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6 Reasons Actors Should Take an Improv Class

Actors are often skeptical of taking an improv class. I can’t tell you how many actors tell me “I am a serious actor. Why do I need to take an improv class?” Or they say, “I’m not funny,” “It scares me,” or “I wouldn’t be any good at it.”

Actors avoid taking improv classes for lots of different reasons, but the truth is, improv classes make people better actors. I don’t care if you don’t do comedy or you don’t think you are funny. Improv is not necessarily about being funny at all, but instead it is a methodology that can make you a better actor by making you more real, more able to react honestly in the moment and more.

So before you come up with any more excuses I haven’t even thought of, here are six things that improv classes can help you with as an actor.

  1. Be More Playful
    In my experience, the best actors bring a sense of playfulness to any role they undertake. If they’re playing a dark or disturbing role, you might call this mischief or danger, but underneath they are enjoying it. Unfortunately, too many actors think they need to be serious because they think that’s what good acting is. But remember, when we act in a PLAY, we’re supposed to it PLAY in the imaginary circumstance. Play means to have fun. When I was little kid we played SWAT. We took it seriously and didn’t break out of our police characters, but underneath we were having fun capturing the bad guys. Though I have comedy background, I have been cast in TV and film parts that would be considered “serious acting” roles. And I landed those roles even though I was playing a jerk or a scared prison guard because deep down I was enjoying playing that part. I learned that all in improv.
  1. Take Direction
    When I go into an audition I have prepared at home in front of the mirror a certain way. But what happens if the casting people want to see it another way? Some actors freeze and end up blowing the audition. If only they had a little improv under their belt so they could be more adaptable. I once landed a role on ER as Manny the used car salesman because I asked a question in the casting session which led me do it the opposite way that everyone else had just done it, and guess what? I got the part. Thanks to improv, I could adjust do things differently.
  1. Be in the Moment
    I love watching great acting because even though the actors are saying someone else’s words, they are reacting as if they have never heard those words before. It’s as if they are improvising with a script. Improv teaches you how to be in the moment so your emotional reactions can feel truly authentic and genuine.
  1. Take Risks
    Great actors take risks. They surprise you with their choices. They are constantly taking risks at the audition, in rehearsal and during the run of the show. To get there you have to give yourself permission to constantly experiment. In improv, you’re forced to take risks and put yourself out there without a safety net, and one of the most important improv philosophies is that there are no mistakes, which encourages people to take risks in supportive environment. By practicing taking risks in improv, you’ll be able to take bigger risks in your acting as well.
  1. Be More Confident
    Whenever an actor takes one of my improv classes or workshops, I’m always amazed at how much their confidence level improves. After two weeks, I’ll have actors come into class and say, “I am auditioning better, I’m having more fun, and I have a new-found confidence.”
  1. Be More Believable
    What actor does not want to be more believable? But sometimes when we get a script in our hands, we become more concerned with the words on the page than with relating to our scene partners. The dialogue that comes out of our mouth seems lifeless and flat, like we’re robots who don’t know how to relate to people. Taking improv classes helps actors become more fluid with their own words, which eventually helps you become more at ease with others’ words, too. Once you’ve overcome the fear of creating your own dialogue in improv, reciting from a script will seem easy.

Are you an actor interested in trying your hand at improv? Don’t miss Jimmy’s next Art of Slow Comedy Level 1 class, starting Feb. 22 at Green Shirt Studio. The Early Bird special ends Feb. 8! 

195: Jason Winer

Jason Winer is a director, an Emmy-award wining producer, and writer. He has directed and produced such hit sitcoms as Modern Family, Life in Pieces and The Crazy Ones. Jason studied at iO Chicago back in the late ’90s and was part of the team The Tribe. Jimmy talked to him about learning to improvise at young age thanks to his supportive parents, his initial reaction to Modern Family, and he how he works with actors.

194: Nia Vardalos

Nia Vardalos is an actress, screenwriter and director; best known for her critically acclaimed films My Big Fat Greek Wedding I and II.

Jimmy talks to Nia about how she went from working in the box office at The Second City to getting hired as an actor, using improv to write her screenplays, and the importance of following your heart.

