Sooner or later, you may find yourself in a rehearsal where the director instructs you and your cast mates to improvise a scene. Often, it will be a scene or conversation that could have taken place prior to a given scene.
You may think one or more thoughts to yourself: “I’m not good at improvising!” “I don’t know what to say!” “I don’t know my character well enough yet!” “What’s the point, since this isn’t in the play anyway?” Let’s address those concerns right now, so that if the opportunity arises, you will be ready.
First, what’s the point of such an exercise? There are two main goals—which interestingly resemble a high school course load—History and Chemistry.
- History – Get actors on the same page of a shared backstory. Many actors will consider (or even write) a backstory for their character. If it involves other characters, it benefits everyone if they are involved in its creation. Ideally, this event is one that is fundamental to the conflict of the play.
- Chemistry – Develop relationships between characters who knew each other prior to the scene. Creating shared memories as actors will translate to chemistry on stage.
Another way to put it is this: The characters have relationships with each other. Improvisation explores the facts (history) and the feelings (chemistry) of those relationships.
Improvisation explores the facts (history) and the feelings (chemistry) of those relationships.
So now, concerning the “What do I say?” series of thoughts, check out these six simple tips and truths:
Focus on relationships.
This is my biggest advice for gleaning maximum value from this exercise. What does your character think about the other people in the scene? Do the other characters’ words and actions make you feel closer to or further from them?
Don’t dominate the conversation.
You may be very comfortable improvising, or you may be rambling due to nervousness. Either way, sometimes the best improvisation is to simply listen. The exception is, of course, if your character would dominate a conversation. In that case, take over! But for the sake of the exercise, allow your cast mates freedom to contribute and explore as well.
Make connections with the script.
Think of what you know from the script. What is important to your character? What events will take place? How do characters interact with each other? Then, find opportunities to reference or hint at these facts.
Ground yourself in your overall objective.
Your overall objective from your script should still be true in this scene. Remember, your overall objective is the basic, human need that matters most to your character. If you don’t know what to say, do, or think in your improvised scene, fall back onto your overall objective.
This is a scene. As such, there should be a scene objective. What does your character want to accomplish in this interaction? You personally know how to try to get what you want. This improvised scene provides you greater flexibility than the scripted dialogue to say and do what you want to get what you want.
There is no pressure to “perform.”
Consequently, don’t try to be funny. And don’t try to “do it right.” The director knows you didn’t sign up to do an improv show. He or she is simply providing a context for you to discover more about your character. You don’t need to be an experienced improvisor to reap the benefits of this rehearsal exercise. Remember, the director isn’t giving you a test. It’s a gift. Kickstart your exploration of your character, and even trigger some great connections in the minds of your cast mates. The chemistry of the group will be better for it.
If you’re feeling even more ambitious, ask your director if ten minutes or so in a rehearsal could be given to an improvised scene. Share this article if you’d like. Report back here; I’d love to hear how it went!