An actor… improvises

The most important lesson I’ve learnt is how to improvise. I know a lot of directors hear “improvise” and “improv” and they immediately start to panic, but improvisation is a skill that every actor needs to have, and to be able to do well.

First, to the fear some directors have about improv. I don’t mean people moving off script. A great actor can deliver the lines, and will work with you to make sure the performance is the best. If they feel the script needs altering, they should talk to you and get your opinion after doing it how it’s written first. What I mean by improvisation is the ability to act totally naturally in the reality of the script, off the cuff, so that if a cup falls when it’s not meant to, or a real taxi almost runs them over, it doesn’t become a distraction but part of the scene.

Some actors say that improv is difficult, and others say it’s easy. I’m somewhere in between. There was a moment when I was part of MissImp when it clicked, thanks to the wonderful people I learnt from and played with. Before that point I’d had moments where things were natural, and others where I felt I was forcing it. The difficulty isn’t in thinking quickly and coming up with a funny line or smart quip, the difficulty is stopping yourself from thinking quickly and just reacting.

For me, improvisation is reacting. I had some scenes which weren’t funny, which is odd for an improv comedy troupe, but the scenes worked because my scene partner and I came up with strong characters and created a scene. When either of us (usually me) tried to force a joke or a point, the scene dipped. Once you lose that mindset of having to improvise, once you get out of your head, you start to live in the imagined circumstances of the scene. It may be a scene that you’ve only had a one word suggestion to use as the starting point, rather than a whole script, but you could say the same thing about life. Life doesn’t come with a script, and neither should your performance on stage or on a set.

When we’re working, we create our own worlds. The writer has given us the words to say and characters with real lives, and the reality of the world of the script might not be rooted in what we as people experience day to day. What doesn’t change is that our characters are living those lives in that reality, and they’re experiencing everything for the first time. I credit my love of improv to watching the extras on an anime DVD (whose name I forget), when Monica Rial said to go out and learn improv. I urge you to do the same. It’ll help you loosen up, be more natural when you’re acting, and will get you out of your head.

Improv will smack you out of your head, and it might lead to you having a coffee mug with your moment of improv brilliance immortalised.

In the moment

In both instances, you who were playing, and we who were watching, gave ourselves up completely to what was happening on the stage. Such successful moments, by themselves, we can recognize as belonging to the art of living a part.
Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor Prepares

Acting is about living in the imagined circumstances of the script. We’ve all seen bad acting; where it’s clear that the actor is just saying lines, going through the motions, not connecting with the audience and really just not inspiring you to keep watching. We’ve also all seen good acting, where we completely forget that we’re watching a film or a play and we really believe we’re there, watching real life.

As actors we want to have every performance we give be that good. The question is, how do we do it?

Stanislavski talks about inhabiting the character so we are living truthfully in the imagined circumstances, which sounds fantastic. It’s called “the method” and is a really useful starting point, although some actors do take it too far. But say you’re working on a script or a character that you’ve only just seen; you’ve had the script for a few minutes and need to give a full performance for the camera or in a voice over session. How can you fulfil the detailed analysis called for by Stanislavski or Uta Hagen?

We need to remember that acting is about being in the moment. In the test at the beginning of An Actor Prepares we are told of 2 individual moments when Maria and Kostya managed to utterly convince themselves and the audience of the moment. Kostya, when asked, says he can’t remember how he felt when he said “Blood, Iago! Blood!” because he was subconciously in the moment. The trick is to bring that subconcious brilliance to being part of the concious process. If you’ve only had a script for a few moments then it’s almost impossible to do a full analysis, like so many actors try to do. It might even be impossible to answer all of Uta Hagen’s questions to get into character. This is why actors need a varied selection of tools, and there are 2 which I think are the best for creating strong choices which keep you in the moment. Both take some practice and preparation, but this should be done ahead of time and tucked away for when you need them.

The first is to study improvisation, especially improvised theatre or improvised comedy. As well as playing games like “Yes, and” and the word at a time story (which are just plain fun!), it gives you practice in running with an idea and having a scene coming from it. if you’re in front of a live audience, you’ll get seconds between hearing the suggestion and having to start the scene. You’ll need to give yourself fully to the choices that you and your scene partners make. The more practice you get, the more you’ll be able to trust your instincts, and the more you’ll find it easier to follow the scene through.

The second tool I think every actor should work on is having a cast of characters or archetypes you can fulfil. If you go into a voice over session, you’re likely to be seeing the script for the first time and will need to work quickly. I have a few character types that I keep on hand, so if I go through a script I can choose which of them best fits the needs of the script. Because I already know those characters well I can start to mould them to the specific scenarios, knowing full well that they will react in character.

There is a reason, I feel, why the first of Stanislavski’s texts is An Actor Prepares; preparation is key to any scene, to any character, and to any performance, but it’s not always necessary to prepare the script. Sometimes it isn’t timely to prepare the script. It’s important to have the training and knowledge of your characters ahead of time, to prepare your tool kit so that you can reach for the right one, knowing it’s in the best condition and ready for action.