188: Pete Gardner

Pete Gardner plays Darryl Whitefeather on the hit CW sitcom My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Jimmy sat down and talked with him about why he moved to Chicago in the ’90s to study improv, the importance of taking acting classes even when you are on hit sitcom, and his relationship with his father.

183: Jon Favreau

Jon Favreau is a well-known writer, actor and director who has directed such films as Iron Man 1 and 2, Elf, Made, and Chef, just to name a few. He’s also the director of Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book, which comes out April 15. Jimmy sat down with Jon Favreau to discuss his comedy days in Chicago, what tools he uses from his improv training to write his films, and working with Bill Murray on The Jungle Book.

The Actor’s Dilemma: Is It Worth It to Do Acting for Free?

A friend of mine who is an actor called me the other day in a panic. He had a decision to make and wanted some help. He had been offered a part in an independent film that was shooting out of town. And while he was excited to have a part in a film, he would have to drive about 15 hours there and back, he wasn’t sure if they were going to pay for his lodging or meals, and he wasn’t going to get paid.

He was confused. On the one hand, he was afraid if he said no to it, he would be passing up an opportunity, but on the other hand, he didn’t want to keep acting for free.

This is a common problem for many aspiring actors. We know that in order to grow our careers, we have to start by being in shows and films for little to no money. In the beginning, agreeing to do projects for free helps us gain valuable experience, gives us an opportunity to network and provides us some good clips for our reel. But once we’ve gotten that, continuing to do projects for no money offers diminishing returns. After a while, it just keeps us small.

So the question for my friend was, “Was this film worth it?”

As we kept talking, his voice got calmer and he got clearer on what he wanted. He realized if he was going to do all that driving and lose two days of work from his day job to be part of the film, then he wanted to get paid. How much he wanted, he wasn’t clear on yet, so I suggested that he call his agent and ask him what would be a fair price for this kind of work.

Later that day, my friend and his agent came up with a price to do the film, and then the agent said the director should contact him directly to negotiate the fee.

So my friend e-mailed the director telling him to contact his agent, and the director got all weird and did not want to deal with his agent, which put an end to the negotiation, and the part, for my friend.

The good news was the decision was made for him. Sometimes when you start to take yourself and your career seriously, the Universe can’t help but to do the same.

Even though he didn’t get the part, my friend made all the right moves. He called someone for help, he took care of himself by running the offer by his agent, and then he acted super professionally by not lashing out at the director. No part of this process was easy.

As you read this, if you’re like most actors, you may say, “But Jimmy, he did not get the part.” You are right. But the story does not end there.

A week later, my friend called me back again and wanted to share some good news. Since he had “lost” the part in the film, he had gotten cast in a play, booked the biggest commercial of his career, and had just landed an audition for a network TV series, which happened to be on the same day he was supposed to be out of town shooting that independent film.

Coincidence? I think not, and neither did my friend.

“I never would have gotten all of these opportunities if had a taken the independent film,” he said, sounding much more calm and confident than he had the week before. “The Universe took me seriously because I took myself seriously.”

I hope I can remember to do the same.

The best way to start off the new year? A Two-Person Scene Tune Up with Jimmy Carrane! Happening Jan. 2. Only $79.

Going to the dark side

Art of Slow Comedy

There’s been something coming up lately in my improv classes, The Art of Slow Comedy, that I call the dark side.

Students will be doing a scene with a so-called dark subject matter — pedophilia, racism, abortion — and the scene will end up being more dramatic than funny. Afterwards, the students will look shaken and have a stunned look on their face, and the first thing that will come out their mouths is, “What’s the point of doing that? It’s not funny.”

In most cases it’s not. Is it emotionally compelling? Yes. Funny? Some of the time. As Norm Holly from Second City recently said to me, it takes a sophisticated player to make dark subject matter funny.

So if you’re just starting out in improv, what’s the point of doing a gut-wrenching scene about finding out your girlfriend had an abortion she never told you about or playing a creepy neighbor who is having sex with a 14-year-old?

The point is going to the dark side helps you learn how to act.

