Ever start an improv scene where you and your scene partner don’t quite connect and you both start a scene talking over each other? You both say something that’s totally different and you have no idea what to do next? Do you feel bad about yourself because you broke some improv rule and destroyed a scene? Don’t. Come on. There are no rules in improv. It’s making stuff up. Second, a scene that seems hopeless can always be saved with a simple solution. In this case, you can pretend that you were just talking on your cell phone, apologize to your scene partner, and ask them to repeat themselves. Boom.
Don’t forget to end the cell phone conversation.
I noticed a lot of people find my blog looking for improv tips. So, I thought I’d give a little tip here and there.
If you’re scared of having to say something in an imrpov scene… If you feel on the spot, speechless, or worried that once you open your mouth without a script it won’t close, embrace your hesitation. Don’t say anything. Experience being in a scene without saying a word and exploring other options for communication. Perhaps the other person is speaking and you’re not, how do you respond? How many times in life do you have scenes with people that don’t involve words? We spend a lot of time waiting around these days: waiting in line, waiting for the work day to end, waiting for what’s next, etc. How often do you talk when you’re waiting? How do you interact with others when you wait? If you’re not talking what are you doing? How can you establish who you are without speaking?
Enjoy the silence.
A reader of my acting tips page writes:
I am 16 and I have decided to go for an audition by an entertainment company. They require both a one minute monologue and an impromptu. As for the monologue, I have chosen a slightly dramatic one that involves a bit of anger and disappointment. Will that be okay? Since you mentioned on your blog that it is not advisable to yell at the cast directors?
Also, given that I have had no prior experience in acting or whatsoever, how do I prepare for an impromptu? I am not sure what to expect though I do know that my audition will be taking place in front of both a panel of judges and other contestants, about 30 or so.
Please write back when you have the chance.
Sorry for the late response! Since I missed the boat, I hope your audition went well enough to encourage you to audition again. And if that is the case, here are my answers to your questions:
Anger! A monologue with anger and disappointment is a great way to show off one’s acting chops. You might want to make sure there’s at least a glimmer of some positive emotions in the piece to show off your acting range. You don’t have to go from happy to sad like Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde, but if you throw in just a hint of happiness in a sad or angry monologue then I think it will show off your acting skills a little more than a monologue that is one flavor. When I was discouraging people to not to yell at casting directors, I was just trying to help the actor see the audition process from casting’s point of view. Nobody likes being the recipient of an angry tirade, but if you play around with how anger is expressed I’m sure the casting folks will take notice.
Impromptu! I’m not sure what you mean by impromptu. If you mean reading lines that they give you at the audition with no time to prepare, what the showbiz folks sometimes call a cold reading, then here’s my advice: Have fun with it. On cold readings you don’t have to worry about forgetting a line, so relax and make choices on the text as you go along. Usually with cold readings you’ll get the text at least 15 minutes before you’re auditioning. I’d advise not even trying to memorize the lines, as some folks would suggest. You already proved you could memorize text in your monologue. Why some folks might encourage you to memorize a script for a cold reading is to keep your head up and not buried in the page. Be familiar with the piece, say it aloud a few times, get a sense of what happens. Don’t worry about sounding weird by going over the cold reading aloud in the waiting room if no one else is before the audition. You might feel like you’re being strange talking to yourself, but everyone else will feel strange if they speak the monologue for the first time at the audition. Glance down at the page then look up to deliver your lines. The casting people want to see actors. Don’t take forever but take you’re time. Just glance down as you’re going along. Cold reading is a skill in itself so practice at home with any text you can find: ads in magazines, dialog from novels, articles, etc. Some people hold the page a little bit in front of them to decrease the amount of time (by milliseconds!) it takes to glance at the page. One of the cool things about cold readings is that they can really show a director an actor’s creativity, so keep that in mind. If you are given something to read right on the spot with no time to prepare whatsoever, just relax, take a moment to read through the piece quietly, get an idea of where the character starts and ends, then have fun with it.
