When you’re working a job (whether it’s for film, theatre, industrials, commercials, voiceover, etc.), you will most likely be given a script to memorize and/or familiarize yourself with. Sometimes you won’t be given a script at all, but rather an outline of the scenes. I have at least one client who provides me with an outline and gives the gist of the scene, but does not provide the dialogue. Yep, that means that everything I do and say on-set is essentially improv. I love working for this client and my improvisation skills are an invaluable resource when they book me.
First let’s talk about when there is a script and you are asked to memorize it. And let’s assume you are working in front of the camera. Now let’s say you’re playing the scene and you forget your next line or the exact wording. Just like in the audition room, you have three options.
1. Stop the scene and ask to start over. (This is really a big no-no when you’re working on-set. They booked you for the job, which means they expect you to show up prepared, have your lines down, and be ready to shoot the moment you arrive or shortly after. Also, you should NEVER be the one to say cut during a scene when you’re on-set, that’s the director’s job.)
2. Stay in the moment of the scene, hoping the words come to you. (Pray they do, because the alternative is that they have to cut, reset, and shoot the scene over. On-set “time is money” and since there are already numerous reasons for needing to reshoot a scene, no one wants to reshoot simply because someone doesn’t know their lines. This is an offense that may be forgiven once (we all make mistakes), but much more than that and you will be looked upon as unprofessional, difficult to work with, and an expensive addition to the cast.)
3. Make it up or paraphrase and keep rolling. (This is almost always the best option because it keeps things moving and doesn’t necessarily ruin the take. Just as in number one above, they expect you to be prepared and professional and oftentimes, that means they expect you to be capable of improvising when needed. In fact, you’d be surprised at how often a take that has been partially improvised or ad-libbed ends up being the one they print. Just do a web search for “improvised lines in movies” and you’ll see what I mean. Click HERE for one list. Often the need to improvise snaps you out of your head faster than a speeding bullet and in so doing, it adds a deeper sense of realism to the take. Be aware however, that sometimes (usually when you’re doing a commercial), the script is viewed as sacred, like the Bible – and even omitting the word “the” may be unacceptable to the director, producer, and/or client. It is your job to find out how important the script is going in, because in this case, continuing on with an already botched take may be viewed as unprofessional.)
Just like when you’re auditioning, option three requires you to have improvisation skills.
Ok, now just like in an audition, let’s say you have your script memorized and you’re working with another actor. This time your fellow actor messes up or improvises your next cue line or forgets their line. In this case you need to “roll with it,” make it up, paraphrase your next line, throw them a line that gets them on track, or take over and make something up that allows the conversation to flow seamlessly. Having improv skills will up your acting game here as well.
When you’re in front of the camera, a lot of directors often want you to do at least one or two takes “off the cuff.” What this means is that once they have filmed as many takes as they need, with you hopefully following the script to the letter, they may actually flat-out ask you to improvise. Directors will sometimes ask for this because they don’t really know what they want in the scene, they are curious to see if you can bring in a new perspective, or they want another alternative that looks more “real.” They may say something like, ok, now let’s do one in your own words, or ok, now let’s see you just throw out a bunch of similar lines, or now let’s do a few however you want. You really need to have improv skills for when this happens, otherwise you may feel stuck, intimidated, or you may just freeze.
So let’s move on to when there’s no set script. This doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. As I said, I have a client that sends me the specs in advance, but who expects that I can take that outline and add any improvised dialogue wherever needed. I love working for this client because it feels easy breezy, is fun, and they really let me play and change it up on each take. There is a freedom in working with this client that allows me to express myself. And honestly actors, don’t we all want to be able to express ourselves? If you want any chance at booking a job like this, you’ve got to be able to improv! Also, there are lots of commercials nowadays that don’t contain dialogue, but rather are scenes of actors doing whatever that are overdubbed by a voiceover talent. Guess what, it’s the same thing. You’ll be handed a storyboard or script that basically just gives an outline of the actions to be completed, but you need to be able to add those actions and convey whatever emotions needed on the spot, which may include having a whole conversation that will never be heard – this too is improv.
When you are working in front of the camera, there is almost always another chance to “get it right,” but that’s not the case when you’re working on stage. Performing live theatre more than any other acting gig, definitely requires that you have the ability to improvise at the drop of a hat. Whether you or someone else goes up on a line onstage or skips a whole page of dialogue that’s integral to the story, someone needs to be able to do something about it. When you’re onstage, there are a myriad of things that can go wrong, but you can’t yell cut or stop and ask the audience if they would mind if you start over. It’s not even an option here. The only option on stage is to be able to improvise, whether that means paraphrasing your line, helping another actor out with their line, or throwing the important information from that missed page into your next line so that the play goes on and still makes sense to the audience. You have absolutely got to have improv skills if you want to work in theatre, otherwise you are doing your fellow actors, the director, and the playwright a great disservice. If your fellow actors have to save you every time you’re onstage together, but you just stare at them when they go up on a line, you may not work in theatre for long. And don’t forget you are often working with props that can get misplaced, fall, malfunction, etc. and you’ve got a live audience that may be laughing from time to time. You’ve got to be aware of all these things and you need to know how to improvise around them.
Here are a few real life examples from my own experience:
Recently I was onstage in the middle of a performance and a sign that was hanging on a stage bathroom door came crashing to the floor as I was speaking to someone on the phone. If I had chosen to act as if I hadn’t seen it, it would have ruined the play for the audience, because not acknowledging something that happens in the world of the play breaks the illusion that what is happening on the stage is real. Luckily, I have studied improv, so after I finished my call I was able to comment on the sign, take the time to replace it, and then continue right on as if it was just another day.
And this one is from just the other night. One of my fellow actors said his line (a funny one that often gets laughs), but the audience didn’t start laughing right away, so I jumped in with my next line. Then they began to laugh as I was saying my line. The next line I had to say required that they hear the one before it. I couldn’t just repeat that line word for word though in case some of the audience members did hear it. It would have looked like a mistake and broken the illusion of the play. So to keep things rolling, I allowed the laugh to start dying down and then proceeded to repeat my line in a paraphrased way as if it was meant to be said twice all along.
Man am I glad I took those improv classes! And if you are really serious about your acting career, you should take them too.
For a list of available improv classes, check out my previous post HERE.
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