By Katie Northlich – Actor, Writer, Acting Coach, NYCastings Improv Coach
I stand there in the small, airless audition room, just having slated my name and agency, waiting. The Director and Casting Director are talking quietly, shuffling papers amongst themselves. A small camera is perched on a tripod and is aimed at me. It’s funny. One of the biggest auditions I have had, and it’s one of the smallest cameras I’ve seen.
The Director glances at my resume again and then looks over at me.
“Okay Katie. I think we’re just gonna improvise a bit. Cool?”
“Okay…. let’s see. Can you just improvise a day in the life of her? The character, I mean?”
“Just, like, what a morning would look like for her or something,” he clarifies. “Stay in the tight frame, but just improvise her in her kitchen, having her coffee, getting ready to leave for the day, etc. Cool?”
“Sure. Um- do you want dialogue?”
“Yeah, why not. Maybe. Throw it in but not too much. Cool?”
I nod my head. It was cool. The vague direction I was given, the scene I am completely creating on my own, the fact that there is not one particular thing the Director mentioned he is actually looking for: all of these are cool, for one reason only.
I have trained in Improvisation.
I have known many an actor- many a great actor- who has been scared to death of Improv. I once needed someone to sub an Improv class for me, and I asked a friend- an actor who had been on Broadway- to do it.
“No way,” he said, fear in his eyes. “I would have no idea what to do.”
Here was an actor that I so thoroughly admired, and he was scared of the idea of no rules. Of being in a class where freedom is the thing. Of letting the present moment be discovered, as opposed to known.
I understand, of course. It is actually a cosmic joke that I teach Improv. For I am as scared of the present moment as the next guy. Nobody likes not knowing what to do or where to go or what to say. That’s why actors like getting the script in their hand. It gives them a barometer of what to do.
The thing is, in 2015, actors can’t move very far without eventually running into the need for Improv.
“Let’s do another take and this time, make the ending yours.”
“Feel free to play with it this time.”
“Have some fun after the final beat. We’ll just let the camera roll for a minute.”
All of these are basically taken to mean: YOU keep creating the script. Cool?
It is not laziness on the part of the production team. It is the evolution of show business. Actors need Improv, as much as they need a headshot, resume, and tenacity that won’t quit.
So why is this?
Because Improv is the art of play. The art of freedom. The art of creation in the moment. And actors are not just puppets, they are contributors to the creative medium. We see this in comedy, of course- but it is everywhere. Behavioral improvs. Dramatic improvs. Solo improvs. All are the idea of an actor playing off of the most wonderful scene partner they will ever have: the present moment.
The ability to create something out of nothing in front of an audience is a skill that makes an actor go from good to great, from interesting to magical.
It is the ability we all tapped into long ago, as children.
To make stuff up.
To slay the dragon in our imagination.
And so of course, when coming back to that kind of work as adults, many people, even classically trained actors like my Broadway friend, are scared of this. Because we have been so socialized by rules- even ‘acting’ rules- that we struggle in the face of point blank creation. Of no rules. But, the overriding rule in creativity is: there are no rules. And this can be terrifying.
But here’s the great news. Every day, we improvise. Every day, we ‘create’ our lunch. And our conversations with people. And our night at the bar. We ‘create’ every moment, of every day, yet we hardly remember that this is what we are doing.
We have so much more untapped freedom at our fingertips than we realize.
Every actor, whether you are in your first month of training in this craft, or you are a seasoned professional, should take Improvisation at some point in their career. You will face fears, swallow pride, and learn that the present moment holds infinite creative possibilities.
And that is quite powerful, if you think about it.
Oh… that audition where I had to improvise ‘a day in the life’ of the character, by the way? Where I had to literally make it up?
I booked it.