by Ann Lo

Ever since we discussed status in improv class I’ve been mulling it over. I want to learn how to play the part of a high-status person. That doesn’t come naturally to me as I’ve never had an enormous amount of status, but I’m enjoying the learning experience!

Our teacher warned us that after the class about status, we might become obsessed with it. Truer words were never spoken. It’s become apparent that we humans, just like other animals, express our status to others of our kind.

We humans have most of our genes in common with other primates and some of them have a pecking order, so it’s literally natural that we do too. Now I’m intently and unceasingly studying the body language, voices, and gestures of people around me everywhere I go trying to figure out if they’re expressing high or low status relative to those around them. All so I can use those character styles in improv.

In improv class, I learned that status isn’t as simple as it seems. We can express high status in some situations, low in others, and in any given scene they can move or change. 

I was recently gifted with a superb way to study status. I stayed a couple of nights in the Hard Rock Hotel in San Diego as part of a packaged cruise vacation. Hard Rock Hotels, with their focus on celebrity bands and solo artists, cater to high-status people. By that I mean people with money and high positions in society who will, more often than not, display high-status behavior.

Since my awareness has been heightened, I’ve seen a CEO of a tech company acting commanding and self-assured in his office while soft-spoken and deferential in front of his loud-voiced elderly mother. A high-status person might act like a jerk in one situation, but might instead be friendly in another. Thus elevate the status of the recipient of their largesse. Status plays out in many ways.

I strolled around their swank lobby which was adorned with photos of famous musicians and Fender guitars. I observed groups of folks in expensive-looking clothes talking to each other. I saw people with their arms folded and heads held high, making eye contact and projecting their voices. They didn’t smile a whole lot either. One person in particular spread themselves out so much that they looked bigger than they were. 

They were not the tallest in the group, but they might as well have been if you add in their stature. The word stature is a perfect example of how in some cultures height and status can converge. Other folks in that group talked less and more softly, looking down more often, and clasping their hands together.

I noticed in that hotel lobby that there was a mixture of status across demographics. There’s probably something to be gleaned there about the general demographic distribution of status in American society. A few folks stood out from the expected standard demographic with their heads held high, walking and talking confidently, gesturing expansively, and were impeccably dressed in crisp business attire. 

In contrast, the bellhop at the desk had their head bowed and his hands folded. They spoke softly to one of the high status folks in a finely tailored suit. The bellhop said “um” occasionally and said “sir” a lot. I couldn’t hear everything the bellhop said, but the Suit’s voice, accompanied with wide-ranging gestures, came through loud and clear. 

In Improv we never know what status we will be asked to play since any player can endow us to play in all manner of wild, ludicrous, or simple situations always disregarding our personal feelings and assumption of our “real world” status.

I wonder if I’ll ever be able to stop thinking about status? At any rate, I can’t wait for the next improv class where I can theatrically portray a high-status character. Then I can try out a character that is completely different from me: a big voice, dramatic gestures, interrupting the other characters, keeping my arms folded, speaking loudly, and being an overall, know-it-all. 

Reminding myself that my ability to play a character is not who I am as a person. In real life, I think I am more bellhop than CEO. But maybe the next time I am on a cruise or in the lobby of a fancy hotel, I can try playing a little bit higher status and see what happens.  

For now, a few moments in class, at a Jam, or in a show, my character’s status is one more tool in my tool belt. One I look forward to using whenever the scene asks for it! 

About Ann Lo

Ann Locasio is a young-at-heart student of Improv 201 who works at Austin State Hospital, pet sits, and travels whenever she can.

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