Posts tagged tips for improvisers

Wherever you are on your improv journey, these tips can help you get more joy.

1. Support the shit out of each other.

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

When someone makes a move, be the first to support it. Don’t wait to figure out what they’re doing, just respond.

Match their energy, heighten the move, scene paint, narrate…anything to add to it. It should look like you knew the move was coming, and love the idea. Move as a team.

Sometimes support means knowing when to edit. Your gut always knows when it’s time, so don’t hesitate if it’s telling you to sweep.

And support doesn’t stop with your team.

Attending other people’s shows adds your energy to the room, not to mention the show. Even better, bring friends and family from outside the community to share the experience.

And why not buy your favourite improviser a beer after the show? You can’t afford it? Oh. Then just tell them you liked the set and offer a sip of yours.

2. Be on time.

Yeah, we know. Improv sets are notorious for starting 10, 20, even 30 minutes late or more.

Some players are habitually late, so their team can’t start without them. If that’s you, make a new year’s resolution right now to be professional. You think TJ waits anxiously before every show, wondering where Dave is?

Being punctual shows you respect the audience, and your team. Also, be on time for rehearsals. Yes, even rehearsals.

For producers, don’t hold off the show waiting for more audience to arrive. Train your audiences to be on time by starting shows on time.

3. Don’t talk shit about your set.

Cameron’s first coach, Rob Norman, shared this pearl of wisdom: If you just got off stage and think you had a bad show, shut up.

Everyone experiences things differently. So while you may think you had a crap show, your teammates may have left the stage on a high. Don’t be a Betty Buzzkill. Or Danny Didn’tliketheshow. Or Maset McSucked.

Same goes for your audience. If someone compliments you after the show, don’t shake your head and start mumbling about how terrible you were. Just smile and say “Thank you.” (Try for that free beer!)

4. Stop “should-ing” on yourself.

You should have come in as the mad scientist. You should have brought back the pirate character. You should have swept before that scene died a slow, painful death.

Shelve your shoulds.

“There’s no ‘should have;’ there’s always a ‘could have.’ You should’ve been someone’s father, or you should’ve been someone’s boyfriend… But no. I could have, and it might’ve gone a different way, but you can’t judge yourself like that or your’re gonna not be entering.” – Scott Adsit

While you’re at it, stop comparing yourself to others in the comedy community. There is no one else on the planet like you, so comparing yourself is an exercise in futility.

When you find yourself thinking “How did he get on a Harold team and I didn’t?”, “Why did my web series not get a jillion hits?” or “I’m 25. How come I’m not already famous?!” – stop.

Instead of focusing on what you don’t have, make a list of what you do. We’re serious. Get a pen and write it down: your friends, your family, your cat,  your health, your encyclopaedic knowledge of Batman. Then read Mike O’Brien’s advice for aspiring comedians. And as David Razowsky says, “Replace ambition with gratefulness.”

5. Broaden your horizons.

When Standards & Practices were invited to perform at Improvaganza, neither Cameron nor I had ever been to Edmonton. It turned out to be inspiring and life-changing for both of us.

We laughed our asses off, made new friends, and walked away with a new perspective on our craft.

Improvaganza, CIF, DCM, and Out of Bounds are amazing opportunities to connect with others who share your passion. If you’ve only ever studied or performed in one place, you owe it to yourself to see how others play, and festivals are a great way to do that.

6. Take notes. (Part One)

If you want to remember stuff from workshops or classes or rehearsals, write it down. When you’re trying to remember how to do a Deconstruction months from now, you’ll be glad you did.

I use Moleskines, or you can just press “play” on your smartphone’s voice memo app. Of course, you’ll still have to transcribe it, but it’s a great tool that lets you stay focused during class.

Take notes. (Part Deux)

Whether it’s an instructor, a coach, or an out-of-town improviser teaching a master class, when someone gives you a note, take it.

Chances are they’ve identified a tendency or behaviour that’s limiting you in some way. The least you can do is listen. When you argue, you miss an opportunity to learn. And take time away from others who want to.

7. Learn something new.

Improv is awesome, but to be really good at it, you need other things in your life.

So sign up for singing lessons, learn to juggle, join a softball team, enrol in cooking classes, make short films using Vine. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as you’re stretching your synapses by trying something different.

Here’s one that’s simple and costs nothing: Try using your non-dominant hand for everything for a week. Cameron did this on a regular basis and now he’s pretty much ambidextrous. (Editor’s note: By ambidextrous, Sally means I can masturbate with either hand.)

