Tourism for Character Development

This is one of my favorite moments. My class has just run through their first ever character work exercise. We are discussing what character means. I am saying all the things like “A cowboy accent and bow legged walk doesn’t make you a really interesting character until you are the bow legged, cowboy accented, character who is hyper spiritual and dabbles in reading tarot.  Give your cartoon ANY perspective and you’ll find a wildly vast spectrum of character open to you” etc etc. And then one person in class says “Yeah, I’ve been studying how my boss acts and I used some of what he does today” and then a few faces turn to me and say “WE CAN DO THAT!?”.

Of course they know that they can do that. They vocalize this question not to be answered as much as affirm to themselves that we CAN do that because that’s really…easy.  For beginning improvisers the hardest thing to get your head around is that there is nothing wrong with making it easy on yourself.

Tourists on Horses 1


I like comedy so I like the punchline effect to a character, giving the character something unexpected to reveal.  The animal trainer who’s really into maritime history, the secretary who writes sexy assassin novels, the martial arts instructor who is a real pain-in-the-ass condo association president.  My favorite characters are ones like these, the not super batty off the wall types, but real characters that give us the space to heighten and explore the scene via a more informed path of ourselves.

Now, let’s talk about tourists.  TOURISTS ARE GREAT FOR CHARACTER STUDY.  I live in a tourist town so no matter where I go I see throngs of folks doing the same thing that millions of other tourists have done every day for many many years. It’s like pushing every type of person through the same filter.  No matter if it’s the Dutch Family or the Gang of Mid-West College Guys or the Conservative Religious Group, they are forced by design to behave within the framework and expectations of the Tourist Constant. So, that’s your surface character, the cartoon. Dutch Mom speaks with a Dutch accent and is probably sunburned: a cartoonish one-dimensional stereotype. But when she starts to complicate the “tourist” framework, she becomes interesting. Perhaps she is obsessed with time and keeps looking at her watch and reminding her husband what time the museum closes.  Or maybe the College guy is preoccupied with how the streets are laid out and keeps talking about his city planning class or how he could design the perfect bar.

A lot of tourists act the same way, interpret the tourist constant exactly like hundreds of others before them. These people aren’t throw-aways, they are your gold standard!  They help define common characteristics of the overall Tourist Character, the stereotype.  Once we understand all the wonderful details of a stereotype we can start to manipulate them to fit our specific character’s perspective.  Time-obsessed Dutch Mom has EVERY pamphlet from the hotel with events highlighted and organized in her fanny pack, in order of activity. There is one guy in the Religious Group who was here “before he found the group” and keeps making everyone uncomfortable with his allusions and pensive stares at strip clubs.

I don’t think I ever actively study someone on the street and then think “Yes, I will be using YOU on stage!”, rather, it’s like osmosis. I have thousands of hours staring at strangers that may or may not reemerge in my stage subconscious.  I’m just stockpiling details and making all the people on the streetcar uncomfortable with my intense eye-balling.

Show 1 footnote

  1. Decent improv troupe name alert. You're welcome.”
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About Tami Nelson

Tami Nelson co-founded The New Movement Theater in Austin and in 2011 proudly expanded the Theater and Conservatory to include a New Orleans location. She's the Conservatory Director for TNM and co-author of the upcoming Improv Wins book. She performs improv regularly with The Megaphone Show, Claws with Fangs and with improv BFF in the duo show Chris and Tami.