Welcome to Monday morning. You've been given a scene to study over the weekend for an audition this afternoon and for whatever reason you just aren't prepared. You barely glanced at your lines, you hardly thought about the character, and you have a minimal amount of time to prepare. All you know is that the scene is about a 16-year-old son pleading with his father to buy him a car. You've reluctantly come to terms with the fact that your best option is to "wing it." Feeling nervous? Improv is the greatest hidden weapon and support for actors of any level and there are exercises that you can do alone or with a group to develop and fine tune your ability to "wing it."
The greatest improvisers are also great actors, but it's not always true the other way around. A few of the basic scenic skills that improv teaches you are developing a character, relating to your scene partner(s), and staying invested in the truth of the scene. The only mistake you can make is to decide not to do any of those basics. Sure, actors are given lines, and in an ideal world, the scenes go exactly as they were written, but do we live in an ideal world? I trust you answered "no" or you'll have to tell me your secret. Let's get back to the scene you were supposed to prepare for your audition. Developing your character isn't a stretch, you're a teenager surrounded by peers with cars of their own and you're not bratty; you just feel left out. Relating to your scene partner should be there as well. You will either find the answer in your initial character description or you should simply decide how your relationship is with your father. The last skill can often be tricky because our minds are extremely creative and can think of wild stories and "funny" lines to spout off. Think of real and honest reasons for wanting a car at that age. Staying invested in the truth of the scene will allow a natural, genuine feel to shine through. These skills are not meant to be a crutch and are there as extra concrete for unexpected potholes in the road ahead.
As human beings, our brains are already working a mile a minute, but these processes are not always productive when we are thrown off the predicted course. There are exercises and games you can play by yourself, or with a group of people, to sharpen your mind for navigating unforeseen detours. One exercise you can practice alone to better focus your brain I like to call "Apple Red Fire Truck." This free-association routine has nothing to do with rescuing cats from trees, but keeps our mind in the moment and away from anticipation. When we are in a scene, our brains are dealing with the actor, the character, the lines, the reactions, and so forth. We need to stay in the moment as much as possible, and running a quick and simple free-association of randomly-connected words will return your brain to a primed and alert state.
Another exercise you can practice before rehearsals or auditions is what I call "Channel Flipping." This refers to changing the channel after hearing a few sentences from a particular show, only to flip the channel again, hearing another few sentences from a different show. Practicing Channel Flipping of your own involves improvising brief character monologues to get your mind in a creative and free mode. If done correctly, it should sound like short audio clips from a few different characters. The content of each monologue is irrelevant as long as the characters come across different. It might feel unrelated to your driving-bound teenage character, but these exercises will help increase your brain's alertness. Next, you will learn some group warm-ups for improvisation.
When you have a group of more than two people, there are plenty of games and exercises to boost energy or build focus before performing. One energy boosting warm-up is called "Hot Spot." This game is great for getting you vocally and physically energized. To play, everyone in the group forms a circle. One person jumps in the center (the "Hot Spot"), dances and starts singing a song. Everyone in the circle does one of the following two actions: either you know the song and immediately sing and dance along, or you don't know the song and clap, hum and dance along to support the person on the hot spot. Within a few lines of that song, someone in the circle should be inspired by anything at all to sing another song. That person, who could be anyone in the circle, runs to take over the hot spot by singing a brand new song. Everyone in the circle now embraces the new song. Follow this for about 3-5 minutes (or longer if you find it as fun as I do), and If you aren't winded by the end, then you did not play hard enough.
"Go!" is a great focus building exercise. For this, the group forms a tight circle, making sure each person has a designated "space" to stand. One person (A) starts by pointing at another person (B) standing in any other space in the circle. B will say "Go!" giving person A permission to walk over and take B's spot. After saying go, person B must now point to a new player and wait for permission to cross the circle, all before person A arrives. Eye contact and constant awareness are very important to communicate properly. Eventually, you may not even need to point, speak, or even nod to communicate permission. Go! is great for getting your brain out of its normal routine and ready to move at any time, in any direction. The best part about these exercises is that you can practice them at home, during your summer courses with your fellow campers, or even in drama class!
Now you've prepared your utility belt with improvisational skills to jumpstart your brain and prepare your abilities as an actor to succeed in situations where rehearsal may or may not be available. Also, while some actors encounter less nervousness than others, it is my belief that the nervousness an actor (or any artist for that matter) feels regarding a performance is an indication of how much they care. Don't be ashamed of butterflies in your stomach! Improv is there to cause you more comfort than grief when you have to "wing it."
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