Feel the fear and do it anyway!
If you are reading this, you have already taken a big step forward because you are showing an interest. When you think about it, life is one big improvisation. None of us know what is going to happen next – we just listen/observe and act/respond all day. So, what happens that paralyses us when we try to do that mindfully? Why do people want to run for the hills and never even utter the word ‘improvisation’. I often wonder it if comes from a misplaced fear of thinking that you must be clever and/or entertaining. Let’s leave that to the people who do that for a living in the very popular and often comic improvised performances that appear on the Fringe as it can get in the way of being authentic and ‘in the moment’ with your fellow improvisers. The focus of this guide is how to use improvisation in the rehearsal room or in workshops. My hope is that this guide will demystify and simplify the process.
A well-structured improvisation can be lots of fun and give you an incredible amount of insight and a wealth of choices. It also creates a better understanding of each other and hones listening and concentration skills. So, what makes a well-structured improvisation?
There is one rule for improvisation – just say yes! It’s like a game of tennis, one player bats the ball over and the other player returns it. That doesn’t mean that you always have to say the word ‘yes’ but you do have to accept – the video from the Actor’s Institute that you can find in the playlist goes into this in more depth. My tip for success is don’t pressure yourself to be entertaining! An improvisation can be quite mundane, a conversation between two people that you wouldn’t put in front of an audience, but things may emerge that give you clues to the characters and insight into situations within the play.
Let’s say you want to understand why something is happening, you may have some clues, but you don’t have the specific history to help. For instance, two characters are having a heated argument and refer to specific things that happened before the start of the play. Why not set those moments up and play each of them out. Be specific, character A talks about the time they were on holiday and character B made them feel belittled. Set up the scene, bring in a couple of other non-verbal characters and play it out, what was said, where did it happen, was B provoked, was alcohol involved or was B trying to impress someone? Did A totally misunderstand what B said? Anything can happen in an improvisation, and it will help the actors create the dynamics of their relationship. Don’t try to over analyse things or get into heated debates about whether the character would or wouldn’t have done that – be brave and take things at face value.
You don’t have to be tied to references in the play, if A and B are a couple and the actors are struggling to understand the relationship or they would like to deepen the connection, try coming up with a series of key moments in their lives – I like to imagine it as a photo album – create the still images and make them the starting point for improvisation or play out what happened just before the photo and/or what happened afterwards. You can choose some joyful and perhaps some more difficult moments to explore.
Another useful way to use improvisation in rehearsal is to play a scene in a completely different way. For example – a large family argument is taking place, it is all a bit heated, no one is listening to each other, and it’s gaining momentum. This might be quite ‘realistic’ but from a performance perspective it can be monotonous and result in the audience missing some or all of the spoken text. How about playing it differently – imagine the argument is taking place at a funeral and they all have to whisper. Imagine they are in a crowded room where it already noisy so the only way to get their point across is to speak very deliberately and slowly or they don’t want anyone else to know their business so it’s just between them, but they are in a public space. For fun why not do it in a different accent! Bring them all in close together or spread out to the edges of the room, do a version where no one can move and another where no one is allowed to stop moving – anything that makes a change. Where does it take you, what did you all learn? Can you find a moment when a character manages to take the volume down by getting everyone’s attention and speaking slowly and deliberately or whispering or changing the pace. Can a bit of silliness be injected somewhere to try to change the tone and lighten things? These are quick and simple techniques to get texture into a scene.
Another thing to try is to get the actors to swap characters – remember that they shouldn’t be trying to copy what the actor who is cast has done but rely on their own instincts. This works particularly well in early rehearsals.
Setting up an improvisation
- Be specific but don’t anticipate the outcome. That means if you are setting up the scenario be clear on the who, where, and what but don’t try to ‘direct’. Make sure everyone is clear about the context and let it run.
- Don’t be afraid to step in if you can see that it is drifting off and people are getting frustrated. Regroup, offer something new and restart
- Always be positive even if you didn’t necessarily get what you had hoped from it. It can be exposing as an actor to improvise and that should always be celebrated
When we were children, we improvised all the time, pretending to be superheroes, tragic characters or Kings and Queens. It can be extremely powerful to connect with that childlike behaviour again. There is a reason it is called a ‘play’ so be playful.
Just say yes
Working with play text, we will explore the different ways to use improvisation in the rehearsal room helping to develop characters, relationships, and build backstories as well as developing acting skills.
In this playlist you will find some useful videos. Sam Mendes talks about his rehearsal process and experimental ways of using improvisation. The Actors Institute give us an insight into the ‘rules’ of working together and the cooperation needed for improvisation. Finally, an example of an improvisation game played on the Ellen show with Steve Carell, just for fun.
Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing plc (ISBN 978-1350069039)
Viola Spolin was a pioneer in the use of creation of tools and techniques in improvisation for directors and educators.