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How To Improvise As An Actor

Created the: 08-09-2020

It may sound straightforward, but it’s not as easy as you might think. In fact, it’s one of the most difficult techniques an actor can learn. Here are some tips and tricks on how to learn improvisation.

An actor needs to master many techniques to be successful, and improvisation is one of them. Improvising can be used in many different performance disciplines, but this article is aimed at actors. There is a huge difference between improvised acting and working from a script. With a script, you have the opportunity to practise your lines and always know what’s going to happen next. But in improvised acting, it falls to an actor’s imagination to determine how the scene will play out. In improvisation, there is no script to follow. It may sound simple — just come up with something in the moment — but there’s a lot more to it. Improvising means always listening and being ready for what comes next. Because you never know what you’ll be saying or doing throughout the scene, you have to stay focussed and be ready to respond at ALL times.

Teachers, that specialise in improvisation are an option, but there can be a definite advantage to taking a course or class that focusses solely on improvisation. Learning the technique with others who are also learning, and are typically at your same experience level, provides greater opportunities for progress and helps build confidence.

Beginning and ending a scene

It’s always important when starting a scene to establish the setting, different characters and their circumstances that will become the basis for what unfolds next. Listening closely and going freely into what has been established is the best way to prevent confusion that might derail or bog a scene down.

A scene ends when the ultimate objective of a character or characters is met. Of course along the way new elements, obstacles and smaller objectives can be introduced and should be resolved by the end of the scene.

Jump into it!

A good imagination and a lot of enthusiasm are important when performing improvisation. It’s about knowing who you are, and what you want as a character while going with the flow of the scene. Even if a performance partner takes the scene in a direction you’re not crazy about, it’s important to play along and not “block” their actions or intentions. Improvising means being ready for everything and saying “no” to nothing. That also means integrating your own ideas and elements in what has already been set up for the scene. It’s great to bring something new, but not at the expense of what has already been established.

Take the technique with you

Improvisation can be a terrific tool out in the real world too. Learning improvisation also teaches you how to compromise with others, as well as improving your communication skills. On stage, there’s no debate about what should happen in the scene — you just have to follow your partner and roll with what has been set in motion. A similar approach can be beneficial for many aspects of life beyond the stage.

Rule No. 1 - always say yes!

There is a primary rule for improvised acting: Always say yes. Always agree with your partner’s choices. Never go against any idea that has been made a part of the scene, even if it doesn’t seem strong. It’s about saying "yes, and…”, then building on what others in the scene are building. If your partner says that they are your sister: there can be no disagreement, THEY ARE YOUR SISTER. Contradicting your fellow performers’ choices will bring the scene to a screeching halt. Instead, you go with “yes, and…” making a choice for your character as your partner’s sister. It’s about letting everyone bring elements to the scene, but in the context of what everyone has already brought to the scene.

But simply answering “okay” to everything tossed your way without contributing something back will also stop a scene cold. Improvisation takes teamwork and helping your fellow actors out. Make sure you build on the story and give your acting partners something to work with.

Rule # 2 - Be Positive!

Conflict can be an important element in building a scene or story, but avoid bringing negativity with it. If your character enters a scene by insulting another character, it’s likely the scene will turn into an argument — which doesn’t leave a lot of space for character growth or interesting choices. It’s usually far more interesting to begin a scene with positivity, but with the seeds of conflict simmering beneath the surface. Watching characters going through different emotional stages in response to conflict or resolution is not only very entertaining for an audience; it’s also extremely relatable.

Begin with positivity and you open up many more opportunities for the scene and your character’s journey.

An example of improvised acting from the real world

After 10 seasons, most people have seen Larry David be wonderfully awkward in his show “Curb Your Enthusiasm”. But what many viewers might not know is that the show is shot without a script. Actors are only given their character’s motivation before a scene; not dialogue or any indication where the scene is going. The characters use their skills as actors and the improvisation techniques of listening and building on what has been established to draw out conflict and resolution (or sometimes no resolution) that is fun to watch and tells a story that unfolds as it happens.