8. Live boldly.

Every time we’ve done something that was a stretch for us, in work, in improv, or in life, we’ve grown exponentially. From signing up for Level A at Second City, to quitting a full-time job to pursue our true passions, it’s scary sometimes. But so worth it.

“We are not on this planet to make little, tiny moves.” – David Razowsky

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

You may also like Eight More Ways To Be Good With The Improv. Thanks for stopping by.

“Everything I’ve ever gotten has come to me when I stopped trying to get things, and focused on finding and performing in my own voice. So, make sure the bulk of your time is spent on projects that are truly unique to you and keep you up at night with excitement, not projects that showcase your castability.

I’d also say don’t get married to one path. I see a lot of people who let the fact that Second City or SNL has not hired them cause them to become bitter and/or quit comedy. I think it’s healthier to set goals like, ‘I want to be working with friends and producing interesting comedy for a living sometime soon,’ than ‘I need to get Second City Mainstage by 2012 and SNL by 2015 or I’ve failed.’

Lastly, don’t spend any energy worrying about what other comedians have been hired for, whether they deserve it, whether their last joke was good or not… Just worry about your own stuff and do your best to enjoy all the hilarious people out there without judgement. All easier said than done.”

Source: Live From New York It’s Saturday Night Live blogspot

Auditioning requires the patience of Job, the confidence of Tony Robbins, and the love of being rejected, time after time.

As someone who’s cast hundreds of actors for commercials, here’s are some tips that can help you go from in the room to on air.


Image © Banksy

You Got An Audition! Now What?

If this is your first time auditioning, the first round is what’s known as the “cattle call.” It’s where you and approximately 300 others cram in a waiting room for one, two, sometimes three hours just waiting for your chance at 30 seconds of fame.

Read the script and memorize your lines, if any. If you have an agent, they should send you the sides (script) before you arrive. If you don’t have an agent yet, ask for the sides when you get to the casting house.

Don’t be afraid to take them with you into the audition. Sometimes they’ll have the lines written out on a whiteboard, sometimes not. Just know that we’d rather see you scanning pages than trying to remember your lines and having to be fed them during a take.

And if you’re unsure about anything, ask. Preferably before you’re in front of the camera.


Headshots are a great investment, especially if you audition a lot. They show you’re serious about acting as a career. In Canada, you don’t need a headshot for commercials. The casting house will take a Polaroid, and staple it to your stats. You’ll need one for TV series, film and theatre auditions, though.

Make sure you keep it up to date. I’ve seen headshots that are 10 years old or more. If you’ve changed your hairstyle or colour drastically, or the photos are more than five years old, bite the bullet and get new ones.

What Allen Iverson Said 

Yep, practice.

Even improvisers who are comfortable doing crazy shit on stage sometimes freeze up in auditions. That’s normal, especially your first few times. Maybe your first few dozen times.

If it helps make you less nervous, know that you’re probably not going to nail it the first time.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try; it just means go easy on yourself. If you leave an audition feeling like you fucked up, remember: you showed up, and you did it. That’s your success. Be proud of that.

Use your time the night before to practice your lines and play with the character. Improvise in front of a mirror, or with a friend.

As with anything, the more you do it, the easier it becomes. So take every audition you can get, because you never know when you’ll get lucky.

Be Yourself…

Whatever the role, I want to see what YOU bring to it.

Whether you’re auditioning for a principal role or a minor SOC (Silent On Camera), let your personality and point of view shine. That doesn’t mean chew the scenery; it just means relax and show us why you’re perfect for the role.

If you’re feeling nervous before the audition, practise some of Amy Cuddy’s “power poses.” They can help calm and boost your confidence in as little as two minutes.

Lastly, I don’t care if the script calls for someone in his 40s, and you just turned 21. If you own the role, a good creative will fight to cast you for it. One time a client insisted they needed an actor in his 50s for a certain role. I snuck Alastair Forbes into the audition, and he blew everyone away. The client loved him, and he booked the job. He was maybe 25.

…But Keep Improving

I always, always request actors with improv skills. But improvisers who can act? That’s the gold, right there.

If you’re an improviser, take some acting lessons. If you’re an actor, learn to improvise. Both are invaluable, and can make the difference between getting the job or not.

Dress For Success

When you get the call, find out if you need a specific wardrobe. I know actors don’t have unlimited budgets, so if you don’t have it, borrow from a friend, or visit your local Value Village.

Otherwise, err on the side of business casual. A solid shirt and pants or nice jeans for guys, and a dress that doesn’t show too much skin for the ladies.

