The most important lesson I’ve learnt is how to improvise. I know a lot of directors hear “improvise” and “improv” and they immediately start to panic, but improvisation is a skill that every actor needs to have, and to be able to do well.
First, to the fear some directors have about improv. I don’t mean people moving off script. A great actor can deliver the lines, and will work with you to make sure the performance is the best. If they feel the script needs altering, they should talk to you and get your opinion after doing it how it’s written first. What I mean by improvisation is the ability to act totally naturally in the reality of the script, off the cuff, so that if a cup falls when it’s not meant to, or a real taxi almost runs them over, it doesn’t become a distraction but part of the scene.
Some actors say that improv is difficult, and others say it’s easy. I’m somewhere in between. There was a moment when I was part of MissImp when it clicked, thanks to the wonderful people I learnt from and played with. Before that point I’d had moments where things were natural, and others where I felt I was forcing it. The difficulty isn’t in thinking quickly and coming up with a funny line or smart quip, the difficulty is stopping yourself from thinking quickly and just reacting.
For me, improvisation is reacting. I had some scenes which weren’t funny, which is odd for an improv comedy troupe, but the scenes worked because my scene partner and I came up with strong characters and created a scene. When either of us (usually me) tried to force a joke or a point, the scene dipped. Once you lose that mindset of having to improvise, once you get out of your head, you start to live in the imagined circumstances of the scene. It may be a scene that you’ve only had a one word suggestion to use as the starting point, rather than a whole script, but you could say the same thing about life. Life doesn’t come with a script, and neither should your performance on stage or on a set.
When we’re working, we create our own worlds. The writer has given us the words to say and characters with real lives, and the reality of the world of the script might not be rooted in what we as people experience day to day. What doesn’t change is that our characters are living those lives in that reality, and they’re experiencing everything for the first time. I credit my love of improv to watching the extras on an anime DVD (whose name I forget), when Monica Rial said to go out and learn improv. I urge you to do the same. It’ll help you loosen up, be more natural when you’re acting, and will get you out of your head.