Dear Acting Diary: More Improv Acting Tips

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.

Coach Anton Caruthers from the Improv Show Character Dogville

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.


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.

Dear Acting Diary: My First Modeling Job

Dear Acting Diary,

Last week I was excited to have my first modeling job. My girlfriend had sent me an email casting notice for a print job. I submitted myself and a few days later I was on a plane headed towards New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment (and at least 62 cable TV channels). The audition for the job was unlike most auditions that I go on. I just had three snapshots taken of me: one profile, one with a slight smile, and another one just looking at the camera straight on. The room that I had my picture taken seemed dark, the casting people–while nice–didn’t seem too interested in me, and the weather was gloomy so I thought that this audition was another in a long line of ones that I just walk away from and forget.

A few days later the casting folks called me and told me that I was on the "short list" and reconfirmed my schedule. Then I got a call a couple hours later that I was cast and I’d be flying out to New Mexico in a few days. I wasn’t called on the set until Saturday morning so I had Friday afternoon and night all to myself which I spent catching up on sleep, walking along the pedestrian free stretch of highway the Hotel was located, watching the undersecretary of the Treasury testify on C-SPAN, enjoying the complimentary herbal teas in the hotel lobby, using my bed as a table for my meatball sub supper, and perusing the the hotel convenience shop for chapstick and toothpaste.

Saturday morning I was all set for my 7:45am call. I met the other actors/models, crew, and production staff for the day, got fitted for my geek-chic wardrobe, and hung around the set. I was the first model shot for the day. The set was in this huge server room with lots of fans and cool air blowing in to protect the servers. I wasn’t used to print modelling so the photographer had to remind to hold poses, "this is not video." The creative director told me to act "confident" as if I "owned the server room." This direction basically translated into my smirking, folding my arms, and opening my eyes slightly wider than I usually do.

The folding the arms was easy, looking confident with my eyes wasn’t too difficult, but holding a smirk for more than a few seconds is hard. After an all too short while, my cheek started to spasm a little bit. I felt like I couldn’t control my body with my spasming smirk. I guess the secret is to relax the smirk every once in a while and make a new smirk. I asked another one of the actor/models about this and he said he had trouble holding his smirk too, his lips started wiggling.

The other difficulty besides dealing with my low smirk self-esteem was that the server room was so loud from the fans that were blowing that I could barely hear the directions I was given. The photographer was cool though and despite some hand signals that I didn’t understand, things moved along. One of the producers told me that I was doing a good job and seemed like a totally different person on camera. Not too shabby for my first day as a professional model.

Other things I had to do in the shoot: walk back and forth with one of the other actor/models while havin a conversation and pretend to push buttons. Afterall that it was 5:00pm and time to go back to the hotel and enjoy some complimentary herbal tea and that Larry the Cable Guy Health Inspector movie on TV The production company was nice enough to extend my return flight for a couple days and I surprised my Mom and Dad with a visit. I got in some time with the folks and some nice views of beautiful New Mexico.

Things I learned from my first modeling job:

  • Holding a pose feels easier if I think of myself as "acting the pose" instead of holding a pose. You know what I mean, models.
  • If you have to "pretend to type" actually type something, don’t just hit keys. Write a letter to a friend.
  • If you can’t hear your directions tell people, don’t pretend to hear.
  • Re-confirm your rate, payment, travel reimbursements, etc. before and during the pre-shoot paperwork. There’s always actors who aren’t quite sure what they’re earning on a project and this awkward situation can be quickly cleared up with just asking the right person. If you have an agent, just ask them. It’s not rude to ask how much you’re earning. If you’re rate is different than what you thought it would be, go back and find the source of your misunderstanding, if the source is something in print like a breakdown notice bring it to the producer’s attention. If you’re getting paid more than you thought you were, just act cool.
  • Jobs out of town are fun. But sometimes you need to buddy up with the other folks for stuff to do during your free days and nights.

Dear Acting Diary: TV Shoot

Me and the wife I murdered, on TV.

Dear Acting Diary,

A couple weeks ago I was cast in featured role for a pilot TV show. I don’t know if the title has been settled on but I think they were calling it “Celebrity Ghost Stories.” It should air on the A&E Biography Channel in November. It was a fun. I played a man in the 1800s who murders his wife then haunts a hotel. Around 90% of the 15 hour day was spent waiting for my scenes but it wasn’t bad. The shoot was at a snazzy bed and breakfast in New Jersey by the beach. I spent most of the time on the porch. I was on vacation.