Some actors wear the same thing to callbacks that they wore to the initial casting. I’ve heard some actors do it “for luck,” because they think that somehow that paisley shirt and ripped cargo pants got them the callback.

In a word, no.

I can look past superfluous stuff, but many advertising people can’t. And even if my art director and I love you, if we can’t sell you to our boss or clients because they’re fixated on your Metallica t-shirt, it’s game over.

Give yourself the best possible odds. Dress the part.

A Note On Grooming

Beards are popular these days. But unless the role calls for a hipster, 99% of clients see “prisoner” or “pedophile” when presented with facial hair.

Shaving your beard, or at least trimming it down to Henry Cavill proportions, will increase your casting potential a hundredfold.

And never, ever cut your hair right before a shoot.

I once cast an actor with shoulder-length hair. She showed up on set two days later with a pixie cut. It’s the kind of thing that makes clients go ballistic – and can get you fired or blacklisted.

Even if you’re just contemplating a trim, always ask before doing it.

Be Professional When Those Around You Are Not

When you walk into a callback, there’s usually a producer, writer and art director sitting at the director’s table.

Sadly, many advertising creatives are oblivious to the actors in front of them. While you’re trying to rock your best Guy #2, they may be whispering, eating, scribbling, absorbed in their iPhone, or thinking about their next meeting with a face like thunder.

Ignore them.

Greet everyone with a smile as you walk in the room, then give your full attention to the director and/or camera.

Even if some people are focused elsewhere, a good director will take note of your performance and review it after the casting.

Agents And Stuff

You don’t need an agent to land gigs, but it helps. The catch? Most agents prefer that you already have a few roles under your belt before they’ll take you on.

Cameron and I have auditioned friends who didn’t have representation, and a number of them caught the eye of casting directors, who helped them find an agent. Look on Facebook or network with your fellow actors to find out about upcoming auditions.

However you get in the room, it’s important to know that once you’re there, if you’re good, you will get noticed.

You Got The Part. Now What?

Congratulations! You beat out dozens of other hopefuls, and now you’re ready for your close-up.

If this is your first on-camera role, you’re probably a little anxious. Try some simple breathing exercises to calm you. (You can listen to them on headphones on the way to the shoot.)

Allow yourself plenty of time to get to the location. Use Google maps the day before to gauge how long it will take you.

Once you’re on set, there’s a whole crew of highly-trained people, from hair & make-up, wardrobe, and script continuity, to the producer, AD, and director, whose job it is to help you give the best performance.

Take a deep breath, and enjoy the ride.

You Didn’t Get The Part. Now What?

Know that you’ll fail far more than you’ll succeed in getting roles. That’s not just you, that’s the business.

Even if you own the role, out-Brando Brando, or make everyone in the room laugh, you still might not get the part. I’ve seen actors rejected for being too tall, too round, too thin, too short, too good looking (yes!), not good looking enough…and the list goes on.

As personal as some of it sounds, don’t take it personally.

You have something to offer that no one else ever has, or ever will. Don’t let a handful of people determine how you feel about yourself.

It’s Not An Audition, It’s A Performance

If you treat every audition not as a dress rehearsal, but as the real deal, you’ll always bring your best self. And there’s no better gift you can give the world.

Speaking of gifts, watch Bryan Cranston’s advice for aspiring actors. It’s priceless.

Now go out there and knock ’em dead. I’ll be cheering for ya.

For more tips, check out 21 Things That Make Casting Directors Happy. It’s not just great advice for auditioning; it applies to every part of your life.

Laura Bailey is a hilarious improviser, stand-up, sketch comedian and song bird who’s hawked her comedy wares from Toronto to Chicago to New York City and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She hosts and produces femme phenom, Chicka Boom, with Jess Beaulieu. Catch Laura’s solo improvised musical, Unplanned Melody on Saturday, April 13, 10 pm at The Black Swan.

Photo © Jeff Higgins

Photo © Jeff Higgins

At some point in your “career” as an improviser, you will probably be called upon to participate in a “jam,” also widely known as a “complete and utter clusterfuck.”

Both novice and expert improvisers are routinely thrown off by The Jam. I cannot think of one improv class I have taken where, after learning a technique, some frustrated classmate has not lamented to our instructor, “But how could I possibly do this in a JAM!??” Sadly, I have never heard a great answer.

As with all improv, there is no magic formula for success in The Jam. Certainly familiarity with your fellow jammers helps a lot, but in its absence hopefully these tips will help you to at least enjoy yourself a little/not be an asshole.

