As the TV and film landscape evolves the need for actors to have legit improv chops is growing. Hear from one of Australia’s best improv actors on why she thinks improv skill is a game changer for an actor
It’s the last night of Year Six camp and parents are noisily filing into the hall. They’re here to collect their kids, exhausted from a week of rock climbing and “fun” leadership building activities. But before they can pile them into their cars and head back to the city, there’s the pièce de résistance: the camp concert.
I’m eleven years old, and I’ve been waiting for this moment all week.
My general approach to outdoor activities can be summed up with an apathetic “why, though?” This philosophy was strong even as an eleven year old. Over the week at camp I had failed at abseiling and white water rafting. I was so bad at kayaking (more on that later) that I had to be clipped to our instructor’s boat so that I wouldn’t keep drifting down the stream away from the rest of the group. But none of those crushing failures worried me. I knew that the camp concert would be my time to shine.
We were split into groups, and had to perform a part of The Three Little Pigs. My group got the finale. The others squabbled over who would play the smart pig, the hero of the piece. Rookies! I wanted to be the wolf, because the villains always get the best lines.
Showtime. The other groups have performed their sections of the play, and now it’s time for the big finale. We begin. Pigs build brick house. Wolf taunts them. It’s going well. But then… As I make my way down into the chimney and into the cauldron (a large cardboard box), I land weirdly and the whole thing breaks around me. The others look at me, panicked. What do we do? We can’t ignore that the cauldron just broke. Instead, I get to my feet and deliver an impassioned improvised monologue about how this near death experience had made the wolf realise the error of her ways, and how she would be a friend to all pigs from this day forward. The end.
That was my first taste of improvisation. After the others finished berating me about breaking the cauldron, Mrs. Hopkins from Year 8 came over to me.
“That was very funny, Bridie. I think you should join the improv club on Tuesdays.”
That began a chain of events which truly changed my life. I lived for Tuesday afternoons, where I learnt how to improvise characters and stories, and got to revel in being silly. I kept it up at high school, where honing this ability to think on my feet proved crucial on so many occasions. I kept doing it at uni, where it introduced me to some of my greatest friends and creative collaborators.
Though at times improv felt more like a hobby, I can say without doubt that it has proven to be my biggest asset in my career to date. Apart from being able to cope when things go wrong on set or on stage (hello, cardboard cauldrons), improv gets me in the room for auditions.
A few years ago in LA, a casting director told me that she wouldn’t see anyone who didn’t have improv on their CV, regardless of whether the job was comedic or dramatic. The ability to improvise speaks to a wider capacity to be present and alive in a scene. Australian casting directors are beginning to follow suit. More and more I’m getting auditions because directors want actors who can play around on set. Actors who can ad lib, who can find new character beats that may not be apparent in the script. When a director throws out the script in a callback or rehearsal and says “let’s just workshop it”, I don’t blink. That’s what I live for. That’s when you get to really dig and find the juice of a character.
In my time on Tonightly with Tom Ballard, a daily news satire show at the ABC, we only had 12 hours to put together a 30 min TV show every day. It was amazing, high stakes stuff. The ability to improvise got us over the line so, so, so many times.
I passionately believe that any actor who is serious about their craft needs improv as part of their tool kit. Yes, sometimes improv exercises can be light and silly. That doesn’t mean they’re frivolous. They’re crucial to your success.
If nothing else, I recommend improv as a tool for life. In Tuesday afternoon Theatresports club, my first ever coach said to us: “people who can improvise are better at life. They’re more confident, they can work in a team, they can listen and they can think on their feet.” Don’t you want to be better at life?
A final thought: I recently booked a job in NZ off the back of improvising in an audition. I read the script, but then I played around and made it my own. I was super present, and had such a great time. I got the role: the character was a kayaking instructor. Kayaking. I had to kayak. Flashbacks to Year Six camp. I spent the entire shoot trying not to drown. So to all the actors out there reading this, enrol in improv and kayaking classes, and you will truly be unstoppable.