While teaching class recently, an actor asked me point blank, “why do I need improv?” First, let me share some misconceptions about improv:
• Improv has to be funny
• Improv is about playing games
• Improv is like stand-up comedy
• Improv is separate from acting
I could detail whey they’re misconceptions, but for the sake of brevity, just know that the above statements are FALSE. Now, let’s move on to some of the benefits of improv training:
1) The most obvious reason: you have to do improv in an audition. So often commercial auditions involve some amount of improv. Also, it’s very common to be on a TV or Film set and be asked to improvise a scene, or the director might say “just add a little something extra”. No improv training? Well, you might clam up, or make very safe choices that don’t add anything, and certainly don’t make you stand out amongst other actors.
2) Improv training teaches you how to be present in the moment. The vast majority of actors do not understand how to be “present”. They sit at home rehearsing and rehearsing, trying to lock into place their perfect performance. Then they try so desperately to recreate that performance in the audition room. That’s not acting. That’s re-enacting. When auditioning or on set, you need to be ready to embrace the environment, and welcome new stimuli that will help to shape your performance in the moment, keeping it spontaneous, or even…improvised? If you fight what’s happening in the moment, you’re completely trapped in your head, and at best you will look like a good actor delivering a good performance, as opposed to a real character living and breathing on film. Sounds like Meisner, right? (and if you don’t know Meisner, you should) I’m NOT suggesting you ad lib dialogue in a scripted audition. In general, that’s not a good idea. I’m merely suggesting that the emotional content, the reactions, the physicality, etc, be improvised.
3) Without improv training, it’s a fair assumption that you have a pretty narrow emotional comfort zone. That is, you default to a select few emotions when working on a script, and most of your reads are very similar to each other. This is not catastrophic if you’re going out for the same roles on a weekly basis. But as we know, in this industry you’re going to be thrown curveballs periodically, and if you try to default to your same comfort zone, you won’t impress anyone. Improv forces you to be creative, and to stretch that emotional comfort zone. In a single improv class you have the chance to experience more emotions than in a whole year of auditions. Working that emotional muscle every week will have a huge impact on not only your range of emotions, but also your ability to react truthfully in the moment to what’s happening in the scene.
I could go on, but I’m afraid I’ve exceeded the attention span of the average person. The moral of the story is that if you have no improv training on your resume, you have not reached your full potential as an actor. And you can’t get a “quick fix” by taking a single workshop, or even a 6-week class. Improv will take months and months of training before you truly awaken your hidden potential. I personally learned from Brian Chapman at the Professional Actor’s Studio. Don’t take my word for it, though. Audit classes at as many places as possible. Wherever you decide to train, make sure the emphasis of the class is on good acting and good scenework. Beware of the teacher who is only concerned with being funny, or playing lots of improv games (unless your goal is to join an improv troupe and perform onstage). Improv is an art form, and you need to find a teacher who understands that before you can truly benefit from it.