Here’s another technique that I would not mind seeing more often on stage: “Endowment”. The Oxford Dictionary definition of endowment is: “to provide with a quality, ability, or asset”.
As far as I know Keith Johnstone introduced the term into Improv vocabulary in his book “Impro for storytellers” (more on that later). Improv Encyclopedia defines it as “attributing other players with physical, emotional or other characteristics, or to behave in a particular way.”
It is perhaps no surprise that I’d like to see more of it, because googling “improv endowment” gets very few actual hits, apart from references to the definition of the term, Keith’s book, or game handles that are endowment-based. The only web material I could find is a series of blog posts from ImprovDoesBest.
The only other text that addresses endowment would be Ben Hauck’s book Long-Form Improv: The Complete Guide to Creating Characters, Sustaining Scenes, and Performing Extraordinary Harolds. Hauck’s interpretation of the term actually differs from mine. To get that consider the following extract: “In long-form improv, you want to yes-and other actors’ endowments. Say that you were given the endowment: “Leslie, your makeup looks gorgeous tonight” […] You deny that endowment if you respond “I’m not Leslie” or “I’m not wearing any makeup”.
For the purpose of this blog post, Hauck’s example would not be considered “endowment”; it would simply be considered “an offer”. (with all respect for Hauck’s interpretation of the term, just to clarify what we are talking about in this blog post).
So here is how I use interpret the term for the purpose of this blog post:
Endowment is a strong offer regarding another player’s character traits or personality.
I’ll give plenty of examples in what follows but here’s a preview:
- The statement “Joanne has a wooden leg” endows the Joanne character – physically.
- The statement “Bob is a real cry-baby” endows the Bob character – emotionally.
- The statement “Susan is a chronic liar” endows the Susan character – value related.
- The statement “John” is the king endows that John character with a profession.
Pimping vs Endowment
The difference between endowment and pimping is a thin line. Keith Johnstone defines it in “Impro for Storytellers” as “you force someone else to do the work”. Keith’s definition has a negative undertone (“force”) and the term itself – obviously – has a negative connotation. In most improv circles the term has a bad rep.
Personally I really dislike the term, but – given some conditions – I happen to really like the act (in improv, of course; not the actual soliciting of customers in a brothel). I’ll get back to that in the second half of this post.
For me, endowment is about fundamental character traits (be those physical, emotional) whereas pimping relates to actions by the character (cf. Keith’s “do the work”). One’s character might get pimped into singing for example. But “singing” is not a character trait.
If a character were to state “Clare has become an opera singer” then I would consider the statement to be an endowment.
In a way, a statement like “Clare has become an opera singer” fits the above definition of “pimping”, in the sense that it might lead Clare to sing. But it isn’t pimping, because in my eyes because it endows the Clare character with a particular characteristic.
Another term not to confuse endowment with is gossiping, which Improv encyclopedia defines as “Talking about the action instead of doing it. Or talking about what other people do, or about things in the past or the future.”
An example of gossiping would be 2 characters having the following conversation:
- A: The king is preparing for war.
- B: Yeah, but Prince John is equally prepared.
- A: I hear John is marching towards Hampstead.
- B: Yeah, but the king knows that too and he’s gotten Hampstead prepared for siege
- … and so on.
In this example, the exchange tells us little if nothing about the king/prince characters, and we don’t even know why characters A/B might care about any of that.
When A tells B that “Clare has become an opera singer”, we also have babbling about stuff outside of the scene, but it helps define the Clare character. Ergo I would not consider this “gossiping” in the impro-technical sense of the term.
On a side note, I would actually prefer something like “Clare thinks of herself she’s an amazing opera singer” – because that adds more color/detail to the Clare character. It also implies that Clare might be wrong – which gets us into antifactual storytelling territory (but that’s a different topic).
OK, back to use of endowment in improv.
Endowment can be used as a gimmick, especially in short form improv. It’s a great way to get a laugh. Especially when the endowments are factually accepted. Endow another character with a stutter. Clumsiness. Whatever.
Pimping is often even more gimmicky. Personally I fail to see the fun in pimping a player to do something uncomfortable or next-to-impossible but in many circumstances the will ge an audience laugh.
Though often funny, it’s equally often kind of lame to endow characters with forms of dysfunctionality of force players into their discomfort zone. Endowment, like pimping, has a bad rep; forcing a character into qualities or actions that are sexual, deviant, gender or race stereotypical is not my idea of fun. This is certainly not what I want to encourage here!
The example Keith uses in “Impro for Storytellers” is more plain fun and certainly not lame: he spends several pages about endowing someone’s character with invisibility, and dealing with the consequences of that. Yummy!
You can use endowment to add color. By that I mean stuff that does not necessarily influence neither the character fundamentally, not the story. I remember a scene where the main character – a vaguely Italian kind of type person – referred to his mother as “my mama – with her leg”. This turned into a kind of recurring pattern: every other character then referred to the ‘mama – with her leg” and even mama would add to every other sentence “with my leg”. We never got to know what was wrong or peculiar about her leg and neither was it important to the story. It was merely colorful fun. Not lame dysfunctionality.
