Actors on Improv

June 2, 2016

The world of improv is an exciting, unpredictable place to inhabit as an actor; those who thrive in it can really stand out in commercial work. Although improv insists that actors stay in the moment and give honest and relatable reactions, it doesn’t require that actors be funny. That being said, it’s a comfortable fit for those who like to have fun in the audition room and enjoy interjecting humor into situations. Amy Poehler, whose prolific career started after studying improv in the 1990s, once said, “I think if you’re an actor and you can improvise, when you go on an audition and you can improvise, you’re just a genius. If you can, you know, take a Tide commercial and you can just say one funny line that’s not in the commercial they think you’re a genius.”

So, what are the rules of improvisation? In the words of Tina Fey who likewise broke into comedy after studying improv, there are two foremost rules to follow:

“The first rule of improvisation is agree. Always agree and say yes. When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, ‘Freeze, I have a gun,’ and you say, ‘That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,’ our improvised scene has ground to a halt. But if I say, ‘Freeze, I have a gun!’ and you say, ‘The gun I gave you for Christmas!…” then we have started a scene because we have agreed that my finger is in fact a Christmas gun.

“The second rule of improvisation is not only to say yes, but yes, and. You are supposed to agree and then add something of your own. If I start a scene with ‘I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,’ and you just say, ‘Yeah…’ we’re kind of at a stand-still. But if I say, ‘I can’t believe it’s so hot in here, ‘ and you say, ‘What did you expect? We’re in hell.’ Or if I say, ‘I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,’ and you say, ‘Yes, this can’t be good for the wax figures.’ Or if I say ‘I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,’ and you say, ‘I told you we shouldn’t have crawled into this dog’s mouth,’ now we’re getting somewhere.”

While some casting directors may want the talent to strictly follow the script, others will encourage actors to play with the material to make it their own. As actor and comedian Martin Short explains, “All you’re trying to do in an improvisation is get as much material as possible for the editing room.”

“You have to grab moments when they happen. I like to improvise and ad lib,” Denzel Washington has said. And Nicholas Cage insists, “Most of my favorite moments in film have been when I’ve had an opportunity to say something from scratch, something original, whether I jotted down a few lines or it came out in improvisation.”

But improvising, like exercise, works best when you’re in the habit of practicing it, so taking improv classes can be a real plus to being fully present during commercial auditions. However, if you try it and find it’s not the best fit for you, don’t worry; you can choose to only follow the as-written commercial copy. But keep in mind, it’s hard to avoid it altogether. As Michael Pitt puts it, “Acting is really scary, but it’s also challenging, fun, hard work. There’s always an element of improvisation with every actor, even when something is really scripted.”