Building Improv Chops as a Street Character

Don Kilcoyne —  April 4, 2013 — 6 Comments

Renaissance Faires differ from other festivals and events in that they promise to transport visitors to a completely different time and place. That’s a mighty big promise. And every participant—volunteer or paid, mead wench or jouster, carpenter or manager, ticket seller or royal piper—is responsible for helping to keep it.

Yet one group in particular, for good or ill, sets the tone for the Faire day: the Street Characters.

I’ve worked the streets (Mom would be so proud…) for 22 years, teaching Improv and directing Street Teams for more than half of them. Most of us rarely swing swords, eat fire or inspire cheers of “God Save the Queen!” Instead, we warm up the Front Gate. We hawk shows. We cheer jousters. We make people laugh. Our Monarch may be our Faire’s face, but we street characters are often the Faire’s voice, hands and feet, creating thousands of unique brand impressions every Faire day. We are ambassadors of joy, conduits of information, makers of memories and pointers to the privies.

And for the most part, we make it all up as we go along. As Street Characters, we work without scripts. So how do we prepare a character that delivers the most possible value to our company and colleagues?

In my experience, we do it best when we focus on one golden rule: Engage the greatest possible number of guests at all times.

That sounds easy, but it requires a lot of preparation and some very specific choices:

BE REAL.
In general, Ren Faire characters are most entertaining when they build from a real, specific place. A village needs a doctor, a Mayor, a blacksmith, a pie-maker, a bootlegger, a beggar, and so on. Picking a real profession for your character enables the audience to understand your character more quickly, which, in turn, allows you to be funnier, faster. And that allows you to engage more audience members. There shouldn’t be a learning curve in a hit-and-run bit. Once you’ve decided what you want to be (Roofer, Puritan, Laundress, Purveyor of Recreational Companionship, etc.), you’ll find it’s easier to focus on why your character is unforgettably compelling. If your faire includes Faeries and you’re invited to play one, the same advice applies: Play as real a Faerie as you can, with specific characteristics, motivations and objectives. (Even Shakespeare’s fairies all had specific jobs.)

Many experienced performers around the country pull off excellent “fantasy” street characters, from gargoyles to fairies to “professional hypochondriacs.” But no one learns to juggle by throwing chainsaws in the air. Beginning performers should get the basics of character improv down first. Create the funniest, most engaging piemaker in the Shire. THEN try your hand as a stand-up alchemist.

PLAY TO YOUR STRENGTHS.
If you juggle, find a reason why your character would juggle. Perhaps you’re playing a blacksmith: juggle horseshoes. If you have a huge laugh, laugh a lot. Pantomime. Spout spontaneous limericks. Yodel. If you do it, and people find it entertaining, create a reason for your character to do it and practice until you’re amazing at it. Suddenly you’re not the village shepherdess. You’re the Yodeling Sheep Wrangler. How cool is that?

MAKE POSITIVE CHOICES.
In everything. Starting with the patrons. One of the first phrases I introduce in workshops is “Honored Guests.” Whether a patron has paid for a ticket or cashed in a coupon, slaved for hours making her own chainmail or slapped on a skort and a pair of Crocs, we, as occupants of our Shire, greet them as Honored Guests. Honoring the guests doesn’t mean fawning over them. It simply means obeying campground rules: leave them feeling better about themselves after they met you than they did before they met you. So once you’ve made contact with the patron, feel free to accuse them of being cold-blooded killers from the Russian Steppes sent by Ivan the Terrible to assassinate the Queen. Just make it fun for them.

And make positive choices for your character. The audience wants to see what you WILL do, not what you WON’T do. “I WILL write a limerick about your relationship with a goat.” “I WILL recruit all of your children to be pirates and save YOU thousands of pounds in higher education costs.” If your character is, for instance, a dairymaid, be the best damned dairymaid in England! Do yourself a favor and avoid playing her as lactose intolerant. Also avoid seasick sailors, teatotalling bartenders, sinful puritans and so on. All of these choices can work, but you’ll risk running out of steam playing the same “I’m this, but that!” paradox for nine hours a day.

KEEP IT SIMPLE.
The audience wants to know, quickly, what you do and why it should be entertaining to them. Facing a busy day of mead drinking, wench ogling and joust cheering, they really don’t have time to digest the undercurrents of familial angst that drive your character’s motivation. They want to pose for your next masterpiece, help you find your leprous bodyparts and learn how effective groveling will improve their love lives.

The most engaging characters keep their backstory to a minimum. Leave the subtext to the Court scenes; Street Characters should be 99% text.

STRETCH YOURSELF.
Remember that, regardless what you’re being paid, you’re a professional. People have paid money to see you do what you do.

Many Ren Faire street performers have gone on to do extraordinary work in film, TV and the stage, domestically and internationally. And some have become legends on the Ren Faire Circuit. They didn’t do it by ripping off YouTube memes or Saturday Night Live bits. They did it by challenging themselves to be as creative and engaging as possible. They wrote their own material, tested it, refined it and forced themselves to get better and better every day.

One of the great benefits of performing at a Ren Faire is the opportunity to test new material on a live audience for up to 10 hours a day. Stand-up comics would kill for that opportunity. If something generates the reaction you want (laughter, surprise, terror…) keep it. If it doesn’t, try something else on the person fifteen feet away. Stay positive. Stay bold. And listen to your audience—they’ll let you know if you’re getting it right.

AUDIENCE FIRST, ALWAYS.
When given a chance to talk to another character or to engage an audience member, always engage the audience first. They’re here to interact; otherwise they’d be at the movies. And any Faire gets a lot more entertainment bang from its acting budget (!) when we “recruit” audiences into the entertainment. Personally, I’d rather see one street beggar teaching five guests how to grovel than five street performers clumping up to do… well, just about anything. A happy, engaged audience is an audience less likely to balk at prices or queues. And more likely to come back and bring friends.

Those are my six tips for creating a Renaissance Faire improv street character. Those of you who have spent some time around improv actors might ask, “What about Yes, and…?” When I teach improv for street characters, the first workshop always focuses on Yes, and… which means, basically, accept the reality presented and add to it. Yes, and… is the first and last commandment of improv. It’s the core competency of improv performers. And dozens of books have already been written on it. I suggest you read them all!

 

Don Kilcoyne

Don Kilcoyne

Don Kilcoyne has been a Renaissance Faire performer, improv coach and director for 22 years and an artisan for four. He’s published three supernatural thrillers including Blood for the Marked Man, much of which is set in a fictional Ren Faire somewhere in Orange County, NY. (Remember, the only way to play “Who’d he base THAT guy on?” is to read it! Click on "Website" below this.) He’s played kings, beggars, pirates, heroes and villains, and is joyfully married to a kickboxing, ukelele-playing former jouster, so he wins.

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6 responses to Building Improv Chops as a Street Character

  1. And this is coming from the GODZILLA-FATHER of Street Monsters, so I advise y’all to consider it as gospel.

  2. christine simeone April 4, 2013 at 8:03 pm

    Well done Don! Lots of useful information that can be used by shop workers as well as performers.
    I see you every summer in NY and never knew you wrote books. I’m going to check those out.

  3. Al Craig

    wonderful article. A lot of info in a little space. Thanks!

  4. I have been a stage performer (lead guitar rock style) for over twenty years I never liked the stage boundry between and audience and performer except when the drunk guy hit on my girlfreind and proceeded to puke Thank you for your guidence and a way to come out of that “shell” I found this informative and inspiring

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