It's always surprising how many actors have improv training, but how few use it effectively.
The vast majority of actors have some improv training, for good reason. As an exercise in any acting class, improv training is vital, and it remains at the core of many acting approaches (not just for comedy). It is also an incredibly valuable tool for rehearsal, particularly when you're dealing with audition material that feels...'inorganic', so to speak. Improv for the meaning and shape of a scene is a great way to make that dialogue your own. But how does it apply to actual auditioning?
This is a broad topic, but one that I think warrants a little discussion. It's been on my mind lately, from casting American Reunion recently and coaching on a highly improvisational set this summer. I realize it's one of the basics, but the actors who know how to utilize it are pure gold. It applies both to auditioning and work on set, but for now, let's talk about improv in auditioning.
Ever heard this in an audition - "You're not stuck to the page, make it your own"? It's probably phrased differently in varying situations but generally speaking - this is a huge opportunity that you should know how to handle.
First off, if you don't already do it, start listening to podcasts where actors and directors discuss how they work. You will notice that more and more filmmakers are incorporating improv as a way to capture organic moments in their work. Many directors regard the script as a template, and a lot of scripts are written in a much more simplified, condensed manner than an actual shooting script. Those that are, are dependent on actors who know how to expand on the existing structure while remaining true to the story and tone. Auditioning for these projects is, in part, about seeing what you will bring to the work on set.
But how much freedom do you have?
Well, typically that's a sliding scale that varies with what type of project it is. Television obviously has way less leeway with the script, sometimes none at all, and it probably wouldn't serve you to improv in any episodic audition where you haven't been encouraged to do so. Film is another story, as are improv-based comedy shows.
In both, you have to intuit what the tone of the material is and come up with the best version of your work within that context. You may be a more dramatic actor reading for a broad comedy, or vice versa, and never feel quite right with what you're doing. Which is better - to take a stab at the broad comedy even though it doesn't feel right, or to bring the material to you? I say STICK TO YOUR GUNS and find a way to make it your own, but that's part of another discussion. Either way, your version needs to be defined by your improvisation, and a little goes a long way. And I mean, a little.
Make no mistake, improv that isn't rooted in the text will invariably feel gratuitous. Knowing the scene inside and out, and how it fits in the story, is about the most impressive thing you can do. You know the lines, yes, but you also understand the scene in a deeper sense. Since you can basically never predict what you're going to get in any room, being quick on your feet with improv frees you to fill the scene when the pace or timing aren't optimal - or when there are gaps in dialogue.
I am constantly amazed at how the better actors always find a way to put their own small stamp on material without it feeling as though they've rewritten it. Taking small chances with adding something of your own, particularly as a coda to a comedic scene, can be incredibly effective. Moreover, it makes us want to see what you might do with a little more freedom to improvise. When that happens, be prepared for it. Have some ideas before you go in, of course, but more importantly - take your time to digest any redirection. How you handle improv is what will set you apart.
Preparation, in this sense, is knowing the song well enough to take a solo when you get the nod. You're not changing the tune, you're expanding on it. You can't control whether your take on it is the right one, but if it's true to you, we'll remember it.