I was once told by a world-famous theatre director that Improvisation is really good for making you a better actor. I was fascinated by the advice and asked how that worked and was staggered by the response:
Because when things go wrong, like when another actor doesn’t come on in time, you’ll be able to make something up…
Really? And will that work for SHAKESPEARE? So Improv is just a way to fill in time? To make something up to cover over the slackness of another actor? Wow, that seems like a fairly weak reason. It IS a weak reason, it’s the words of someone who doesn’t really understand the value of Improvisation at all.
Improvisation training has NOTHING to do with filling in for a weak link, it has EVERYTHING to do with your acting performance. We live our lives by improvising, we don’t really know from moment to moment what will happen. Then when we produce a play, we nail down each and every moment, until all the life and spontaneity, the immediacy has been smashed out of it.
So instead, I propose that every moment of great acting should not be prearranged and nailed down, that every moment is free and that you can do whatever you need to do in the moment. I can sense the control-freaks engaging in some muscular tension around now. But guess what? I’m a control freak too, but I learned to give it up, in favour of something better, the freedom and magic of the moment.
Improvisation is all about dealing with the moment. Being free to respond to what is actually happening. People forget that in Improv classes, they tend to go for what’s funny. But the basic rules of improv ARE the basic rules of acting, work off what the other fellow is doing, make the other actors look good, build on their ideas, take the focus off you.
The basic structure of IMPROV is this:
OFFER – ACCEPTANCE – BUILD (and recycle ad infinitem)
The very first thing that happens when you teach this to people is that they immediately learn the power of the word NO. So most people’s experience looks like this:
OFFER- REJECTION – OFFER – REJECTION (and recycle ad infinitem)
Instead, when you are offered something, you accept it and BUILD, and your BUILD is an offer back to the other person.
This goes exactly the same for the scene that’s written, we agree that the words are not improvised and we will respect them and stick to them. But from there, we will essentially accept and build on whatever comes our way. It’s amazing what happens next. You start to place your attention on the other person to see what they are giving you, you stop being self conscious, you build the scene together, working towards your task, but you do by making the other person look good. This is the heart of improv and the heart of good acting.
Working moment to moment never means ignoring the needs of the script, but instead, it means that the actors actually and actively engage with each other for real. They can’t work at each other, they can’t talk AT each other, they have to work from what the other person is giving them. They have to actively listen and this teaches them that it’s not about YOU, and tough lesson for a lot of actors!
Ian Watt (aka The Captain) is going to teach an Improv Class in Glasgow at Acting Coach Scotland from January, I for one can’t wait, because the benefits that Improv brings the actor are far more than ‘filling in time’, they bring you right to the edge of the moment and teach you to be comfortable in that terrifying place.