A lot of the shots were done with still photography. The set had two units, a video unit and a still photography unit and the producers did a good job of juggling both. When the video unit was in one room shooting a scene, the photography unit would be in another part of the bed and breakfast taking still shots. They crammed a lot into the day. They were filming around three separate stories. Another thing that was different than other shoots I’ve been on, but similar to my own videos, is that there wasn’t any script and all the shots were set up by the director. This made some actors feel a little uneasy because there was nothing to prepare but I liked it because I felt it took the pressure off. I could just sit on the porch and wait to be called.

A lot of my shots were creepy. We took tons of still shots that ran the spectrum of my character carrying his new (probably mail order) bride over the threshold to my strangling her on the bed. I also had to do some shots with a noose around my neck. I got a little nervous when they were adjusting the loop, but I’m still here (and wasn’t ever at risk of death–besides the barbecue pizza I inhaled at lunch).

It was great meeting the other actors too. I’m always curious about people’s day jobs. One was a real estate agent who kept inquiring if anyone wanted by a house. One was a pharmacist. One was a former film commissioner for the state of Michigan.

Things I learned from being on this TV shoot:

  • Always confirm if you are being paid and how much when you accept a role. A lot of actors are nervous about doing this. And a lot of the actors on this shoot weren’t sure. I used to be nervous about confirming rates, as if I were asking for money from a friend. But its a job. Its good to know these things rather than wondering the whole day. Some jobs pay better than others, some only offer free food, but some shoots are worth it for your reel and the experience.
  • Costumes never fit. A lot of projects have tight costuming budgets and tighter pants. Or maybe I lie about my waistline.
  • When packing for a shoot bring a book, a drawing pad, laptop, or list of conversation topics that will last 12 hours plus. Also bring some “actor war stories.” That acting class you wasted money on, that shoot where your allergies exploded, that crazy audition, etc.
  • Bed and Breakfast rates really soar in the summer.


Dear Acting Diary: First Entry

I want to keep this blog to document my active pursuit of my acting, filmmaking, and comedy career.

Today was a slow day, unfortunately. Around 5pm or so I decided to get to work but felt sick. I think I was dehydrated. I drank as much water as I could. Then I took a nap because I felt so crummy.

I woke up around 1:00 a.m. and now it’s around 4:30. After dealing with a slight paranoid episode about bed bugs (I spent the weekend up in the catskills and have a few bites–I think they’re mosquitos). Then I decided to work on my agent’s database.

I want to make an agent database for mailing my headshot and resume. I started one a month or so ago but I accidentally erased it at work. That sucks. I have an old one so I tried to think of ways I could use it to cross reference more current downloaded information but it was frustrating. The information I download doesn’t contain the names of agents. I think i should just do a local mailing to people representing comedians. Maybe its time to stop the database.

On June 25th I quit my job to pursue my career full time. I thought I’d be more active than I am. So far I’ve made a reel, submitted to numerous actor’s access postings, had callback for a web promo, and searched craigslist ads.

Here’s what I’d like to do more of: audition and circulate my work (comedy, films, writing).

To audition more, I noticed some EPAs next week that I might fit some of what they’re looking for. I also want to sign up for some "Actors Connection" seminars. I noticed next week someone who represents a lot of character types is going to be there.

What do I want to audition for? Anything. Commercials, TV, Film, Theatre.

To cirulate my work more I was thinking of printing up some DVDs of my reels as well as some of short films. I want to mail the acting reels to agents and casting directors. I want to "shop drop" and hand out my DVDs to the masses.

I also want to perform Eddie McOwskey in Times Square and hand out some flyers.

For my reel I cut a scene from Ghostbusters and edited myself in (as a gag). I think it turned out well. I’d like to do this for other movies.

Hopefully this blog will help me keep track of my plans as well as help me move forward.

Acting/Improv 201: Negative Energies

This 10-week class will focus intensely on bringing down a group energy before a show or rehearsal and using the deflated momentum to make people listen to your daily setbacks. Learn how to complain on the exhale, make big stinks about your routine, say “no” in huge ways with extensive tales of trivial woe and superfluous opinions, and set the rehearsal or show off to a late start and hopefully an off-note. All lessons are set to explore and create immediate bitter observations, sarcasm, and disagreement. Surprise, shock, and passive aggressively nudge yourself and take this class. Some classes will simulate an actual three hour warm-up session to show you how exactly to draw out pre-show jib jab until its too late to rehearse.

Pre-requisite: Level Yes But