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I know actors who hate improv auditions. Common complaints I have heard include, “I don’t feel comfortable” and “I don’t know what I’m doing” and “I don’t know what they want.” I’m sure some actors bring remnants of that negative self-talk into the audition room.
All three comments are valid reactions to having to walk into a room and perform a scene unrehearsed. It can seem intimidating to face a casting director when you don’t know what you need to say or do in the moments that follow. Coming into it with a sense of anxiety is perfectly natural for many actors.
The trouble for those actors is they think they have to “wing it” every time. They approach the improv audition as a test of their ability to think quickly on their feet and look at the audition as a Pass/Fail situation. In setting the same standards for themselves they do with scripted material, it’s likely they will feel they fell short of nailing it, as they say.
Let’s agree that “winging it” isn’t helping you right now. Instead, let’s approach the audition as a storyteller would. You are a storyteller, after all.
- The storyteller knows every story has a beginning, middle, and end. Your improv audition has the same elements. It must start somewhere, take us somewhere, and find a natural place to end.
- The storyteller knows every story has action and action adds a dimension to the story. At the same time, that action itself is not the story.
- The storyteller knows a character presented with choices is a more interesting character. It gives the audience a chance to get to know how that character sees herself, how she views others, and how she looks at the world around her.
Let me give you a basic scenario to consider, one I experienced in a commercial audition at least once. The scene involves unpacking groceries in a kitchen. The CD asked actors to unpack those groceries but did not give a story or shape the improv audition in any other way.
Based on our bullet points above, you know the story needs a beginning, a middle, and and end. You know the story needs action but the story itself is not the action. You also know the CD wants to see you making choices to get a sense of how you approach the challenge.
Ask yourself, what would you do in this audition? What’s my story? If given only 30 seconds to come up with a story, what would I choose?
You could do it in 30 seconds. It need not be polished. It need only convey an experience with a specific feeling and attitude. Since it’s a commercial audition, your job is to make the client look good. Whatever story you choose should reflect positively on the client so that means you’re happy to be unpacking groceries and happy you bought them from the client’s business.
We still haven’t found the story yet. In that same 30 seconds, you could come up with at least one story. Forget focusing on what they want and give them what you’ve got. Make it grand or keep it simple. Either way, think of small details rather than broad strokes.
Some ideas flowing in my mind right now involve a celebration, something festive. One story could be you’re going to make a birthday cake for your 5 year-old son who loves chocolate frosting. The last thing you take out of the grocery bag is the frosting. Straightforward, right?
Here’s an idea with a surprise twist. While unpacking groceries for the dinner you’ll make for yourself, you get a phone call from a friend who’s in town on business. You remember she’s the one who first introduced you to eggplant parmesan so you invite her to join you for a home-cooked meal.
See how both stories are about the food bringing people together. The food making a positive experience possible. That’s very different than putting your focus on simply smiling because you shopped at the store.
Saving money is another helpful story idea for the improv audition. By shopping at the client’s store, you saved 30% which allowed you to buy something extra for yourself. A bottle of your favorite red wine.
Now you may be thinking, what if I don’t get to talk during the audition? No dialogue will lead to a loss of information about what you bought and what you’re going to do with it, true enough. But you still will be creating moments within your improv audition that tell the story visually instead of verbally. How you feel about taking out that imaginary frosting for little Sam’s birthday cake will be crystal clear.
If you have the good fortune of getting some details in advance about what’s expected, enjoy it but don’t make knowing a lot up front necessary. With some preparation and willingness to embrace the unpredictable nature of the improv audition, you may find yourself creating stronger and more memorable moments in that room and getting more callbacks that way.