Now, if by Impromptu you mean an improvised piece, an instance where you’re not given any script but merely some type of suggestion to which they want to see a monologue you make up on the spot, then like above, relax and have fun. Don’t be afraid to move around the stage. A standard trap in improvising (and acting in general) is to stay in one place and just talk. Pretend to react with some sort of environment, dance around. You don’t have to be ridiculous (although everyone likes a laugh) you can just move around like a normal person. However there are some gestures to stay away from, such as the classic “flailing hand.” This trap is when actors repeatedly wave one hand around, usually pointing, to emphasize what they are saying. A lot of (bad) politicians do this. It looks cliche. If you’re afraid of coming up blank, just remember nothing comes from nothing. So don’t feel bad on basing an improvised monologue from something. Do an impression of a teacher, give a voice to an animal, or have fun with saying what you want to your best friend but due to manners have never been given the chance.
Thanks again for your question. A good book about auditions you might enjoy is Audition by Michael Shurtleff. Break a leg!
If any readers want to check out more acting-type questions I’ve answered, check out my old Acting Q&A blog: http://actingquestions.blogspot.com/
I noticed a lot of folks have been finding my blog looking for tips on improv.
To give you folks more of what you’re looking for, I thought I’d go through my mental files and present to you some exercises from the past. Here’s an improv game that I learned in a class with David Matthew Prior back a few years ago at Michael Howard Studios.
I forget the name, but let’s call this…
Status Therpay Session
How many people? You need at the very least around 6 people to get the most use out of this game. You could probably do even better with 7. A group of nine folks might still work. Beyond that it might spiral into chaos, but give it a try if you want.
What’s the set up? One person is the “Therapist.” This is kind of the boring role in the game so it might be served best by the coach, teacher, or at least someone who’s good at being an interviewer. The rest of the group are members of the family. These members shouldn’t know what family role they are (Mom, Dad, older brother, etc.) yet.
First, everyone besides the interviewer picks a number. If there are five members of the family, then everyone picks a number between 1 and 5. If there are 6 members, a number between 1 and 6. And so on. Everyone keeps this number to themselves and doesn’t share it. Please guys, keep it a secret for now! I beg of you. Then everyone, individually and silently, assigns every member of the group another number (1 through 6 or however many folks are in the group). You can’t give another member of the group the same number, in each member’s mind every number must be used. Don’t share this information! Keep it quiet!
Second, assign roles to everyone in the family. Father, Step-Moter, baby, daughter, older brother, nanny, babysitter from next door, feel free to spice it up a bit if you have a large group. Or if you want to make group the staff of an office and assign everyone job titles, feel free. As long as the group is a group with a traditional hierarchy and established relationships you’ll have fun.
Third, explain the status of everyone’s numbers. 1 is the number of the highest status, 6 (or 8, 9, 10, etc.) is the lowest status. Keeping in mind the number each member assigned themselves and other members of the group, each member must act accordingly. 1 submits to nobody, 2 submits to one but is superior to 3, 3 submits to 2 but is superior to 4, etc. The last number is submissive to everybody. Now, everyone has a status map of the group, but everyone’s status maps are different. Let the fun begin!
Fourth, to get the game going the “therapist” or interviewer asks the characters questions, trying to get the group to interact, and the group must deal with each other as their personal status maps allows. If everyone follows the numbers, it can get pretty interesting because no 2 people in the group will have the same status map, just like a real family!
After the game is over, try to get the class to guess everyone’s number. If everyone’s good at playing status it should be pretty easy.
When I did this game all the different independent relationships and statuses gave the game the look of a rehearsed scene. It gave way to complicated relationships. And it was pretty funny to watch one person who thought of themselves as a 1 dealing someone who had mentally labeled the same person an 8.
Try it out! Let me know how it goes!
Dear Acting Diary,
I’ve noticed that a lot of people are reading my blog by searching for “improv acting tips” so I thought I’d write a few more.
When performing in an improv show, here’s a couple things that I’ve noticed:
Tell and Show
If you describe something, say in your opening monologue* or in a conversation that occurs in a scene, the audience wants to see it. The old creative writing rule, “show, don’t tell” can be slightly modified to “tell, then show.” So at some point if you’re talking about that time Grandpa bought a couple boxes of Theraflu thinking they were Kool-Aid, show that scene during the show. It’s an easy laugh.
