Photo by Mindy Keeling (Arturo Ruiz also pictured)
I partake heavily in two art forms: improvisational comedy and cartooning. I am a master of neither, however, I put in the effort to be a total professional in both pursuits. This leads me to bring improv into my cartooning and it brings cartooning into my improv. I told this to a fellow member of Improv Mania and felt as if I didn’t get into enough detail of how animation and comics inform my choices on stage. Here is a poorly written list of lessons from cartooning that I bring to the stage with me. Now, I’m not always actively thinking of this stuff, but it truly is a part of my blood now. So, let’s begin Cartooning for Improvisors 101:
1. Give Yourself a Line of Action- The line of action is the line cartoonists first draw on the page when they’re creating a picture of a character doing something. This is the line that informs the pose and attitude of the character. All of the shapes and details that go into building that character are informed by that line somehow. In animation and comics, the artist does not want the characters to be boring. They want them to be engaging. So, a perfectly straight up and down line is normally avoided. When I’m onstage, I find many opportunities to give my own body a lively and emotional line of action just to give the scene a stronger launch. The daunting task of the improvisor is to make a scene out of almost nothing. However, the line of action is a simple way to give yourself a tiny little piece of something to begin with.
2. Make the Panel Interesting- “To be uninteresting is the greatest crime a cartoonist can commit.” I quoted the book Famous Artists Cartoon Course. The aforementioned book was written by over a dozen working cartoonists in the 1950s and 75% of the info it contains still holds up. The statement I quoted was from a chapter that deals with the total layout of the panel, story board, or frame. The chapter wants the student to draw panels that give interest to the eyes of the viewers. Techniques to do this include changing the visual perspective of the scene, showing characters close together, showing characters far apart, adding interesting backgrounds, and designing interesting props. In an improv scene, it is very easy and quick to create interest by placing the characters very far apart or super close together. That immediately informs the relationships and/or circumstances of the characters. A quick pantomime of something very basic can give you a nice background or a prop that may become interesting later. But, the function is still the same. You’re giving yourself something to start a non-boring scene with. You’re making it so that you’re not left with nothing. Sometimes you just need to make a fascinating stage picture and deal with the justification later… or not.
3. Give the Character a Voice- Some great cartoonists have been able to both draw and give voice to their characters. Walt Disney, Eric Bauza, and Mike Judge immediately come to mind. All three of these creators dug deep into themselves and formed big, yet honest voices for those characters. Disney’s actual speaking voice did not sound like Mickey. However, just because the sound of the voice is different, it does not mean that the emotion and believability go away. It just means that the performer is channeling a different character. As of this writing, Earth has a human population of nearly seven and a half billion people. That’s nearly seven and a half billion different voices that can be explored. Don’t be racist or hateful about it, but try on a different set of vocal chords sometime. It may lead you to discover new characters that were lying inside of your mind do nothing useful. Put ‘em to work.
4. Anything is Possible- In a drawing or on the improv stage, nothing is impossible. In a single improv show, I can portray a pirate setting sail for Hispaniola, a manager at Best Buy, a singing marshmallow, and a grumpy stegosaurus. I’ve rightfully been given the note on numerous occasions that I do not make grounded choices or grounded characters. I took a workshop led by the great Craig Cackowski to directly deal with this problem. He immediately changed my mindset once the workshop started. He told me that I just need to believe the characters more. His example for me was that a mutated man with magnet powers and a wizard from a place called Middle Earth are not grounded choices, yet Sir Ian McKellen made them great because he believed it when he portrayed those roles. So now, I do not censor my outlandish choices anymore. Now I just allow my mind to dig deeper into them. It’s fantastic. It’s a break from our super boring reality and I love it. Imagine that Chuck Jones painted a picture of a dolphin in a pinstriped suit shooting a machine gun at Attila the Hun and Satan. It’s pretty cool. Now, imagine if Norman Rockwell painted it. Make bold choices and believe them.
5. Movement Tells a Story- The Looney Tunes animation directors had different approaches to their work. Many argue to this day over who was the best Looney Tunes director (*cough* *cough* Bob McKimson). In these discussions the layouts and designs are rightfully brought up. The voice acting is only rarely mentioned because the bulk of that work was on the shoulders of Mel Blanc. But, the main topic of these debates is in the visual acting of the characters. Who were the directors that were really able to make these characters move? Who gave the characters energy and feeling? The use of the line of action does figure into this, as it does on stage. So, make yourself move as Daffy Duck, Foghorn Leghorn, and Porky Pig did. The Looney Tunes characters had six to seven minutes to portray personality and feeling to the back row of many large and noisy movie houses. Do as they did. JRemember, just because your movement is clear and/ or big, it does not mean it is unbelievable.
That, in a nutshell, is how cartooning informs my improvisation.
I encourage all theatrical improvisors to take on another art form or another creative pursuit so as to bring new influences and ideas into their work. I know improv performers that also pursue music, archery, running, computer technology, poetry, puppetry, grilling, photography, logo design, and other professions. Each of these people are incredible, and so are you. Get out there and make something amazing.