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Understanding Improvisational Acting

By Scott Shaw

If you ask me, “What do I think about improve acting?” I will tell you that I believe it is the ultimate level of human performance both on stage and in front of the camera. But, I will also say that there are very few actors who do it well.

Acting is a craft. It is a developed craft. To act naturally, especially in front of the camera or an audience, is not easy. It takes practice.

It is for this reason that people go to acting classes—which, as I have long stated, are total bullshit. Acting classes are simply a way for a teacher to make money and for the students to believe that they have a chance of breaking into the film industry. They are wrong. Acting classes are not the ticket.

Why? Because acting classes are not acting. And, though improv techniques are often taught in acting classes, those performances never equal anything. They are just mental masturbation in front of classmates. They don’t cost anything and they certainly do not cut into a film’s budget when the performances are bad and have to be reshot or cut out of a film altogether.

The fact of the matter is, improv acting is a very subtle art form. Many actors think it is simply about talking. It is not. Improv acting is also about listening.

Due to the fact that most people believe that improv acting is about talking, that is all they do. You take novice actors, put them together and ask them to improv, what you will more than likely see is two people attempting to talk over one another and take control of the scene. The more actors you put together, the more convoluted the scene becomes.

All this being stated, when I created Zen Filmmaking, improv was one of the key components to its actualization. But, the improv I have used in my Zen Films is very controlled.

What this means is that, if I know a person can actually believably improv, I tell them what the scene is about and then I let them run with it. If the storyline needs any correction, I stop them, redirect their dialogue, and allow them to recommence. But, if I see that an actor cannot move the story forward in a natural manner, what I do is feed them their lines.

Due to the fact of Zen Filmmaking, many people falsely believe that movies like The Roller Blade Seven and Max Hell Frog Warrior were improv’d. This is not the case. For the most part, in those films, actors, including a few of the noted (famous) ones, were feed their lines. The great exception to this is when Joe Estevez and Donald G. Jackson go head-to-head in The Return of the Roller Blade Seven and dish out a twenty minute scene; uncut—all improved. It’s awesome!

The essence is that improv is an actor being natural in any given situation. It is about the actor presenting the story, through words, movements, and actions, in the most natural matter possible. This is the whole reason I do not use scripts in my films. Many actors, even in high-budget performances, become very unnatural when speaking memorized words. I think we have all seen movies and T.V. shows where it is obvious, the actor is acting. But, by removing a much structure as possible, than a performance becomes more natural.

But… And, this is a BIG but… An actor must possess the ability to silence their own mind if they hope to improve with any believability. They must become the character they are portraying. And, this is the point where most actors fail at improv. They base their words and their actions upon ego. Of how they want their character to be perceived and how they wish to drive the story of their character forward.

Sure, if a charter is created around an actor’s own personality, then they can play it fine. But, move them away from themselves, and this is where the problems arrive.

True improv comes from a very Zen, selfless state. A good improv actor is one who can remove themselves from the equation and simple BE.

This is hard, as acting is based in ego. A movie or a play is inhabited by a group of people who believe that they have something to offer—that they are special and good enough to be ACTORS.

Think about it. If you ask the average person if they would like to be in a film, they would, “No way. I can’t do that!” The actor on the other hand is all about themselves and their believed, unique specialness. “I’m great! I should be famous.”

Therefore, the ultimate truth about improv acting if that for it to be successfully accomplished, the actor must be able to put themselves and their ego aside and simple BE in the moment. They must allow the character to be the character. They must let themselves go and naturally step into who and what that character is. From this, true improv acting is embraced.

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