In our acting classes, a lot of the actor games are improvisation activities. As any trained actor would say, improv is a tool for actors. As the best well-known actor, Wayne Brady, who used improv to full advantage in the television show WHO’S LINE IS IT ANYWAY, he clearly states improv is a tool to actor skill-building. By the way, he considers himself first an actor.
I studied improv with Del Close in Chicago. He is the guru of improvisation nationally, and the early educator of most all successful comedians and comedic actors. His rules make a lot of sense in practice and for improv shows. Here are his rules though you might find some modifications of it on the internet:
Eleven Commandments of Improv
*The original text can be found at www.improvolympic.com
1. You are all supporting actors.
2. Always check your impulses.
3. Never enter a scene unless you are NEEDED.
4. Save your fellow actor, don`t worry about the piece.
5. Your prime responsibility is to support.
6. Work at the top of your brains at all times.
7. Never underestimate or condescend to your audience.
8. No jokes (unless it is tipped in front that it is a joke.)
9. Trust... trust your fellow actors to support you; trust them to come through if you lay something heavy on them; trust yourself.
10. Avoid judging what is going down except in terms of whether it needs help (either by entering or cutting), what can best follow, or how you can support it imaginatively if your support is called for.
If you read my earlier blog on ‘trust’ you can see that TRUST is also on THIS LIST. Trust between actors is very important to performance in front of an audience whether it is improv, stage plays or film and t.v. It’s interesting how a recent improvisation group I shepherd, after seeing potential, disintegrated into mistrust and self-exaltation. The performance quality which showed improvement for some months, began to dive-bomb. It was due to the inequity on the stage and the excessive self-interest for some of the performers, which upset the balance of the group. Performers complained of inequity and that led to mistrust and disorder. Granted, actors do have a form of self-absorption, which is useful, however, as Mathew Quin the producer of Asylum Theater recently stated in a theater workshop, “Don’t be a jerk. It won’t go well.” To give a healthy rise in the performance stage, each actor or performer must respect one another and that comes with trust. Thus, the importance of a successful rehearsal time practicing to be generous with one another. The rehearsal process also helps put each performer on an exalted wavelength that is quite attractive to the audience. If at least, if not skill, the visceral connection to each other sways the audience to love the performance. Sure actor games can help with this, but an actor needs to use common sense and generosity when rehearsing for a performance and the performance itself must show generosity and be generous. Trust comes into play here. Second City in Chicago is famous for this. They help each other create on stage and jump on stage only when needed. The generosity is appreciated by the audience. Cutting into a scene that is going well causes boos from an experienced audience. Respecting a scene that is going well and not interrupting it in light of self interest is respected by the audience. Cutting into a scene that is going well is a 'let down' if the level of the cutting-in is not equal in hilarity or impressively better. Enough of these let downs the audience does not return. Remember, the audience is not there to judge just one actor, but the whole performance, the whole ensemble. As a repeat, it is quite noticeable to the audience when an actor is mistrusting of his fellow actors. The stage tilts off-balance. Unfortunately, sometimes it is irreparable once it starts. It can spread to feelings off stage. This improv group is now on hiatus.
My niece Brandi said to me yesterday she has been an actress most of her life. She started at 9 years old doing commercials. Her mother, my sister, thinks she may have been influenced by me. I didn’t act as a child, but I did act in Yuma, Phoenix, Chicago and a tiny bit in NYC. In general, I’m a playwright and there is where my heart lies. As we were talking, she mentioned her fun in acting classes in the L.A. area. I asked her what the most important thing she took out of the classes. She said ‘trust.’ Trust as the most important for actors. I chimed in how true that was. When you are on stage, you must trust your fellow actors to give you the lines so you can respond with the next line. You must trust that if you say the wrong line or forget where you are in the performance, they will guide you back. From a playwright perspective, I give my script to actors trusting that they will interpret the work as written and make the words flourish for the audience. Therefore, I agree with Brandi’s comment on how trust is extremely important in the performing arts. Acting, playwriting and even in mechanics of running a theater, trust is needed. In Bend, Oregon and I believe the year was 1998, I was in a play by a local playwright and produced by a young theater company. I think the play was called Josie. Interesting story where the author placed monotheism as a central theme in the play. Soon after that, the director asked if I would join with her on the theater and help find housing for the theater company. I looked around for a place to do theater. I saw an old church in the heart of town next to a beautiful river and we thought we would do the theater there. We had great ideas on the whole building for the purposes of theater. I asked my writer friends what they thought about the venture and they told me that my writing would have to stop for I would be constantly fundraising for the theater. As well, it turned out that my credit rating was going to be used between the two of us. I didn’t like that. I also didn’t like the idea I would stop writing. I declined the offer. I am glad I did for 18 years later, in a town called Hanford, I discussed the idea with my daughter of a theater company, and we began the process. I was okay if my writing would subside because I felt the community needed more art. What is surprising is that my writing did not stop. It flourished! With the thinking and planning of a theater company my writing pages increased! I was energized! Most recently, I wrote a play with actors from the company in mind. We are in rehearsal now. I have full trust in their abilities to make my words flourish. As far as starting a theater company, trust is also important. Outside my family and long time friends, I have a terrible habit of trusting people before getting to know them. With my years of teaching I give everyone a chance to experience and learn. It is my nature. Theater is different entirely. Trust must be earned so the entity can thrive. I compare this to the work of a director with actors. Trust is needed from the actors so the director can trust them to do the work in his or her vision. Trust to come to rehearsal on time and every time. Trust for actors to learn the lines and take director notes. With a breakdown of trust in this instance, a play suffers. Most seasoned theater people know that. I have seen this breakdown of trust when actors show disrespect to a director and other actors by attitude and lack of commitment. The best thing with actors that behave like that is to remove them for the good of the process. Is it democratic? No, it cannot be. The director owns the show and if there is a thorn somewhere in the production the actor must go. No touchy-feely meetings can get the production back and there is no time for that if there is a schedule of performances. Play productions cannot be social work or a therapy session for actors. There is a job to do and the audience expects a good performance. Sure, it attracts people like that and you can be human to give emotional support, but when you are amid a play, two options must happen. Cancel the show to do the therapy and change the mission of the company, or remove the needy person. It is best to have trust that actors are ready to work, to do art, follow director directions, and trust each other on stage. For a playwright, I trust the actor and director to make my words work on stage. The theater company trust that the show will be a success. The audience trust that the show is worth their ten bucks. Trust is a very important component in the business of theater
As far as growing a theater company, already I have had hit and misses. If I had started a theater company in Bend, Oregon it would have been a miss because the funding of it was already going to be on my shoulders. At that time, I didn't trust my fundraising skills. In Hanford, I found encouragement from the Fresno Arts Council and the California Arts Council. I was also helped along by Kings Art Center, Mainstreet Hanford, Paty’s Studio, Hanford Parks and Rec, Hanford Chamber of Commerce and Hanford Carnegie Museum, Hanford Rotary Foundation, Tulare Kings Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Univision, KSEE television, Laprino Foods, Paychex, Renewable Solar, Dias Law Firm, Cutting Edge Capital, and FreshLink. The overwhelming support is staggering and these I would call hits. Misses would be some of the people that came forward, attracted by my zeal and unrelenting pursuit to establish a theater company, whom proved Janus-faced. As Brandi stated yesterday to me, actors must have trust. As a new founder of a new theater company I have learned trust is better earned. And when it is, it is a hit.
Silvia Gonzalez Scherer