Recently a friend was passed over for something he’d auditioned for.
Ouch. Been there.
When Cameron and I finished Level E, ooooh, about a million years ago, there weren’t many options for improv students.
Second City’s long-form program was still a twinkle in Rob Norman’s eye. Neither Cameron nor I had even heard of Bad Dog or Impatient Theatre, both of which specialized in something called “The Harold.”
So we did what everyone else in our class did: auditioned for the Conservatory. When Cameron called me to say he got in, I was thrilled. Then gutted, when I realized I hadn’t made the cut.
I replayed the audition endlessly in my mind, analyzing every word and gesture for signs that I sucked.
As I beat myself up for the 50th time about choosing to play a Mormon, my friend Marko said, “Sal, I’m sure you were fine. They probably just needed someone taller, or shorter, or younger, or older, or with acne.”
I laughed, because he was right.
As a copywriter, I’ve sat through hundreds of auditions and the truth is, no one knows how they’ll turn out. Not the actors, the casting director, the director, the creative team, or the client.
Sometimes you think you know what you’re looking for, then someone completely the opposite blows you away. Sometimes two people nail it, but there’s only one slot available. And sometimes even great actors just have a bad day.
I’ve seen talent rejected for being too fat, too thin, too pretty, too weird, and too “normal.”
One time a client rejected a girl because of her braces. We explained she didn’t wear braces (we checked). He didn’t care. End of discussion.
Auditions are a collaborative process, and as crazy as it might sound, even being the best doesn’t always get you the gig.
Just ask Jim Carrey, David Cross, or the dozens of other A-list comedians who didn’t make SNL.
I certainly wasn’t the best in my audition, but I probably wasn’t the worst, either. Or maybe I was, and that’s OK. I’d rather try something and be terrible than never attempt it for fear of failing.
I tried out for Conservatory again and still didn’t get in. Looking back, it was a blessing. I now know I’d rather improvise than write sketch. Someone else deserved that place on the Second City stage.
Instead, I learned everything I could about long-form. I took Intro to Harold with David Shore, Acting for Improvisers with Shari Hollett, Power Improv with Joe Bill and Mark Sutton, workshops with Matt Besser, Susan Messing, Jet Eveleth, David Razowsky, TJ and Dave, Todd Stashwick, and Greg Hess. I learned Cat’s Cradle from Charna Halpern, and performed at festivals in Chicago and New York.
These days there are countless opportunities for anyone with a passion for improv. Even if you live in a small town, you can:
• Find like-minded friends (even one) to perform with, rehearse with a coach, and do every show you can.
• Do improv jams. Find out which shows use audience members and put your name in the hat.
• Attend drop-ins. For anywhere from zero to five bucks, you can flex your improv muscles and play with a bunch of new people.
• Support the community. Go see shows by friends and peers, as well as your improv heroes.
• Try your hand at producing. Maybe you’ve identified a niche for a format that no one’s filled yet. This is your chance to bring it!
• Take classes. Not just improv, but acting, writing, puppetry, singing…whatever floats your boat.
• Study other improvisers, live or online (search your favourite teams, teachers, and authors for videos).
• Listen to podcasts.
• Make your own comedy shorts. Invite your friends to participate. You don’t need fancy equipment; you can shoot and edit it on your iPhone. (Modern Family filmed an episode entirely on iPhones, iPads and Macs.)
• Read. There are so many awesome books, on improv and other topics. Some of our faves are:
Improvise: Scene from the Inside Out by Mick Napier
Improvising Now by Rob Norman
Improvising Better: A Guide for the Working Improviser by Liz Allen & Jimmy Carrane
Improvisation at the Speed of Life by TJ Jagodowski & David Pasquesi with Pam Victor
How to Be the Greatest Improviser on Earth by Will Hines
Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual by Matt Besser, Ian Roberts & Matt Walsh
The Comic Toolbox: How to Be Funny Even If You’re Not by Jon Vorhaus
Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon
Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? by Seth Godin
• Write. Write Morning Pages, short stories, tweets, sketches, web series, screenplays, or a blog.
Above all, go easy on yourself. Hearing a “no” may feel like a dead end, but it’s really just a redirect. Remember the improv tenet of “go with,” and trust that it will lead you somewhere fun. Because maybe, to go back to Woody’s quote, God is chuckling because He knows how much cooler your future is than you could ever imagine.