How to Use Soap Opera as an Exercise
I start this by having the class or troupe assign each other a character with the format, adjective-occupation (or role). If they’re stuck, I’ll suggest they start with classic soap opera archetypes, like ‘Lusty Gardener’ or ‘Scheming Mayor,’ but really anything works. Getting the suggestions from two different people helps create less obvious juxtapositions. Note that these labels serve as the character’s names as well.
An important thing to point out to the group (which hopefully they’ll come to see on their own) is that the helpful word in the character’s names isn’t the noun, but the adjective. They’re not going to get much mileage concentrating on the gardener part of their character. It’s that adjective that colors the lens through which they do things. ‘Lusty,’ ‘Vengeful,’ ‘Depressed’…..these are the traits that give the players a way to make decisions. How would I respond to this situation if my emotion were X?
You might think focusing on this would result in one-dimensional characters, limited to one emotion in their palette. Turns out that just making any decision like this helps students find a range of human responses. And no matter the adjective or emotion that they’re assigned, when they’re forced to dig a little deeper to play with it, they’ll find there’s a wide range of available responses.
One of the great things about the soap opera conceit is that it’s an excuse to go big and exaggerated. This can result in pretty broad characters, but that’s okay. Anything that encourages playing with big characteristics and choices is good. My experience is that it helps give players an ‘excuse’ to play a character far removed from themselves.
We get a title for this imaginary soap opera and then I tell them it’s something like episode 47 of season 12. That helps get us away from introduction scenes and work with characters that have known each other a while. Any two players come out and start a scene.
At this point – before any improv has happened – these characters have:
- A name
- An emotion that gives at least a hint to their point of view
- An understanding that they have a history with their scene partner
- A backline of similarly armed characters
That’s a lot of the who-what-where taken care of for us, but in a lightweight way so they can just play as their character. All they really have to hold onto is that adjective in their name.
Players tag each other out in whatever manner makes sense for the group (clapping, calling ‘freeze’, etc). I encourage them to try it both ways: always leaving one player out there with an edit and always swapping out both characters.
Most importantly, this game is built entirely on the network of two-person relationships. Every scene is defined by two characters being together and doing something. I have them stick to that two-person rule with the understanding that a situation might eventually come up needing more than that. This encourages only adding more people when it’s absolutely necessary. They kind of have to ‘earn’ it.
The hardest thing I’ve seen players deal with in the Soap Opera is remembering everyone’s names. To help, I have everyone review several times before we start, then say one line of dialog as that character. I tell them to overuse character’s names when they can, to an absolutely ridiculous degree (ridiculousness is an ideal spot to get to in the exercise). There’s a wonderful group support system that happens with this. While one character’s name might come easily to mind, someone else might have a different character’s name easily at hand. As a result, the whole group reinforces each other’s memory.
But the best thing they can do to reinforce who is who is to play the hell out of those names. If you’re the Lusty Gardener, you need to be as soap opera passionate as you can be. It needs to be clear to everyone you’re playing with that: Oh yeah. That’s that character.
When the set is done (I’m the one to call it), we’ll talk through where the story went. Often, I’ll try to map out the various connections between the different people and how they feel about each other. The fun discovery is that even when they couldn’t feel it while playing, a story automatically develops just from being these characters. They don’t have time to shape an overall plot. Everyone is too busy robbing the bank, having an affair, poisoning the mayor, or what have you. Plot is what characters do. Play with your characters and you’ll create a plot – a story – just by having them do something.
Looking for some dramatic soap opera scenes? Here they are!
Chris Petersen is a writer, performer, and teacher in the metro Detroit area. He began his training at the Second City theater in Michigan in 2008 and has gone on to perform and teach across the country.