Saturday, November 26, 2011

Anonymous Improv Coach


Did your skin just crawl?  Did you shudder at the sound of that word? 

Well, get over it.  Right now.  Because improv training has rapidly become an absolute necessity in this business.  I had a callback this week for a project with an ensemble cast.  It was a chemistry read of sorts because the callback consisted of everyone auditioning at the same time by playing improv games together.  (That is... after everyone got up, one by one, and did their monologue in front of a room full of the competition.  Talk about psych-out!!)

But once we got to the games, some people were the improv equivalent of nails on the chalkboard.  They were just breaking improv rules left and right, making it impossible to keep a scene going with any direction.  I'll admit it, I'm not the world's most brilliant improv performer, but at least I know the basic rules and techniques.  If you and I are paired up, at minimum, I won't drag you down.  Which is exactly what happened at this audition.  

At one point there were two girls up -- one with improv training, one clearly without -- and I cringed when the girl without training just kept setting up road block after road block.  The poor actress who knew what she was doing was working double-time to try to make the scene work, which I'm sure the casting director could see as well.  But still, I was frustrated that we didn't get to see what the girl with training could really do because she was too busy cleaning up the mess the other girl was creating.  I'm sure it probably irked her as well.

You need to take at least one class on improv.  I know it's scary and you feel naked because you don't have words on a page, but this is a must.  Not only will it help you in auditions like this one, but it will help you with your scripted work as well.  Even commercial casting directors love to see it, in fact, some insist.  Also... your future audition partners will thank you instead of wishing for a parking ticket to be waiting for you when you leave the room.

But not all of you will take my advice.  So, in case you and I are ever paired up for an improv during an audition, I'm going to give you a quick run-down of the ground rules.  (But seriously.  Go take a class.  I don't want to have to write a blog about you blowing my callback someday.) 
  • Everything is "YES!"  -- Your scene partner says you're wearing a purple speedo in the middle of a court room.... your answer is always, always, ALWAYS, "YES!!"  If you defy what your scene partner has given you, you are blocking the scene and that's a big no-no.  Don't judge, just go with it and have fun justifying why you're in a court room in your purple speedo.  (You were taking synchronized swimming lessons and forgot about your child custody hearing??)
  • When the improv starts, you and your scene partner's very first responsibility is to label the who, what, and where with your first few lines:
    • Who are you?  What's your relationship to each other?  ("I'm so glad to be having a drink with my best friend from kindergarten...")
    • Where are you?  Be specific... not just the store, but you're in a comic book store, or a cowboy boot store.
    • What are you doing?  If you started a pantomime, you need to label what's in your hands (or your scene partner's).  If your scene partner labels something you're doing and it isn't what you originally intended.... let me hear it... YES, you accept it and act as if that's what you've been doing all along.  
  • Don't ask questions!!  Make statements.  Something that would call for a simple yes or no answer can be okay (ideally, later in the scene), but anything open-ended will kill your scene partner.  Your job is to tee-up interesting information for your scene partner so it's easy for them to react and run with it.  Instead of asking why he is here, tell him that you know he's here to steal your cracker jack prize.  He should immediately accept your offer, and somehow respond to justify what you said, "Yes, I have been following you all day.  I know the cracker jack ring is in your pocket and Mom told me I could have it."  (See how he also got more specific?  The cracker jack prize is now clearly a ring... oh, and maybe he's your brother??  Your turn to add more information...)  Are you getting the idea on how this works?
  • And finally, try not to eliminate your problem, kill your scene partner or die.  This one is a little more abstract, but don't send your scene partner out of the room, or leave yourself, because then you won't have a scene.  You need to make sure you're both there so the scene can keep going.  If your scene partner is crying, don't try to comfort them... it seems counterintuitive, but you should actually make them cry more.  In fact, be the reason they're crying.  If your scene partner is looking for their keys, don't find them!!  Start complaining about how they always lose their keys, which will lead to all sorts of improv arguing bliss.  
These are the basic rules.  Learn them.  Live them.  Be them.  

I'll see you out there...

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