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What Is Improvisation?
Improvisation is any unscripted dramatic performance generated spontaneously by the actors performing. Improvisation (or improv) has existed since the beginning of theatre but became a mainstay of European theatrical forms such as Commedia Dell’arte. Commedia Dell’arte is a type of comedic performance in which masked performers take on predetermined characters and scenarios and then improvise dialogue and action within.
In the modern era, improv comedy has developed into its own art form performed at dedicated improv theaters. Many successful film and stand-up comedy performers have an improv background and incorporate elements of improv into their performances. There are a few fundamental rules of improv, most notably the concept of “yes, and,” which is the hallmark of how a good improviser should respond to an offer from their scene partner. Instead of saying no and denying their choice, a good improviser will always accept what their scene partner has established and build on it.
Types Of Improvisation
- Harold: One of the key foundational structures of improv is known as the ‘Harold.’ Harold is a long-form improv structure where scenes and beats are formed by actors improvising based on audience suggestions. Throughout the Harold, improv actors build a multi-scene ‘piece’ based around a predetermined progression of various games and monologues.
- Musical improv: Musical improv involves taking the normal rules and structure of an improv show and builds in a musical component. Musical improv groups generally have an accompanist who scores their scenes and improvises songs alongside the improv actors.
- Dramatic improv: Dramatic improv follows most of the same rules as comedic longform with the only difference being tone. Dramatic improv groups strive for authenticity and emotional stakes in their work and tend to deal with heavier subject matter than their comedic counterparts. Dramatic improv scene work is much more grounded than comedic improv and usually explores everyday life and relationships.
- Short-form improv: Short-form improv is a style based around improv games. Short-form games are often used as warm-ups in acting classes or even ice breakers for non performing arts groups. Short form is also performed in front of audiences at theatres and the television show Whose Line is it Anyway? is based around this form of improv.
How to Use Improvisation in Other Performing Arts
Many trained improvisers take their improv skills and apply them to other types of performances. There is a huge overlap in the comedy world of performers who do improv, sketch comedy and stand-up comedy. Additionally, improv helps actors with their auditioning and acting skills as well as giving them the tools to use on set when filming for movies or TV shows. Many directors will ask actors to improvise on set with their fellow actors. Improv helps actors with active listening and can improve their scene work and make a performer a more well-rounded scene partner.
Natalie Portman’s Improvisation Tips
Award-winning actor Natalie Portman often incorporates improv into her acting. In Natalie’s MasterClass, she lays out a step-by-step guide to using improv (in addition to other acting techniques) to improve your scene work and acting abilities.
- Read about improv. Familiarize yourself with the fundamentals of improvisation in comedy. Start with the book Truth in Comedy: The Manual of Improvisation by Charna Halpern, Del Close, and Kim “Howard” Johnson. It’s required reading for any actors entering into an improv-training program, such as Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB). It will give you a basic understanding of improvisation as a stand-alone art form, including a more in-depth explanation of the “yes, and...” rule. The most relevant chapters to focus on are chapters one through four. As you read through, write in your notebook what improvisational tips you think you can apply to your acting work.
- Explore your character. Think about what your character might be doing in the given circumstances of the scene that isn’t necessarily written. How might they move around the space or interact with other people in the scene? The more fun and playfulness you can bring to your improvisation, the more you might discover about your character.
- Take stock of your environment. As you look around, think about how your character relates to the space and how they would use the given props. The production design in a scene can enhance your improvisation. If you have an idea for a prop or wardrobe addition that’s helpful to your storytelling but is not written in the script, ask to see if it’s possible to obtain.
- Listen. Active listening is an important part of improv, because you have no idea what’s coming. You need to stay alert in order to react accordingly in character. This is where some of your character research and analysis can come into play.
- Remember “yes, and…” Ultimately, you’re building a scene, and one of the best ways to do that is to remember the phrase “yes, and...” This means that you’re always accepting your fellow actors’ ideas and then adding to them in order to further the scene.
- Discuss boundaries. As you think about these things, it’s also important to discuss boundaries with your costars. Everyone should feel physically and emotionally safe, so as ideas come to you, check in with your scene partners.
- Check-in with the camera operator. As you move around the space, you’ll want to know what’s in frame, where the well-lit areas are, if any spaces are off limits, and how close you can get to the camera. If you’re going to do anything that requires the camera to move quickly, let the camera operator know. In general, remember that communication is key to having a fun and productive improvisation!
- Rehearse. Using the scene you’ve been working on, try some improvisation. Have a partner come over and work with you. You can choose to improvise up until the beginning of the scene, or you can start at the top of the scene and improvise after it ends—whatever makes the most sense for your material. If it’s helpful, set a timer for three minutes for the improvisation part. Keep your given circumstances in mind, but remember to play and have fun. Don’t get too caught up in whether or not it’s right for the scene. Also, keep in mind the rule of “yes, and...” to avoid getting stuck. Saying “no” in improv is generally a scene killer!
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