Interested in learning more about improv? Get started with these improv acting tips from Brooklyn, NY teacher Liz T...
Improv acting is believed to be one of the most fun types of acting, and although it may not look hard, it is also one of the most difficult forms of acting! It requires constantly being on your toes, because you never know what will happen next in your scene. Many of the actors that have performed on popular shows like Saturday Night Live have studied the craft for many years, performing with improv troupes across the country, such as The Second City and The Groundlings. Here are my top improv acting tips for helping you improve your skills.
1. Join an Improv Acting Class
In addition to working with an acting coach, I highly suggest taking part in a class that focuses on improv acting. Here you will learn how to get comfortable with this particular form of acting. There are many great schools devoted to this style, including the Improv Asylum in Boston, Peoples Improv Theater in NYC, and Chicago City Limits. Many of these schools have levels ranging from 1-5, grouping you with other actors at your same level and experience. Improv classes will focus on theater games, scenarios, and the do’s and don’ts of performing improv live.
2. Study Characters and Relationships
Many improv actors have been successful because they create characters of their own, or impersonate others (examples: Tina Fey as Sarah Palin, and Will Ferrell as George W. Bush). While I don’t recommend finding a celebrity and just copying their personality, if you can really explore their mannerisms and voice and have it down pat, and if you happen to resemble what they look like, then you may have a good act to perform. I encourage young actors to find funny characters they could play, whether it’s an old grandmother, a naughty teenage boy, or a sweet little girl. Also, consider roles in the community that may not seem fun, but think of how you could make them comedic — nun, bank teller, school teacher, Girl Scout, babysitter, firefighter, chef, doctor, nurse, etc.
It’s also important to think about the relationships your character has, since most often you will be working in a group setting. You and your partners will have to think about how you are related or connected to each other in the scene to keep it going. For example, are you friends, lovers, long-lost relatives, or a client/patient? Think about how you can create your special character and bring him or her to life!
3. Know Your Current Events and Scenes
Now that you have your characters and relationships down, think of a setting where your scene takes place. Maybe it’s at a restaurant, doctor’s office, school, bathroom, zoo, or graveyard. While you can’t exactly plan out how the scene is going to go from start to finish in your head, nor do you want to tell the audience right off the bat, it’s good to place yourself in a setting, to get in the right frame of mind. I think it’s also funny to have your characters in settings they normally wouldn’t go — for example, a nun in a casino, or a man in the women’s restroom.
For the more advanced improv actor, you can add props, or simply imagine props (pretending you have a grocery cart, playing catch with an imaginary ball, etc.). I also suggest brushing up on current events and history. Your partner may refer to something happening in the news, or set a scene that’s taking place during the Civil War, and you don’t want to look uneducated in front of the audience!
4. Find Jobs To Use Your Improv Skills
It may be hard to make money when first starting out your improv career, so I suggest finding jobs where you can earn a steady paycheck and still use those great acting skills! Some ideas include:
- Teaching students, whether it’s music, acting, a foreign language, art, science, or something else. Teaching young kids, especially, prepares you to think quick on your feet!
- Working at a theme park. Interacting with the guests as a host, at a haunted house, or Christmas amusement park lets you put those good acting skills to use.
- Sales positions. Believe it or not, even if you are working retail, or sales over the phone, learning how to interact with your customers and pitch a product is all part of acting and improvising.
5. Go With The Flow
Often in improv, your partner will be the one that starts the scene, and you will just have to go along with the flow. Even if you are not crazy about your partner’s character, scene, or acting choices, you don’t want to show this on stage. Go along with the scene, and add your own special skills, but don’t try to change the scene, as this will throw the audience off. One of the first rules of thumb in improv is “Yes and….” meaning you should always agree with what your partner says and add to it. Even if the scene is taking a weird turn, just relax, have fun, stay in the present, and go with the flow!
6. Use Your Imagination
Don’t be afraid to really let loose and let your imagination run wild! Go out of your comfort zone, and work on those characters and scenes you normally wouldn’t see. Also, spend some time writing, listening to music, or watching TV/movies for creative inspiration!
7. Keep Teamwork in Mind
Improv is all about teamwork! It’s not standup comedy; it’s all about collaborating and feeding off of each other. If you are not up for being a team player, than perhaps improv is not for you. In improv you really have to learn how to trust and depend on your fellow actors. The more you connect with each other, the better this will look on stage as well!
8. Make Mistakes
It’s okay to make mistakes in improv — just don’t make the same mistake twice. Improv is all about discovering what works and doesn’t work with your group, so don’t be afraid to give it your all and try new things! You’ll never know if a skit or character works until you try it on stage in front of a live audience. Also remember the audience may have different reactions to things. They could be a tough audience not laughing at any of your lines, or be hysterically laughing at everything! Just do your best, and you will learn from your mistakes.
Follow these improv acting tips and you will be well on your way to being a successful actor!
Liz T. teaches singing, acting, and music lessons in Brooklyn, NY, as well as online. She is a graduate of the Berklee College of Music with a B.M. in Vocal Performance and currently performs and teaches all styles of music, including musical theater, classical, jazz, rock, pop, R&B, and country. Learn more about Liz here!
Photo by Aimee Custis Photography