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How to… do physical comedy

Hannah Boyce. Photo: Jennie Scott
Hannah Boyce. Photo: Jennie Scott
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1. Beats

In comedy plays there are beats within the text, but I’m focusing here on physical beats: a movement (or sometimes a dead stillness) that acts as punctuation during the scene. As a company, you need to ensure they are clear, precise and regimented, even if they don’t look like it to an audience. These can be carefully mapped out in rehearsals. An example is the ‘rule of three’: beat, beat, payoff. It establishes a certain rhythm and ends in something unexpected. Jokes are like little surprises that startle people and make them laugh, so always try to keep your physical punchlines secret until the last moment to get the ultimate payoff.

2. Externalise

This is defined as ‘to give existence and form to’ – and that is what you’re almost always doing in physical comedy. Giving existence and form to your character’s thoughts in that moment. One of my favourite examples of this is the classic double-take. It comes from a thought: ‘Wait, what?’ You take that thought and externalise it into the familiar head snap. It is important that this always comes from a place of truth otherwise the audience will not buy it. You can be forgiven for thinking that physical comedy may not be the most realistic form of acting, but everything must come from your character’s real journey because that is what the audience invests in.

3. Get into trouble

This particularly applies to the rehearsal process. Nancy Zamit of Mischief Theatre stresses the importance of putting yourself and your beloved fellow actors “in the shit”. Mix it up. Live on the edge. Make some enemies for the afternoon. Your increased excitement and awareness as an actor will up the stakes for your character, with hilarious results. Everything is amplified and you’ll all find yourselves being spontaneous and saying the phrase we all love to hear: ‘Keep it in.’

Hannah Boyce plays Caprice in The Comedy About A Bank Robbery at London’s Criterion Theatre. She was talking to John Byrne 

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