Status in Western and Eastern Improv

In Asia, status is everything.

So imagine my horror, during an incident on a big family gathering with respected elders. I accidentally flung a barbecued shrimp off the grill... it travelled through the air, right towards the elder of the family… and landed neatly inside his shirt pocket. Everyone paused for a moment, waiting. The elder took out the shrimp, then laughed. Suddenly everyone laughed too.

It’s funny when I re-read Keith Johnstone’s book chapter on Status or learn status through Commedia dell’Arte. Status is the one thing I don’t have to learn. Growing up in Indonesia, any social interaction is a status exchange. Whenever we meet someone, we make “the dance” and assess who has the higher rank — What is their age? What is their position? Is he the boss’s neighbor’s second cousin? Which language do I use? (Javanese has 3 levels of languages: Inggil, Madya and Ngoko, for which every word is different). We seamlessly switch our language once we establish status. It’s normal to have a conversation where the high status speaks Low Javanese to the low status, and the low status replies in High Javanese to the high status.

Acting vs. Feeling Status

Status interactions aren’t conceptually different in the West. In the usual improv scene, there is Kings and Peasants (Status 10–Status 1) as an exercise. There is the popular exercise for acting status based on physical gestures: high status walks like they own the room; low status lower your head etc. But when they start regular improv scenes, most interactions are relatively neutral.

However, in the East, high/low status is always there and more pronounced. When I watch a lot of scenes in South and Southeast Asian improv, I see players’ very keen awareness of status. It’s easy. In fact, we Asian players NEED status to understand the scene. Many scenes start with “the dance” — figuring out who is the higher status. There may be reversals in the scene (e.g. a student barking at a teacher, a subordinate disobeying his superior), but there will always be a compass on who is currently holding the higher/lower status. Plus, small status differences get exaggerated. Even a 6-4 can feel like a 10-1 because we have an innate feeling who is the higher status.

Thus the difference: there is acting status, and there is feeling status.

In the West, I see players acting status.

In the East, I see players feeling status.

Many improv status exercises begin with physical gestures to put you in the headspace of your assigned status. Eastern improvisers, however, are already there. This is where the world can take a lesson from the East on playing status authentically, not just as a caricature.

However, feeling and acting status can be confusing for newer Asian players, because they go hand-in-hand in real life. We equate feeling the low status as acting passively. For example in Indonesia, even incrementally lower status are not supposed to make initiatives, and that is ingrained in us. We wait to be called, wait for our turn, wait for permission. That’s true in real life. But not in improv.

Playing low status actively

We have to understand that playing low status does not mean you are restrained in what you can do. Your character may be meek, incompetent, shy, low self-esteem.. but you have to play meek, incompetent, shy, low self-esteem actively.

Here is a great example of player awareness of status: Laxmi is aware that she has lower status and Abhishek has the higher status, the money and the power. But that doesn’t make her a passive player. She plays actively, nudges in, trying to take what she can get away with. It creates a dynamic scene. She is an empowered player even as a low status character.

Scene Analysis: Abhishek & Laxmi*.

This scene is possible because of expert high status play. Abhishek could have stopped Laxmi cold anytime. But that’s not what he does. He lets Laxmi play in the scene together. He gives her space, and uses his power very carefully and effectively. When he uses the high status card, it is a precision strike.

How often have we seen improv scenes where the high status just barks orders and makes the low status lick the floor? That’s not nice.

A common trap for high status is to think the responsibility of the scene falls squarely upon them. That creates the feeling of having to drive the scene, often through actions, and end up barking orders.

When you play high-low status, think of it as reactions, not actions. Do less of forcing the low status to do things, and focus on the degrees of being affected. The high status has a bigger authority in making their choice matter to the partner, while the low status is more vulnerable to being affected. By doing this, you free up your partner’s inspiration.

Two partners can play High and Low, but remember — the lion’s share is still 50-50.

*For more Abhishek & Laxmi, follow Improv Comedy Bangalore.

An Impro Neuf blog. Evolving thoughts on improv from Aree Witoelar, teacher/founder of Impro Neuf International in Oslo, Norway.