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Caught Off Guard By the Unexpected? Improvise!

Assess. Pivot. Proceed. And Have Fun.

As an actor, you always have to be prepared to throw away … well, your preparation. And just go with the flow.

I love it! While I’m a very organized person with to-do lists out the wazoo, I’ve always enjoyed a degree of spontaneity. I like the idea of something new popping into my world to stir up the old routine. Even back in my days in the business world, I looked forward to unforeseen challenges. And I had the right job for it. As a sales exec, you could be sure to always expect the unexpected. Clients, prospects, and leads – not to mention the brass in my company – could throw a “must have,” “need now,” or “extremely urgent” request on my desk and I had to stop whatever I was doing and resolve it. Especially if there was a problem involved. You learned very quickly that if you didn’t adapt to these changing situations and take charge of them, you were going to have a tough time succeeding in the job. But I thrived in that environment; I was certainly never bored.

A lot of people don’t like that uncertainty in their work or their lives. I understand that – there’s much to be said for routine and the satisfaction of getting things done according to schedule. I like that, too … as long as the routine doesn’t segue into monotony. But I find it rather exciting not quite knowing what each day will bring. What’s in my morning email? Perhaps a new audition? Or – dare I hope – a booking? Anything can happen and it often does, including having a well-planned day’s schedule being unceremoniously booted into the next week. Life as an actor is a study in uncertainty. Unless you’re at or near the upper echelons of the business, you have to be quite flexible and responsive to the demands of those in charge. The decisions of casting directors, directors, and producers dictate what you can work on and in what capacity, as well as when and where.

So how do you learn to handle things when your plans are suddenly upended? When a monkey wrench is thrown into the work you’ve done up to that point, forcing you to throw out hours of preparation in exchange for a few minutes of reworking your approach?

I see it as a three step process:

  1. Assess

  2. Pivot

  3. Proceed

It’s up to you to take in the changes, figure out how to go in a new direction, and then quickly move forward. Fortunately, this process can be learned and practiced in a very fun way.

Did you know that there’s a whole genre within the acting world devoted to responding quickly to change? It’s called improvisation, or improv for short, and it’s an invaluable skill for any actor to acquire.

You don’t need to be part of an improv troupe to participate (though you’ll have a great time if you do!). You just have to be ready to handle sudden changes that are thrown at you from any direction. Sounds scary, but it’s sort of like the game of hot potato you played as a kid. You learn to think on your feet and react quickly as you catch, receive, and throw ideas and actions off to someone else as soon as you receive them. Reaction is everything and it’s often hilarious.

Honestly, an improv class is something that each of us could benefit from, whether or not we’re performers. I’ve never met anyone whose entire life has gone according to plan without some kind of unexpected interruption. It helps to have another tool in your set of handy experiences that teaches you how to handle unexpected events.

Here’s an example of how improv training helped me recently. I was on the set of a music video the other day. The script was sent well in advance and I saw that my character began and ended the action in the video and had the only scripted lines. Sweet! As with any other acting job, I dived into the script to get a better idea of the storyline and my role within it. I took what the writer had created and constructed an entire background for my character, fleshing out her life story and imagining how she’d react to those around her. And, of course, I learned my lines well.

Once on set, however, I was told not to worry about my lines. They were to be only a guidepost and that I should just feel free to improvise as needed. Rather than panicking, I thought: terrific! I was just offered creative freedom and the ability to take my character down any number of possible roads. Depending on what the other characters in the scene did, my reactions would be natural responses to whatever was going to happen and the words would just flow. I knew the essentials of what my character had to say, but I wasn’t constrained by a strict recitation of planned words. That freedom added to the “realness” of the story and let my character be the grounding force in the midst of all the zaniness surrounding the other characters.

I was told that the ending had changed, too. Fine! I was happy to chuck the scripted version and play along with the director’s vision of how the new scene would play out. As it turned out, the result was much funnier than originally written.

Line and scene changes are not at all uncommon on many sets, and actors are expected to incorporate them pretty quickly with minimal preparation. Improv training helps one easily let go of one direction and embrace another. My actions and lines in that last scene ended up being totally improvised with just minimal suggestions from the director. Then, to add a little more spice to the finished product, I had a little impromptu ADR session directly afterwards. We recorded a bunch of improvised phrases and laughs that came right off the top of my head as I replayed that final scene in my mind. Later, post-production would choose which of those they wanted to insert into the final video.

I’ve always enjoyed thinking on my feet, but those improv classes I’d had over the years really taught me that there’s no “right” way to do things. Either something works or it doesn’t. And what does work is a very subjective decision that we can’t always predict, so it’s best to just “throw it out there.” Just listen to what the other people are saying and doing and react honestly in turn. You don’t need to be funny, just authentically “real.”

This doesn’t mean you don’t need to fully prepare for a role! Most jobs will expect you to follow the script with perhaps only a few adjustments. Even when you’re being encouraged to improvise, you have to know what’s going on in the story and your character’s purpose as part of it. You still need to do your basic script analysis: the who, what, when, where, and why of any scene.

Once on set, though, the actor has to be prepared to throw off all thought of their preliminary work and just meld into their character’s essence. Improv does all that for you. It trains you to free yourself from rigid preparation and to instead focus on the other people in the scene. Yes, the words and motivations are all there, we know what our character wants, but we’re not mentally inhibited by our preparation. The audience doesn’t want to see actors who seem to be disconnected from what’s going on in the scene. They want to believe that what’s taking place on the screen or stage is real and get lost in the story being told. Unless it’s Shakespeare, they probably won’t know or care if a line here and there is different from what’s written. Audiences want to see emotional and physical responses, because those are what trigger visceral reactions to the story in ourselves.

Some of the best, award-winning scenes come from “mistakes” or improvised lines and reactions. When scene partners throw you a curve ball, which cause you to react in an unexpected or unrehearsed way, magic can happen. Sometimes it’s an improvement on the original material; that’s why comedians are popular choices if their acting is up to snuff. Remember Robin Williams? Pure genius! He improvised most of his lines in the animated version of “Aladdin.” The producers knew he was comic gold and that anything he said was going to be funnier than just about anything the writers could dream up. They were right. The animators were quite busy just keeping up with his flow of consciousness. His performance as the genie felt real. Authentic. And, of course, hilarious and immensely entertaining.

So go ahead and sign up for an improv class. It may seem scary, especially if you’re not an actor or someone who can think on their feet. But it’s terrific training in learning how to deal with the unexpected in life, and often with a dose of good-natured humor. And that’s something we can all benefit from. And guess what? You’ll feel like a little kid again. You’re given permission to just be you and simply react to what’s going on around you. No right or wrong responses. Nothing is dumb. There will be plenty of funny moments, enjoyed by everyone in a nice non-judgmental way. (Isn’t that great for a change?!) And you’ll probably make some new friends.

Besides, it’s really fun.


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