Like any skill, acting benefits from natural talent, but that can only get you so far. Countless hours of patience, practice, and a good amount of confidence are required to take your acting level into another stratosphere, and one of the major steps involves partaking in improv acting. But what is improv acting and how do you do improv acting?
Also known as improvisational theater, improv acting refers to an unscripted performance in which the actors spontaneously perform scenes on stage before an audience. With this style of acting, you will learn how to think on your feet, feed off other actors, act in a variety of situations–comical and not–and become self-assured in your abilities. It requires constantly being on your toes because you never know what will happen next in your scene. It’s all about spontaneity and rolling with whatever comes your way.
Are you ready to take your acting skills to the next level and get familiar with this style of acting? If so, allow us to help! We’ve listed our top 10 improv acting tips that will help you take your stage presence to new heights. Follow these improv acting tips and you’ll be ready for the Big Time in no time.
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 dos and don’ts of performing improv live. These classes are great for building your confidence, especially if your goal is to perform in front of a live audience.
2. Study Characters and Relationships
Many improv actors have been successful because they create characters of their own, or impersonate others. The reason why this is such an important improv acting tip is that you can rely on your character’s likes, dislikes, personality, and profession to help guide your scene. Instead of pulling something completely random from thin air, you can simply ask yourself, how would this character respond? Or how would this character reply? When you’re channeling a specific character, your answers and responses won’t seem so far-fetched.
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. A good acting tip for improv is to base a character off of someone you met or already know.
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, client/patient, rivals, or best frenemies? 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.
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.).
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:
- Teach 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! Those young minds are often unpredictable.
- Work 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. You can even try to get a job as a character at a park in your town.
- Take on a sales position. 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.
- Bartend. There are few places to better put your improv skills to use than in a bar. When a not-so-regular patron strikes up a conversation, have some fun and exaggerate a bit. Get them going, and you may even get a nice tip.
5. Go With The Flow
Another top acting tip for improv involves going with the flow. You can’t be in control of everything. 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
When it comes to your improv training, 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, then 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.
9. Stop Focusing on Being Funny
So how do you become good at improv acting? Stop trying so hard to be funny! The harder you try, the less funny you’ll come across. You never want to appear desperate for laughs or seem like you’re dying for your audience’s approval.
Believe it or not, some of the best comedy sketches unfold naturally on stage. When you let things flow, the laughs will follow. Maybe you and your partner wind up in a wacky situation or an elaborate misunderstanding occurs. Focus more on developing your character and engaging with the scene, and you just might be surprised at the hilarity that ensues.
10. Make Your Fellow Actors Look Good
Perhaps one of the most important rules of improv acting is to make your fellow actors look good. The more you build them up, the better you’ll look. Remember, this isn’t your monologue or stand-up routine. The show is not all about you, but rather it’s all about teamwork, as mentioned above. Focus on the other actors’ strengths and give them a hand when you can. And the best part? You’ll find that your actors will encourage you and help you out along the way, too. With everyone making the other person look like a genius, it’s a recipe for magic on the stage.
Improv acting may be the last thing you need to take your skills from here to there. It will open you up to so many new possibilities, but above all, it will help you build an incredible amount of confidence. They’ll be no screen or stage too big for you!
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