Another thing to keep in mind is anticipation. Anticipation works great in movies, plays, and books. It doesn’t work out so great in improv. By “anticipation” I mean talking about doing something in a scene and waiting for that something to happen. If you do this, a couple things are going on: 1) You’re not really being present in the moment, you’re waiting for something better to happen which won’t happen because you’re waiting for it; 2) The audience will either get bored or expect something crazy to blow up; or 3) If you’re talking about doing something, you’re telling and not showing–people want to see something on stage, so show ‘em what you got.
Here’s how I suggest “killing” anticipation. If people in a scene are talking about something that is going to happen or are planning something (a heist, a birthday party, a family, etc.)–edit the scene! Stop it as soon as you can tell what the characters are describing. Then in the next scene show whatever it is the performers were talking about. My favorite way of editing an “anticipation scene” is to yell “cut-to the birthday party! (Or whatever it is in your scene).”
“Cut to” is an edit used in “The Movie,” a form of longform improv where the improvisers perform an improvised movie using improvised plots, scene painting (improvisors tell the audience details of the appearance of the setting or characters), and screenwriting terms (for example: describing and performing cinematic shots, such as “birds eye view” or “close up,” and transitions, such as “cut to.”)
Another favorite of mine to kill anticipation is to edit the scene and do a “cut to” edit making the next scene take place after the object of anticipation has passed. For example if someone in a scene is talking about how their dog can talk, edit the scene and do a “cut to after the dog has spoken.” Then the improvisors have to react to “what just happened” instead about talking about something about to happen. Try it, it’s funny. If characters are planning a birthday party in one scene, cut to after the birthday party. This is an old comedic screenwriting trick. It works!
That’s all for today! If you have any questions about improv, leave it in the comments. Thanks for reading my blog!
*If you’re not too familiar with longform improv, improv that consists of scenes and/or monologues that last for around 20 minutes and longer, some shows are begun with the improvisers or a special guest delivering either a prepared or improvised monologue which the improvisers use for generating scenes. Some shows use one “monologist” or up to however many improvisers their are in the group.
Once again, I noticed folks were finding my blog looking for “Improv Acting Tips.” I already wrote one post about this topic but I thought I’d give it another go if people are interested in improv. If you have any improv questions, drop me a question in the comments below.
A little bit about me and improv: I started studying at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in 2000 and went on to study at the Peoples Improv Theater (both in New York City). I also worked as an improvisational strolling character actor for a while and have been on all sorts of improv teams in New York. So, if you were curious were these tips come from, there you go.
IMPROV ACTING TIPS, Part 2
Touch Your Partner’s Shoulder: I know this sounds silly and if your partner doesn’t want to be touched, don’t. But one of the best ways to get “into the moment” fast and create a little relationship in an improvised scene is to place your hand on your scene partner’s shoulder, arm, or back. This connects the two of you and kind of gives the scene some “honesty”–for lack of a better word. Don’t grope, just a light hand on the shoulder does it.
Specifics: Did I mention this one last time? It should have been the first improv tip. Specifics, details, and names are very funny. Try it out. As one acting teacher asked my class, what’s more interesting asking for some whiskey or asking for some Jack Daniels? They say you can’t really learn how to be funny, but if you’re real specific with your work, you’ll get some laughs. And it doesn’t have to be brand names, it can be with object work (miming your physical environment), specifying to yourself what emotion your character’s feeling in the scene, etc.
The more specific your choices the more you and your scene partner can play with them. Details make something interesting and hold the audience’s attention. The next time a con-artist tries something on you, notice all the detail they throw into their story.
Specifics Part 2, Introduce Yourself: Seriously. Specifics, y’all. If you’re starting your scene and don’t know what to do, in a sentence introduce who you are, where you are from and what exactly you want. The trick is to cram your introduction with as much detail as you can so your scene partner and you will have all sorts material.
