Improv Is Acting
I’ve failed so much with my improv studies. I’ve read improv book after improv book but neglected the critical element that elevates improv into a higher art form…
I didn’t study acting.
Just an Improviser
Having taught improv at an acting studio for a while, I’ve been asked if I’d ever be interested in pursuing acting gigs. My typical response has always been, “I’m not really an actor. I’m not good with rehearsed lines. I’m just an improviser.” But the fact of the matter is improv is acting.
My favorite improv teacher—and I’ve only been able to take a few one-off workshops from him when he’s visited Utah—Dave Razowsky starts off his workshops by telling every one of us that we’re actors.
As improvisers, we are actors.
We may not have a script in the literal sense, but we do have a script in front of us in the form of our scene partner. I’m sad that I never took this to heart before now.
My Favorite Improvisers
When you’re looking for improv in Utah, 90% of what you’ll find is short form.
Short form, on its surface, seems less conducive to good acting than long form, considering you only have the opportunity to play a character for about a minute, on average—more, if you’re lucky and can play games like Bad Advice. This sort of environment seems to eschew acting for wit. A topical one-liner can get a big laugh, so why invest so much into acting a character properly?
As I analyzed my favorite players, however, I realized that I was horribly wrong. I found that my favorite players were the ones who committed heavily to their characters. Rather than playing stereotypes, they would create believable characters that seemed like they could sustain the game forever.
Wit Versus Acting
I found myself trapped in a cycle of wit for a while. All I wanted to do was show how clever I was, which usually meant dropping witty one-liners as myself in the scene. Sure, I may have been named someone else, but I wanted everyone to know that I was the one who was making them laugh. I wanted credit.
Not every witty player is guilty of this, but those who are should be aware of this trap. It’s an unfortunate habit that took me ages to break…because it was getting laughs.
The problem with playing wittily as yourself is that it restricts the freedom you have as an improviser.
The Freedom of Acting
When you’re acting clearly as a character, you have the opportunity to explore a new angle of improvisation previously inaccessible. There are punchlines available when you’re playing a child, for instance, that would not land if you were merely labeled a child but still acting as yourself.
Acting opens up paths that allow the audience to see the magic of your craft, to invest in the reality you’re creating, and to laugh at the circumstances in which your characters find themselves.