How to Play to the Top of Your Intelligence (For Real)
So I wrote a blog on this very topic in 2016 over on The Institution Theater blog (read my initial thoughts here).
What else could I possibly need to say about playing to the top of your intelligence?
Well, as we humans are wont to do, I was apparently just talking out of my butt.
Since I wrote the previous article, I’ve grown and changed and understood a little bit more about the etymology of this term. It originated from Del Close, who probably yelled, “Play to the top of your intelligence” at famous people when they were first taking improv classes.
And, for some reason, the meaning of this phrase became obfuscated over time. I’ve been doing improv for a fair amount of time now, but it was only when I read Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book that I finally understood what that phrase meant.
In the book, Dave Pasquesi talks about coming up in improv under Del. When you took the stage, Del wanted you to play interestingly and honestly.
I’m stealing this following passage from Jimmy Carrane (read his take here) to best explain.
Del Close believed when you hit the stage that you actually got dumber, because when people are afraid they want to make broad, obvious choices because they think they are funnier.
TLDNR: Play your character with your own intelligence. Don’t be more dumb than yourself because you think it might get laughs. It’s easier, it’s more honest, and it has the strong possibility of resonating a lot more.
Key point here: Don’t be more dumb than yourself because you think it will get laughs. This is inorganic behavior that is based off of audience response instead of basing your performance off of a.) what you desire for yourself, and b.) what the improv/story desires for itself.
So I Can’t Play Dumb?
When you play dumb, more than likely you are doing it less for the work of the scene and more for your own comfort. If you play as if you’re not smart, you can get laughed at. While you’re going for the easy laugh, you can actually shortchange yourself in the process.
When you’re panicking and playing for your own comfort, you try to be clever or self-effacing and do anything for a laugh. That means you’re doing it for THEM, i.e. pandering.
It’s entirely possible for you to play dumb and have it land. Look at Will Ferrell (specifically in Adam McKay movies).
In Anchorman/Talladega Nights/Step Brothers, etc., Ferrell is playing dumb in service of the story and trying to say something. And even though his characters are completely dumb, these characters do have something in common: they’re really smart at what they want to be.
- Ron Burgundy is the best anchor in San Diego
- Ricky Bobby is the best racer in NASCAR
- Brennan Huff’s angelic voice saves the fuckin’ Catalina Wine Mixer
These stories still bother to establish that Ferrell’s characters are really good at what they do. Even though it’s a completely heightened absurdity, the characters within these films play it honestly. It’s just that the honesty is completely changed.
So if you are underselling your own intelligence when playing a character, it had better be in relationship to the story and to the characters. If you’re in a scene where the reality is that there are jetpacks, don’t just decide you don’t know how to use jetpacks. If you live in this world, more than likely you know how to use jetpacks. Just use the jetpack and stop stopping the scene from moving forward because you’re too scared to make a decision.
Play your character with your own intelligence. Play them honestly and play them so that you understand why they would react a certain way to what’s going on. Stop working so hard at playing dumb and just be smarter by playing yourself.