They (the improv elite) say the best scenes are between characters who know each other. Well, if you’re introducing youself in the beginning of the scene and want to follow this rule, introduce yourself as someone your scene partner obviously knows. Here’s an example: “Hello, John, I, being your step-father Andre who was born on Minnow lane, two towns over, and want to win over your olympic backstroke champion Mother, Eileen, have decided to spend the day with you at your part time job, here at the Dairy Queen drive-thru window.” Sounds like too much? It is, but maybe your character gives too much information whenever he talks. And besides you could do a great many scenes with that information. You could do a scene about a step-father and son who don’t get along, you could do a scene about a step-father getting in the way of his step-son at work, you could do a scene about the step-son confronting his step-dad, you could do a scene about the ice cream machine breaking and the step-father tries to explain to his customers how his step-son is trying his best. The more details, the more options, so stuff as many character, environment, and relationship details in the beginning of a scene. And remember, you don’t have to speak these details you can use your movement and object (or mime) work to indicate all sorts of details as well.
Don’t Talk: Try it out. Don’t know what to say in an improv scene? Don’t say anything. Don’t ignore your partner. You can fully enagge your scene partner and still be silent. How, you ask? Give it a shot and find out. But don’t indicate that you can’t speak. Just do other things besides speaking. This exersize might make your more physical, more subtle, or just more interesting to watch. See what happens.
What Do I Do, My Partner’s an Ass? It’s going to happen. Sooner or later you’re going to be in a scene where you’re not getting along with your partner. Perhaps he or she is “showboating” (hogging the stage), perhaps he or she doesn’t understand what’s going on, perhaps he or she is being a Silly Monster (making no sense and a lot of noise), perhaps your scene partner is making you uncomfortable by getting too close, or perhaps your partner is taking the scene in a direction which offends your values. If you feel your scene partner is making you uncomfortable just gracefully exit the scene (“Oh shit, I left a roast in the oven”). It’s not worth it to endure any more abuse than is already involved in an improv show. If your partner is offending you with the subject matter of the scene, try to stop censoring yourself and accept your partner’s offer. Maybe through sincerity and faithfully giving into the scene you can redeem it. If your partner doesn’t understand what’s going on–hoo boy, that’s rough but it’s improv and the audience is forgiving and might even find it funny. Try to steer your partner back to reality by restatingthe facts and confusion of the scene. For example: “Oh, I’m sorry, this is a battleship? I thought I was in a dentist’s office. That’s the fifth time this week I’ve made that mistake.” If you’re are in a scene with a Silly Monster who’s just being loud and not paying attention to you, try to win the audience over by being quiet and balancing out the Silly Monster with a subtle performance. Perhaps your character is trying to have a phone call and just glares at the Silly Monster? Give it a shot. If you’re scene partner is hogging the stage, being hilarious, and not really paying attention to you, that’s a real pain but maybe the audience is enjoying themselves. Sometimes you just have to wait for the storm to pass and use any of the above mentioned tips to steer the scene in another direction or end it.
That’s it for this session of improv tips. I’ll be back with some more, perhaps some tips on improvising characters. Let me know what you want to hear.
I first started studying and performing improv comedy around 2000. There are various ways to improvise on stage, here are the main ones that come to mind: short form (sometimes called “Theatre Games”), long form (typically a 20-45 minute show based off a suggestion or two), stand-up comedy/hosting (ad libbing or riffing with a crowd), and improvising in a play when something goes wrong ( a dropped line, a misfired sound effect, scenery falling, etc.). Improv can even help you in any stressful situation. Stressful situations are worrisome because the future is unknown. Well, in improv the unknown future is used as a foundation to develop techniques to make the most of the present.
Whatever way you end up improvising, here are some techniques and tips I’ve learned and try to use (primarily onstage, but sometimes in the ‘real world’):
Agreement. Agree with whatever’s given to you by either your scene partner, uncontrollable events, or whatever it is you’re playing with. If you’re in a play and someone calls you by the wrong name you can mention that it’s your middle name, you can say you haven’t been called that in ages, etc. Audiences love when a snafu is addressed and incorporated. You can’t lose. A common way to teach the technique of agreement is “Yes and” where you say “yes” to what your partner offers you and then add to it. This is a good way to make party chit chat more amusing.
Person 1: You have a great haircut.
Person 2: Yes, thank you, I did it myself and would now like to cut your’s so we can both look amazing.
