This week I came back to Brighton and to the Theatre Royal with Buddy! The Buddy Holly Story and this has led me to think about whether or not improv skills apply to the acting world.
I set about to try and reveal some unbelievable and revolutionary little nugget of wisdom to make you, the reader, think about your acting career in a whole new way and I’ll be honest, I struggled.
What was it that makes the two worlds so different that there wasn’t a key that unlocks the door between them? Was it the script and the learning of lines? Was it the role of the director? The stepping into the void and knowing what will happen?
There is no key because there is no door.
There is no door because there aren’t separate worlds.
The script and the learning of lines, in fact all of the structural elements of a play or musical or film, the blocking to suit the lighting, the playing of songs correctly and so on, are offers. They’re absolutes, don’t get me wrong, the structure of a directed show would fall apart if these elements aren’t adhered to, but they’re offers nonetheless. They must be accepted and built upon in the same way, they must be reacted to honestly (within the confines of your own lines) in the same way but we get the added bonus, as actors, to be able to accept, build and react over a number of nights to explore the numerous possible outcomes.
I’ve learned to enjoy the minute changes between the lines, the little ripples of emotional difference that influence alterations in my own performance.
I think there is an enormous advantage to being an improviser in a scripted performance. We aren’t flustered when mistakes happen and we can react to changes very quickly. We have an audience awareness that some actors don’t have, a feeling of not only what we’re doing but how that comes across. Some actors talk about the monitor, the little bit of yourself that isn’t given over to your character, but improvisers have a second set of eyes, the one that is watching the scene through the fourth wall.
There are, of course, numerous examples in modern films of actors who started out as and continue to be improvisers: Jim Carrey, Tina Fey, Steve Carrell, Will Ferrel, Amy Poehler. Watch any of these in a serious role and there is a sense of reality to them that is almost unique. Carrey in The Majestic/The Truman or Carrell in The Way Way Back are testaments to this.
If I’m to offer any nugget of wisdom, revolutionary or not, from my comparatively limited experience of the world of improv and acting, it would be this: Identify the absolutes and improvise in the gaps. It’s more fun and it’s a lot more exciting to watch.
By Jason Blackwater