When you’re at an audition (whether it’s for film, theatre, commercials, voiceover, etc.), you may be given a script to memorize or familiarize yourself with ahead of time, you may be handed one on the spot, or you may be required to deliver a monologue. No matter what the case is, there will almost certainly be a time when you will need to improvise.
Let’s say you get the script ahead of time and you’ve done your best to memorize. Great! You get into the audition room, you slate, and you begin “reading” dialogue with a reader. All of a sudden you get to the third line and you can’t remember the next sentence or the exact phrasing of it. Now what? Well, there are a few options:
1. You can stop the read and ask the casting director if you can start over. (This isn’t the best option because it makes you look unprepared and they may say no. I have done this once or twice in a bind and luckily they were gracious enough to let me begin again, but I don’t think I booked those jobs.)
2. You can stand there (for what feels like an eternity) and hope the lines magically pop back into your head as quickly as they popped out. (In this case, you may end up having to go back and choose option one, if it doesn’t come to you. I have also waited a moment and had the lines come back to me, but sometimes the read just feels a little off the rest of the way through, because then I start second-guessing myself.)
3. You can make it up or phrase it in your own words if you remember the gist. (This is almost always the best option because it keeps the read moving along and oftentimes, if done well, most of the people in the room will never even realize that what you said didn’t match the script. I have definitely done this and it always feels better than the other two options because I haven’t lost any momentum.)
In order to choose option three, you need to have improvisation skills.
Ok, now let’s say you get the script ahead of time, you’ve done your best to memorize, you get into the audition room, and are asked to “read” with another actor. This time you get to the third line, but your fellow actor throws you the wrong cue or they improvise the cue line because they’ve either had trouble remembering it or they aren’t prepared. Now you may not know what to say or if you say your next line the way it was written, it may not make sense. You can still choose option one from above, but instead of the unprepared actor looking bad for messing up the line, it’s more likely that you will appear to be difficult to work with since you can’t just “roll with it.” In this case, it is best to make it up or rephrase the line you memorized so that it appears that you’re both part of the same conversation. This is another time, when having improv skills can up your acting game.
Now let’s take the same scenario above, where you are “reading” with a partner. One of your goals when reading with a partner is to make the other person look good – this reflects better on both of you and increases your chances of getting cast. This time you get to the third line, but your fellow actor has forgotten the cue and is just standing there not saying anything. In this situation, you may need to help your partner out by throwing out a made-up line that jogs their memory or by taking over and incorporating their line into your next line in such a way that it appears seamless, as if they haven’t forgotten a line at all. Again, you guessed it – the ability to improv here is invaluable. It can even teach you how to be more in-tune with your partner.
Switching gears now, let’s talk about when you’ve been handed a script on the spot. You are being asked to do a cold-read. Cold-reading takes another set of skills, one of which is the ability to “read” the copy while keeping your eyes out of your script. Sometimes when you’re doing this, you may miss the exact phrasing on the page. Without improv skills, you may be forced to look back down at your paper to rediscover the words that are written there. However, if you have improv skills and you understood what you read, then you can most likely paraphrase it a bit without looking down and keep yourself on track. Improv skills can also help you out if you’re doing a cold-read with a partner, in the same ways mentioned above.
And last but not least, what about when you are being asked to perform a monologue? While you often have much more time to prepare a monologue (you should always have a few in your back pocket), we are all human and forgetting bits or words or making mistakes is bound to happen. Rather than letting these mistakes derail you, you can use them as opportunities to add new life to your monologue. If you have learned how to improvise, you can roll with the mistake and figure out a way to quickly lead yourself back on track.
So I hope that you can now see just how important it is that you learn to improvise as an actor. Whether you’re just starting out or you’ve been acting for years, learning to improv or refreshing your improv skills is a must if you want to be able to compete in the marketplace. There are so many times during an audition where the ability to “think fast on your feet” can elevate your acting and increase your chances of getting cast. If you’ve never done improv or you’re a little rusty – get into a class as soon as you can, it can only help you.
Here are a few places to study improv in Pittsburgh and around the U.S.
Steel City Improv
Arcade Comedy Theater
I have personally taken classes at Steel City Improv and highly recommend them.
The Second City
Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre
Peoples Improv Theater
I encourage anyone to comment to this post with any other improv classes and/or resources (in and out of Pittsburgh) that you can personally recommend.
Next Week: Improv is Crucial in Your Work
I'm performing onstage in "Scattered" this weekend and next in Group D of the Pittsburgh New Works Festival at Off the Wall.
The show runs from Sept 19-28.
I'm playing June (June-Bug) among a wonderful ensemble cast in this incredibly lovely, charming, funny, and heart-wrenching tale.
For details and information on purchasing tickets, click one of the links above.