When actors come in to audition for a commercial, most assume there will be a script and storyboard for them to follow and that the casting director will offer adjustments to their reading based on information from the director or a member of the production team. But this scenario doesn't always apply. Some commercials are created in a more collaborative environment, in which the actor invents his or her lines based on an idea or framework described by the casting director. In these cases, skill at commercial improvisation is key.
Commercial improv is an extension of the stage-based improvisation that's often part of a basic acting curriculum: Actors are supplied with minimal information about the environment and/or character, and from this info they create an entire scene. Successful improvisers follow the dictum that you should always move forward with an idea and never shut down any new suggestion that's offered.
Joan See, artistic director of New York's School for Film and Television, uses "status"—in other words, the information provided about your character—as a starting point for an improv audition. Characteristics like age, gender, size, and shape provide clues to what a character might do or say within the scene. "You must embrace and enhance the stereotype," See says, because within the 30 or 60 seconds of a commercial audition, it's very hard to convey anything other than what you are. If you're a 5-foot-7 guy weighing 140 pounds, for example, puffing out your chest and walking into the scene like a bone-crushing bully is unlikely to convince.
When more than one person is auditioning at the same time, part of your job is to work with the other actors. In the most successful auditions, no one in the group pulls focus or shifts the established environment out of the frame of reality—unless that's what the casting director asks for.
It's important to remember that a commercial often has a "hero." This is the person who uses the product or who is placed center stage in the improvisation. Of course, every actor wants to be this person. But regardless of where you are in the improv, it is imperative that you support the "big idea" of the spot: Trust that if your work is correct, it will be noticed by those viewing the tape.
Actor Jacqueline Sydney, who teaches commercial improv at Weist-Barron, cautions that in a group improv, "you have to play with and not compete against your scene partner." Attempting to pull focus or not responding in kind to your partner will only make you look like a bad actor.
Essential skills for commercial improv include:
>The ability to create a three-dimensional character from limited information.
>Knowing how to work within the framework established by the casting director.
Many actors will take themselves out of the running at a commercial audition because, when given the opportunity to improvise, they go too far. Improv in the commercial environment is not a license to make over-the-top or outlandish choices. To the contrary, when asked to improvise at an audition, the smart commercial actor will craft a series of choices that stay within the established parameters of the spot while showing off personality and acting skill.