening to myself, it took me several scenes to recognise my character’s thing had already been created. I wavered in neutral for some scenes instead of stating my character’s opinion or objective. It meant that I basically never had a scene with that other character again as there was no relationship developed.

Your character needs a point of view / an objective / a desire and or a character flaw. Something that drives them.

These collective character traits drive the show and help the facilitators / directors. It’s their job to set up each scene with characters and location and to keep track of the story arcs for the characters and the show. Having a strong POV supports them in deciding which characters to throw together and what episode or multi- episode story arcs to promote.


Be bold

Use your character point of view, your developing relationships with other characters and the organic games that develop to make bold story action choices and raise the stakes on existing choices (your own and other character’s). This is how the plot gets driven and prevents the facilitators from having to make up everything for you (remember they’re not getting any sleep either!).

And get on with it. Yes, we’re playing a long game but if there is too much bridging to a known end or paralysed conflict with no consequences then it’s not fun for audience or players. Let strong emotions drive bold actions, have actions lead to consequences and let the story move forward into the unknown.

Be Present

Lastly, just a reminder to let go of the excellent ideas that you have and listen to what is happening now. I forgot this at the last because I was so caught up in the fact that I needed to leave the soap early. In my tiredness I didn’t see or hear some excellent offers from my teammates.  I just drove my character to the sticky end I’d fixated on. It was still an awesome episode ending but it was pretty exactly the one I’d scripted moments before in my head. Who knows how much more awesome it could have been if I’d let my teammates offers affect the character and story?

Time Busters participants looking forward to going home to sleep
Time Busters participants looking forward to going home to sleep

Other Quick notes

Here are some other points which help make a good marathon or soap opera, either observed by me or other cast and crew. (Disclaimer: as with all improv guides there is often that moment of exception where a rule should totally be broken.)

– use your short character introduction at the top of each episode to help the facilitators with your character arc. You don’t just have to recite what’s happened to you to catch new audience up. You can state how your character is feeling, remind everyone of a dropped fact, say what your character is trying to achieve or even do something irrelevant to any plot that fills out your character.

– know most of the other characters. Have a history with them and a friendship that starts positive (with concession not conflict as above).

– endow yourself more than others. In particular “avoid ‘comedy’ endowing – giving another character a characteristic that they may find difficult to play or may contradict the way the character has developed.” If you are endowing another character, try for positive rather than negative attributes.

– keep the drama grounded. Any big world events will affect every character in the entire show so think relationships rather than natural disasters, especially at the beginning.

– raise the stakes for a fellow character or yourself with a relevant moral choice (these can also make great episode cliff hangers).

– have fun with the character games that arise in your scenes and let these drive the story rather than driving your character objective into plans and plotting

– obey the facilitator and the lights. Not doing so is blocking a teammate’s offer and breaking the reality of the world for the audience.

– try not to break character or step out of the scene to comment on it.

– try to vary the rhythm and staging from the scene immediately prior to yours.

– have fun!

What have I missed?

Agree or disagree with any of these? What improv note works for you in an improvised soap opera or improvathon?

(photographer Gruffudd Jones)