A lot of people assume you have to be negative to be funny. And there’s a lot of funny self deprecating/hyper critical comedy out there. But don’t be afraid of positive comedy, the comedy of agreement, the comedy of embracing what is present. It will be even funnier to agree with someone or something than to negate it. Negation is often frowned upon in the improv world. It can kill a scene.
Example of “negating”:
Person 1: You have a great haircut.
Person 2: I look horrible, you’re crazy. Go away.
If you’re the victim of someone negating you onstage, turn it into an agreement.
Person 1: Yo have a great haircut.
Person 2: I look horrible, you’re crazy. Go away.
Person 1: OK, let me just finish packing my suitcases. I don’y know where I’ll wind up, but you’ve always guided me well in the past.
Don’t Go Crazy/Don’t Try To Be Funny/Reacting Vs. Creating. I learned this lesson through crash and burn. In improv its easy to have funny ideas in your head that don’t go with what’s going on in the scene. It’s OK to use your ideas to start a scene or to fix a problem, but I find it’s always better to go with the flow of a scene instead of trying to overpower it with your ideas. If you think your idea fits into the scene use it, if it doesn’t–save it for another scene, another show, a comedy sketch, or an amusing email forward. For example if you’re doing a scene and you think it would be funny to just start yelling in French and making poop gestures (whatever those may be), its going to look more out of place than funny. Save it for your Fringe festival show. A good technique is just to react with what’s in the scene by listening and not worrying about generating material. You’ll be surprised at the ideas that come to you if you just listen and react. One of my favorite improv class exercises is the “Boring Scene” where two people do a scene and they can’t do anything they consider amusing. Often times, the improv coach or instructor will make a buzz sound whenever someone starts to be funny. It sounds dull, and a lot of these scenes take place at bus stations and waiting rooms, but they always come across as hilarious to me. I think because it removes the pressure of generating ideas and you just focus on reacting. This may not seem like it applies to Stand Up and Hosting style ad libbing or improv, but sometimes riffing with the audience can be as entertaining as a few bits.
Singing, Music, Dance, Movement, Mime Work. It’s easy to improvise with just two people talking. Any way you can get out of this mold is a sure fire way of amusing the audience.
Use Your Audience. Some audiences are timid, some aren’t. If your audience seems cool nothing pays off like using a suggestion they offer, dropping their names, or commenting on noises coming from the audience of theater (when someone sneezes, God Bless them, when a heating pipe starts to bang, mime calling the landlord to make a request for repair). Audiences like feeling involved.
Eye Contact. Make eye contact with your scene partner (and in some cases your audience), this will help focus. You don’t have to keep it for the whole scene but you should start a scene by making eye contact with your partner.
Names. Give your scene partners names if they don’t have one already. Likewise, in a real world situation using your conversation partner’s name is a good way to snap wandering minds to the present.
Do Stuff. If you give yourself things to do in a scene (tie shoe laces, wash dishes, any action) it will help the scene. It only works however when you don’t talk about what you’re doing. For example tie your shoe laces and talk about what a great lunch you had. Comedy!
Relationships. Keep the scenes about you and your scene partner, don’t make them about things the audience can’t see. You can add details but keep the scene about your relationship with your scene partner. Do you guys like each other? Is one of you high status? Decide these things early on but be willing to go with the flow or correct miscommunications.
Person 1: Come on sis, let’s start acting like grown-ups.
Person 2: Reginald, I am your mother, I wish you’d stop treating me like your sister. Although I did enjoy the Jelly Bracelets for my birthday.
Person1: Come on sis, let’s start acting like grown-ups.
Person 2: Whoah, this whole time I thought I was your mother, what did you put in this coffee?
Juxtapose. I think it’s always easy to get a laugh with juxtaposition. If you play against the audiences expectations you’ll probably get a laugh. Examples: I have a character Sealegs McGoo who’s an old sea captain and grumpy. As a gag, I made him the author of an advice column, so during shows he pulls out letters to read from wayward souls seeking guidance . Also, my character Chuckles The Birthday Bear–a children’s party performer– is always looking for a pack of smokes he lost.