1. Relax. Don’t take anything personally. As Todd Stashwick would say, “Improv is all toilet paper.” Should your precious offers be ignored, in reality there is nothing you could possibly do that will even verge on being important enough to be angry about. No one is trying to ruin the scene; believe that everyone who is improvising is doing their best the whole time.

2. Lower your expectations. A Jam doesn’t always have to suck, but OH BOY are there a lot of things working against it. Linda decided to play through her shingles and can’t actually move. Claudio has elected to be a coffee table in every scene for some profound reason that no one gets. Susan won the lottery spot to play with the Second City Main Stage cast, and she is FREAKING THE FUCK OUT.

My point is, the Jam is going to be as good as it’s going to be because not everyone is on the same page, and that is largely beyond your control. Don’t beat yourself up about it.

3. No touchy-touchy. For the young, white, sexually-repressed improv majority, a hand on the shoulder is just fine, thank you very much. If you don’t know your fellow Jammers that well, do not attempt kissing, hitting, lifting, licking, pushing, pulling, or any other such physical behaviour on your scene partner’s body.

Don’t yell in his face or spit on him. And for all you handsy motherfuckers, this is not “da club,” it’s an improv scene.

People improvising are vulnerable because they are trying to go along with what’s happening. Be respectful and don’t touch a stranger on stage in a way you wouldn’t touch them offstage consensually.

4. Be Positive. When it comes to The Jam, I recommend taking “Yes, And” literally. Getting into an argument with someone you don’t know is almost certain death for your scene. Not only are you trying to improvise with someone, you are also actually making a real first impression on another human being.

When speaking to an acquaintance, you wouldn’t open with, “Hey fuckface, where’s my dinner?” Despite this being a classic improv initiation, making this sort of offer right off the bat to a stranger has a similar effect to saying the real thing. Especially rude is throwing in “subtle” improv notes like “You’re not listening to me.”

An easy way to avoid making your fellow Jammer hate you is to simply back up whatever she says 100%. Just tell her why her ideas are the best thing that ever happened to Cat Island, meow. Why not? The people you play with will love it, and so will the audience.

5. Fill in the Gaps. As the Jam gets rolling, you should notice what’s happening and what’s not. Goofballs are doing ridiculous characters with bad accents. Newbs are not initiating. Every scene has eight people coming out off the top. If nothing else, just do what is needed.

Cartoon characters need a voice of reason. Point at a Newb on the back wall and just start talking to them. Or hang back, pick one person in the scene you want to riff on, and tag out the other seven people soon. And for God’s sake, EDIT. This isn’t to say you can’t go big and get your ideas out there. As Susan Messing says, “If you’re not having fun, you’re the asshole.” Just allow your ideas be motivated by what the set needs. You’ll end up challenging yourself in new ways by playing roles you don’t normally play.

6. Have ideas and set up clear games. There’s a point of contention in improv as to whether or not one should initiate a scene with a premise in mind, or develop a game organically with your scene partner.

Whatever your preference, in The Jam nobody knows what anyone thinks and all bets are off. No one has the faintest idea what to expect from anyone else. So, when you let your fellow Jammers know what to do, it’s as if you threw a life jacket to a drowning school bus.

You will never see agreement happen faster and with more gusto than when someone initiates a “Boardroom Idiots” scene in a jam. They know they’re being directed, and they are all just glad to have been thrown a frickin’ bone.

Was there a monologue or opening to the set? Draw any scene ideas you can and initiate them shamelessly. In a jam, it’s hugely supportive to have people who act like they know what the fuck they’re doing and actually including other people at the same time!

7. Don’t be a hero. Don’t go into the Jam thinking you need to do your best work. Most likely you will be outnumbered there. There will be some jams that where you need to do a lot (see: Newb Jam), there will be some where you need to do very little (see: Goofball Jam).

It’s easy to think of your time in these scenarios as “carrying the whole show” or “not getting a word in edgewise.” Think of it more as, different jams will need different things, and you can choose to do those things or not. Personally, I find it way easier to do what is obviously needed than to think of something else.

Somewhere in our pasts, either on stage or in the audience, we have all been horribly, irreparably scarred by The Jam. It is a rite of passage no improviser will turn down – especially if it means you can play with your heroes – yet it is also thought of disdainfully as the place where good improv goes to die.

Competing styles seem irreconcilable. Robot Ninja Pirates bleep-bloop through your pretend fairy rose garden that tells the future like it’s nothing. And yet, some Jams still manage to have moments of brilliance.

As clichéd as it sounds, all you can do is try your best and have fun. Wait a minute, what if you did that all the time…?

Photo © Dan Epstein

Photo © Dan Epstein