Name → Status
Last weekend I had the pleasure of a Queen City Comedy class with improvisers from the USA. It was fantastic. One reflection was that many of scenes start with an opening line with a name.
“You’re late, Steven.”
“We need a holiday, John.”
I’ve written before about how names narrow down the possibilities where the scene takes place (here: Holding out on giving names) — it’s hard to play a scene in rural Southeast Asia if one character is named Catherine. I want to add one more factor: STATUS.
In my Asian home country, it’s actually rare that someone calls someone by their name. Instead we use nameless honourifics like Bapak (Sir), Ibu (Madam) for someone of higher status. Much like American 1960’s paperboys calling someone Mister in the street. And then Kakak (older sibling), ‘Dek (younger sibling) for someone (even strangers) with slightly higher/lower status. Oom (uncle) and Tante (auntie) for an older acquaintance, family or not family. After that, only then you use names, ONLY for friends, or someone of much lower status.
I remember my American uncle greeted, “Hi Aree, call me Robert.” It was tough for me to actually say his name Robert because it’s unnatural / disrespectful to interact with an uncle as an equal friend. Maybe it is the same for Americans, but not at the same magnitude.
So as you can imagine, once a name is uttered in an opening line, in an Eastern scene it can set the who has the high/low status in a scene. You call me Robert, I can’t become your venerable family elder. This might not be the intention, but it feels automatic for Eastern improviser. I preach all the time that Status is a big thing in Eastern improv.
Incidentally or inspired by our Queen City teacher Jon Nguyen, a British-Vietnamese improviser. He asked us to react to an opening line with Status, and place ourselves Higher / Lower / Equal status to our partner. For me as a fellow Asian this was very natural. I noticed, if my name is called out at the top, I tend to pigeonhole myself to lower or equal status.
Scenes move from blur into focus. It’s fun to see the order of which element gets into focus first in different improv environments. In terms of CROW — Character, Relation, Objective, Where (I have thoughts on acronyms, more in an upcoming write) — my observation is, broaadly, that American improvisers pin Character down early, hence the names at the top. European improv get the Where first, we love to start scenes with an activity. Asian improv seems to nail the Status down early. Maybe we should update it to CROWS.
Of course, improv is not static. While names in Asian culture might knock someone down the pedestal, in Western culture it might have the opposite. In Breaking Bad, forcing someone to call your name Heisenberg is the ultimate power move.
It’s the intention, the way you say it, can override the default. It’s important to understand the tendencies so you break it. Therefore, I leave you with my little musical number, where my partner’s high status is established from an opening line, “George Clooney.”
- Holding out on giving names https://areewitoelar.medium.com/holding-out-on-names-bebe444728e4
- Status in Western and Eastern Improv https://areewitoelar.medium.com/status-in-western-and-eastern-improv-14374c324041
- George Clooney.