A Lesson in Acting: Improv 101

I used to avoid doing improv like the plague. Why?

  1. Somehow, somewhere along the line, I got the idea that I’m not funny, or at least that I wasn’t the token “funny one” in the group, so naturally I would be terrible at improv, right? I couldn’t handle the pressure of making people laugh. Well, as any improvisor will tell you, that isn’t the point. If you are trying to make people laugh, you probably won’t. AND …..don’t tell anyone, but …a few people have actually told me that I might be kind of funny…sometimes. So I just need to get over myself.
  2. Secondly, I was afraid. Afraid of failing. Let’s face it, improv is high risk! No one knows what is going to happen next. If you can’t handle that…. you probably need to face your fear, and JUST DO IT!!!
  3. Lastly, I didn’t see how it had anything to do with my actual acting career. Well, when I got to LA and started asking people what someone needed to do to pursue a career in comedy, what was THE ONE thing everyone said? That’s right. IMPROV TRAINING.

Okay. So I decided to bite the bullet and do it! I signed up for Upright Citizen Brigade’s Improv 101 Intensive. Eight 3 hour classes in two weeks, ending with a performance.
I let go of that view of myself (funny or not), faced my fear, and learned a lot about acting in the process.IMG_0460

  • “Yes, and…!”  The basic principle of improv. Agreement and addition.  I saw this and experienced it repeatedly; if you are (artistically) fighting with your scene partner over wherever the scene is going, nothing good or interesting comes of it. (There’s a difference between the actor disagreeing and the character disagreeing. Actors disagreeing is embarrassing. Characters disagreeing is interesting.) I used to do this a lot on stage, kind of direct my scene partner, internally, and act at the same time. It doesn’t work. Commit. Be in the moment. Surrender to the story.
  • Take a point of view and stick with it. If fighting (artistically) with your scene partner over an opposite idea is deadly, having no idea can be even worse. Saying “I don’t know”  in your head or out loud always diffuses any energy the story has. Your scene partner is throwing you a ball; if you are a pile a goo, you’ll be stuck in wishy-washy land forever. Be the player that bounces the ball back! How many times have you heard an acting teacher or director say, “Make a choice!” It’s true. Make a choice and commit to it! That’s when you can play.
  • The more specific the better: names, how it makes you feel, descriptions. Details bring images alive. We thrive on images. Create pictures for each other and the audience. Same with characters from a script. The more specific we are, the more interesting a story becomes.
  • Find what’s unusual. In improv, this is how the “game” is found. However, this is the same principle with creating a character from a script. What makes this situation or person unique? Get specific. Add details.
  • If this is true, what else is true? This is the “and” part of “Yes, and…” When adding to a story, follow a logical train of thought. In improv, sitcoms, or slap-stick comedy the situation is often taken to an extreme, but it is still follows the logical path down a certain trajectory. Same with acting choices with a script. We are given specific information in the script. Ask, “If this is true, what else is true?” I used to make pretty arbitrary choices, just to be different or creative, except the arbitrary choices didn’t serve the script/story. They ended up being a distraction. The road map is there. Find it and expand on it.
  • Ground it in reality. One of the pitfalls of beginning improvisors, myself included, is going with the most outrageous idea ever, just because you can!!! This may be an entertaining idea (in your head), however, the audience starts to detach if things get too crazy or bizarre. One of our teachers said, “We always pursue pleasure over pain.”  That’s what it means to be human. Find that truthful place. As actors, all we have is ourselves. Use yourself. Connect your character and your scene to what you know. Ground it in reality and go from there.
  • Don’t pimp out your scene partner. This is a fun one. Telling your scene partner, “Show me how you do that sex position,” “How do you sing that song?” “You know that dance routine, right?” is just putting everyone in an awkward position. Basically, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Same goes for when working on stage or in front of the camera, don’t leave your partner hanging or be goofing off in the corner. Be there for them. Saying “We’re in it together!”
  • Listen! Easier said than done. I think the key here is having an outward focus, rather than an inward focus. As an actor, it’s so easy to get caught up in what I’m doing and evaluating it. Instead, the best thing to do is focus on the other person. What are they saying? What do they want? This is a good lesson in life as well as acting.

I had a blast in this class! I met awesome people. I faced my fears and challenged myself to push through, especially when I sucked. And our performance was pretty decent! I’m proud of myself and my fellow classmates. We grew a lot in two weeks. I want more! Soon I’m hoping to take Improv 201 soon and I’ll be looking for more improv opportunities along the way. If you’re shying away from improv, maybe improv is exactly what you need to do!