Advanced Use: Play into Players’ Strengths
However, the endowments and pimps I particularly like are the ones that play into other player’s strengths.
You know John is awesome at rhyming? Endow his character as “having a Shakespearian use of language”. You happen to know Liz can do great improvised songs? Why not refer to her character as “the one that always starts singing when she gets emotional”.
My group RIOT usually performs in Dutch – which is close to Afrikaans. Kristien, one of our players spent some time in South Africa and in one show, years ago, got endowed with being South African. She played the whole show speaking Afrikaans – which happens to be very understandable for our Dutch speaking audience. Delightful!
One warning though: dosage! If Kristien were to be pimped into a South African things would get lame very fast. I’ll get back to that near the end of this post.
Endowments need not be hackneyed. Here’s an example I absolutely loved. In a scene we saw a young couple on their way to visit her parents. The boyfriend made a remark along the lines of “your parents are such a great couple; they’ve have been together for such a long time, it’s like they have grown into one brain”. The 2 players that did the parents totally accepted the endowment: they made a game out of finishing each other’s sentences, or ending sentences speaking together. It was hilariously funny.
And it gets even better if that becomes the focal point of the story: here’s another example. The suggestion was “Opera Singer’. Even before we got to see the main character, a servant girl character made the comment “Madame Leonore still believes she can sing”. Which lead to a story both hilarious, moving & painful, about an elderly ex-diva who still believed she had the greatest voice in the world; being adored and admired was what defined the Leonore character. It really mattered to her. She was her voice. And the voice being gone implied her being … being gone. Pure sandpaper!
Use this on the “same brain” couple and you might imagine situations like: what would happen if one of them were to pass away? “Being like one brain” really defined the couple – so what would happen? Perhaps the remaining parent might only speak in half/unfinished sentences? And become unable to effectively communicate with her loved ones? And then she might unexpectedly meet a new Love and grow a new “whole brain”? Or meet a new Love and develop a very different but equally strong bond with that new love? Powerful story stuff!
A final RIOT example – this one happened in rehearsal but it remains one of my favorites. Katrijn had scene painted something that seemed like her father’s burnt down house. She found a half burned picture of dad in the rubble. The next scene was in an undefined location, Katrijn was sitting there and Koen was messing about, mumbling in the next room. Katrijn endowed Koen with being the ghost of her deceased father. Which got turned into a game, e.g. Katrijn visiting her analyst, describing that “things are much better now”, her ghost-dad sitting next to her and acknowledging the fact. All that was pretty hilarious but at the same time the real story was about this character dealing with the loss of her father – and at the end – indeed – the father/ghost disappeared, essentially freeing Katrijn’s character. Goosebumps!
Furthermore, with a setup like that, your story train is on a track, and it can go only 2 ways: either the Katrijn character will somehow be freed from her father’s ghost, or she will not (click the link to learn why that matters).
About 20 years ago, when I was artistic director for The Lunatics, we experimented with endowment & pimping. Our players – by lack of a commonly used Dutch word for the term “endowment” – called it “giving presents”. Well executed endowment feels like a present you are giving the receiver toward the fleshing out of her character! And a present is at its best when it is unexpected (see the comment about dosage above).
Get to Know Each Other
A Dutch word for “endowment” is “begiftigen”, which contains the term “gift” – or present. Presents should delight! But what makes a great gift to me may not delight you. Knowing your partners on scene definitely helps, and so does pre-agreeing on boundaries.
If you know Ella is a great singer (or if you know she isn’t but does like to sing), pimping her character to sing, or endowing her character with being-a-singer is a nice gift. The earlier example of Kristien being Afrikaans only came about because one of her fellow players knew she’d be able to pull it off brilliantly and knew she would enjoy it.
If you don’t know your fellow players on stage all that well, there are tons of “safe”
kinds of endowments (like “being invisible” or “being her dad’s ghost”) that are unlikely to cause discomfort or feel like a chore to the receiver. This might take a bit of rehearsal, but it’s worth the effort.
What I am really advocating here is consciously encouraging players to endow (or even pimp) other’s characters, and to train players to make sure these endowments are delightful gifts. Not forceful chores. Not trite platitudes. Not forcing a laugh because of another player’s discomfort.
Given that: by all means, do endow!
I’d go even further, IMHO well executed endowment leads to a cross-fertilization of imagination. The creation of the character you are playing essentially becomes a mix of your own imagination, and that of the player who endowed you. If done well, it can really widen the gamut of characters you play, with delightful stuff you’d never come up with yourself.
So there you go: endowment. Do you actively use endowment? If so, what are your experiences? If not, why not? Give it a try. And share your experiences!
I’m not sure why we as a community should put up with the use of horrible terms for not necessarily horrible techniques – not even if the terms were coined by an Improv Legend. How about finding a better word instead of “Pimping”? I’ll take suggestions 🙂 – and may I offer a proposal: “showering” as in “showering someone with presents”. Other ideas?
Update March 21 2019
Text has been updated following interesting comments by Roemer Lievaart & Jill Bernard! Thx for those to both of you.