Standing in Neutral
Ideally, you would do this exercise before you had time to get to know your class very well.
One at a time, stand in neutral in front of the group for 45 seconds. Don't grin, stiffen up, or layer any quirks onto your ol' regular self. Try your best to be a blank slate.
After those 45 silent seconds, the class should make observations about what unconscious ticks or habits they observed. If this person was a character just as they are, what character would they be?
When you hear your classmate's thoughts, you'll want to argue. "But I wasn't being a character! I wasn't playing anything! I was in neutral! Where are you getting all of this?"
But the truth is that there's no such thing as true neutral. My neutral looks radically different from your neutral. We project all kinds of things about ourselves without saying anything. We can control this to some extent by what we wear -- for instance, I dress professionally for a job interview so that I will be seen as a professional.
For the most part, though, we're totally unaware of how we come across to others. If you're going to do improv, it's helpful to get a sense of how others see your neutral, because that is how they're likely to endow you in scenes. If I want someone to see me differently from the way they see my neutral, I have to do something to throw my body, face, and voice out of their normal alignment.
Like so much of improv, this exercise is easier to show than it is to tell, so here's how it went the first time I did it in Noah Gregoropoulos' class:
After noticing that I was standing very straight, my class noted that I look with my eyes instead of with my whole head. Then they discussed what kind of character I made them think of:
"She seems like that person at the library or on the bus who keeps looking over at you, not because she's interested in what you're doing, but because your iPod is too loud or you're tapping your fingers on your book. She probably won't actually tell you to shut up, though, unless you really do something to push her over the edge."
"Really? I thought of her more like that teacher that has a great connection with her students. She's amazing in the classroom, and the kids love her and work hard for her. She doesn't fit in with the teachers, though. If she has to spend time in the teachers' lounge, she sits in the corner and reads."
"I thought she looked like that woman who is staring out the window and trying to be calm, but she knows that the gremlins are coming. They've come often enough that she really she shouldn't be startled, so she's trying to play it off like she's not upset, like this is just another day with the gremlins."
That was four years ago. At the time, I was struggling with anxiety and depression, and I wonder how obvious that was. I'm curious to know if my neutral has changed since then. The best way to find out is probably to get into a room full of honest strangers and ask.