Improv scares the living shit out of me…and I’m not even the one who has to do it. Why? I think it’s because I can’t control it. (Yay, therapy!) There are just so many variables. Also, I was “raised” in new play development where the writers got all the attention. That all being said, improv is very exciting when it works. Kicking serious butt at improv is necessary these days in both legit and commercial work. Here are some tips for using improvisation during your next audition.
1. Ask your casting director about improv. I’ve noticed that indie film directors will often ask actors to make the script their own. If you’re unsure whether or not this is kosher, feel free to ask.
2. Exercise the muscle. It’s difficult to get good at improv in a vacuum. Take classes. Agents and casting directors scout at places such UCB, The Pit, Magnet, National Comedy Theatre, etc., so that’s a plus. Also, stay on top of what’s popular and trending. For example, I was flabbergasted at a recent audition because most of the actors I brought in had never seen “Parks and Recreation.” This was a toughie given that the character they had to play had Aubrey Plaza’s energy and dry comedic sensibility.
3. Don’t f*&k your partner. Listen, trust and “yes, and.” Give your partner an opportunity to respond. Be supportive. Don’t deny, ask too many questions of your partner, or block his or her ideas. You can gently steer things in a different direction if the moment becomes uncomfortable or gets too out of hand and away from the scenario outlined in the copy. Don’t upstage the heck out of your partner; maintain a generosity of spirit in the audition room while making your voice heard.
4. Silence can be A-OK. When it comes to on-camera, the non-verbal can often carry more impact than the verbal.
5. Don’t try too hard to be funny. Stay present, in the moment and out of your head. Be honest and specific in each moment, as opposed to playing for laughs or pleasing your auditors. What’s funniest is often the most relatable. Less is more.
6. Know who you’re talking to and why you’re telling them this. The television projects I’ve worked on as of late are written like “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” This often involves a “beat sheet” or bullet-pointed list of beats in a given set of circumstances with a driving action or objective. Make sure you’ve familiarized yourself with the full breakdown, as it often reveals the relationship between the characters (as well as the back story on the one you’ll be playing). Read all the material that is provided for you (sides, script, etc.) so that you really understand what’s going on and what your character wants. My appointment emails are as organized as it gets. That said, you’d be shocked at how often actors don’t receive even 50 percent of what I send their agents or managers. I’d ask for a breakdown, sides and a script, just in case they were provided and not given to you.
7. Feel free to add an improv’d tagline to the as-written commercial copy. The more prepared you are with the script, the more free you can be with your improv. Actors who book often put their own spin at the end of the audition. They make it their own. Sometimes I’ll post takes both with and without improv’d lines if I don’t know whether or not the agency is comfortable with improv. Usually I’ll post a take as-written and then one or two with the actor having fun and making it their own.
8. Get comfortable performing activities. Drinking, eating, driving, talking on a phone…you may be asked to improv a daily activity and make it look both normal and comfortable. Practice makes perfect. Be prepared.
9. Don’t put your mouth on it. To that end, I’ve held a bunch of auditions where people have had to drink or eat. I’ll provide a cup, bowl, utensils, etc. Don’t put your mouth on them. Trust me, others have. It’s nasty, especially during flu season. It’s easier to do all of this when you’re off-book, especially for the takes where you’re not improv-ing.
10. Know thyself. Some people are really great at improv. They often get good feedback in auditions. Some people aren’t so great, or just rusty. I’ve seen many actors tank an audition with bad improv. If improv isn’t a requirement—and according to union rules it really shouldn’t be—you may choose not to do it. Be prepared for a casting director to ask you to make it your own, but lead with the script when one is provided for you, especially if improv isn’t your forte.
Last but not least…
11. Have fun. We love actors that love performing in the room, are relaxed and confident, and really bring their natural energy to the copy. They are not locked into a particular idea, which enables them to be flexible and present. Like a great date, you just bring your best self and let us connect with you.
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