“A” is for “Acting”

“Improvisers don’t want to act in their scenes anymore. Instead, they want to talk their way through them. Acting your way through a scene is becoming all but obsolete, and that troubles us. Being clever has become a substitute for acting.”

Jimmy Carrane and Liz Allen, Improvising Better. A Guide for the Working Improviser. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2006. p.35


I work on both sides of the scripted/unscripted “divide” (and often in the middle!) and it is abundantly clear that there is a wonderful reciprocity between the skill sets of these two closely related art forms. Performers more versed in the norms of text-based theatre can benefit greatly from learning how to embrace the unknown, developing a higher tolerance for process and “failure,” honing and learning to trust their instincts, elevating and celebrating the import of the ensemble, as well as just experiencing the raw joy of unmediated collective creativity. These lessons, and many more, are readily available on the improv stage. Just as many artists in the scripted tradition may have little or no formal improvisational training, it is also true that many improvisers find themselves on the spontaneous stage without having ever studied Acting. Yes, one can argue that improv and acting on some levels almost seem synonymous, but in reality, while improvisation does so much to free the inner player and voice, it does not always fully exploit the riches of a scripted tradition that benefits from a similarly long history.

As is the case with many of these entries, I am painting with some broad strokes here, identifying some general trends that I’ve observed in the various improvisational communities in which I’ve taught, performed and devised. The following thoughts are obviously generalizations with exceptions, but they also reveal some habits from the scripted realm that could further deepen and enrich our improvisational craft if they are not already doing so. It is also important to note that merely saying “take some acting classes” is simply said but does not recognize that such training may not be easily available or that there may be significant financial or societal barriers preventing access to this toolkit.

Scripted Theatre Techniques Worthy of Emulation

I offer here four performer tendencies often found amongst scripted theatre practitioners that are not always equally present in the world of improv.

1.) Stagecraft. An inescapable reality of performance is that it can take a while to find your comfort on the stage. While improv training deals a lot with collaboration, content, and creativity, it does not always adequately or deeply address the nuts and bolts of good performance etiquette. Am I currently standing in an open position in a way that I can be seen by my audience? Is my staging choice dynamic and throwing focus to the current character who is most important? Can I maintain the nuance of my vocal choice while making sure I am still heard at the back of the auditorium? Am I using my whole body to clearly express my character’s energy and subtext? Scripted actors are at a distinct advantage in that they get multiple chances in rehearsals to address these issues in any given scene while their improvisational counterparts may never face the same exact scenic parameters more than once. Honing these instincts through repetition, however, is invaluable, and as an improv director it is usually a simple feat to determine who has found this innate comfort with the mechanics of stagecraft, and who is still figuring out the rudiments in a way that might be undermining otherwise exciting work.

2.) Vulnerability. There are so many different types of actors who value and excel at different facets of the craft, but many actors trained in the scripted tradition have found increased comfort with bringing their emotions to their work. Scripts often demand deep character research and contextualization, as actors seek to find themselves in their roles in order to forge emotionally rich connections. Ideally, this process also inclines scripted performers to nurture empathy and a sense of integrity in their work. Improvisational practitioners can rarely benefit from this particular process as, with few exceptions, there is not time to engage in character-specific research for personae that are literally created in the moment of performance. As Carrane and Allen note in the quote above, improvisers can also tend to over-value wit or word play, often as a substitute for more grounded or revealing character work. In order to craft spontaneous characters that resonate deeply, it is important to harness the scripted tools of vulnerability, appropriate emotionalism and connection.

3.) Training. If you are fortunate enough to have studied theatre in a formal or academic setting you were likely exposed to a wide array of training opportunities. If you viewed singing as an important string in your bow, you probably sought out voice lessons. If you were a little clumsy on your feet, you hopefully enrolled in a movement or dance class. If your training was in a university setting, you were also likely to be exposed to some theatre history, performance theory, and perhaps some of the design or technical aspects of theatre production. (I’m a big advocate of the liberal arts ethos of taking classes in a wider array of topics and disciplines as they give artists a broader and richer understanding of our world as a whole.) Such a comprehensive level of training is less common amongst improvisers if they did not also happen to pursue more traditional theatre studies. This may be partially symptomatic of the rarity of explicitly comprehensive improv training programs that consciously reach into important sister disciplines. I’m not sure that I know of an all-inclusive improv theatre history course being taught anywhere in the United States, for example: it’s generally lucky to get some scant commedia dell’arte coverage in a broader survey class. I think there can almost be an assumption that improv isn’t or won’t become your full-time gig which further dissuades this level of pursuit. But I can’t help but wonder how the field of improv might further flourish if our ranks had more opportunities to train across a broad array of topics and techniques.

4.) Discipline. My observations under this heading are likely informed by very particular experiences and trends in my own improv circles, and there are obviously improv companies that follow “professional” models and best practices. For good or evil, a lot of improv is synonymous with “amateur” or “community” with many companies actively and rightly claiming such monikers with pride. Ensembles may include membership from a wide variety of day-jobs or sources, and this is in many ways a true strength of our art. The scripted realm is typically much less fluid in terms of rehearsal and participation expectations, especially if you are working in a union or professional house. Whether it’s punctuality and preparation expectations, engaging in show-specific research, or simply writing down any directorial notes or feedback for future reference, there are scripted best practices that could benefit our improvisational processes and rehearsals. There is always an underlying tension in that there is frequently an assumption that our improv should always be fun and discipline or organization can unfairly be viewed as an antonym to fun. Improvisers can also become “spoiled” by the immediacy of audience feedback in performance which can make workshopping without this incredible energy much less appealing. Scripted performers, on the other hand, are used to the quiet tyranny of silence in the auditorium during rehearsals.

Final Thought

There is much the improvisational world can steal from its scripted kin (and vice versa.) As improv continues to grow and evolve, we can continue to look at the scripted tradition for helpful tools and techniques, and players that borrow indiscriminately from both performance practices often position themselves favorably for both joy and success. It is not uncommon for improvisers to hit plateaus in their work. Frequently, a helpful strategy can consist of crossing the divide and exploring scripted training which invariably offers insights and skills that simultaneously enable and unlock new acting heights on the improv stage too.

Related Entries: Commandment #9 Antonyms: Cartooning, Cleverness, Commenting Synonyms: Emotional Truth, Vulnerability

Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2020 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Game: Scene Ending in I Love You

Published by improvdr

A professional improvisational practitioner with over thirty years experience devising, directing, performing, teaching and consulting on the craft of spontaneous (and scripted) theatre and performance.

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