Listen up, here, because this important. First and foremost YOU ARE AN ACTOR, which means you have to learn how to react with emotional honestly. Before you can play something funny, you have to learn how to play it real.

You might think that improv is just comedy, not acting, but that is not true. The best improvisers usually are the best actors, and if you want to go on to do work that eventually pays and gives you more exposure, like commercials, TV and film, you are going to have get comfortable with just acting.

I totally get why improvisers resist doing dark scenes. Often, improvisers are afraid to play dark characters because they think when they get off stage people may think they are actually the character they just portrayed.

But learning how to go to the dark side is important because we need to learn how play a variety of characters and a variety of emotions. The goal of an improviser is to play all spectrums of life, the dark and the light, and to use all the colors of your palate. Most improvisers have the whole “playing positive” thing down pretty well, but they need to be pushed toward the thing they avoid the most — the dark side of life.

If you want to be good at long form, you have carry “variety” in your tool belt and be able to do the dark scenes as well as the positive scenes.

So if you find yourself doing a dark, dramatic gut-wrenching scene about date raping your girlfriend — and it will happen, it’s bound to happen, I hope it happens — by all means stay with it. Commit even more to the emotions, heighten the drama and then when it’s over, see what it’s like to come out on the other side.

Whatever you do, don’t rip yourself off from this experience by bailing on yourself and your scene partner by trying to turn it into something funny. It’s OK to be uncomfortable. Actually it’s good, and it doesn’t have to make sense while you are doing it.

Trust me, you will learn a lot from this — how far you are willing to go, how far you need to go, what it’s like to take up that much space on stage and not be funny, what you can do next time to make it funny, and on and on.

Sometimes it’s just helpful for an improviser to go there, swinging the pendulum to other side, just to see how it feels. And when you are finished, by all means ask your teacher: “What was the point of that? It isn’t funny.” And see what happens.

My wife thinks I'm not a good actor

10/19/12: My Wife ThinkS I’m NOT A Good Actor

Jimmy CarraneI recently had an audition for NBC’s “Chicago Fire.” A security guard, a couple of lines. Pretty easy… or so I thought.

But, whenever I have an audition, I put so much pressure on myself that it’s no longer about getting the job, it’s about my self-worth. The sad thing is I have been going to audition after audition for more than 20 years — for commercials and industrials and bit parts in movies and TV shows — and 70 percent of the time when I leave an audition I sink down into a terrible pit, asking myself why I am even trying to be an actor.

At home, my wife, Lauren, ran the lines with me. It gets frustrating running the lines with her since she can memorize them after four or five readings, but I feel like I am back in high school cramming for a World History test.

We kept going over the script and each time, I wasn’t getting the reaction I wanted from her, so I kept losing confidence. Lately, I have been so needy in my acting and performing, looking for that outside validation from my wife, and when I don’t get it, I am more than willing to blow every opportunity that comes my way. They call that self-sabotage. I left the house feeling like I sucked.

When I walked into the room for the audition, the director and producer sat comfortably in the back on a leather sofa. I tried to find the girl who was going to read with me as someone handed me a tiny microphone to clip onto my shirt. Then I nervously began to read the script.

They let me read it three times, normally a good sign.

The second time, they said: “Don’t bend down when you deliver the lines.” The third time, they said: “This guy is business as usual.”

When I was finished, I felt like I might have a shot. I took direction pretty well and they had asked me to do it three times, which meant they must have seen something they liked.

As I was leaving the room, the casting director, whom I have known for years, followed me out and pulled me into vacant room and said in a very supportive tone:

“Do you know you are reading the first line?”

“Um… um…. No, I didn’t,” I said, feeling like a brick hit me in the head.

“I wanted you to know that. That is how you lost the last job.”

“Is that what I did in there?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. Obviously, if I had to ask her, I was doing it in there.

“What can I do next time?” I asked, still seeing stars from the brick.

“You know the script. Memorize the first line. Say it to yourself five times in the waiting room before you go in.”

Immediately, my brain went to three places:

1. Oh god, they will never call me in again.

2. I suck.

3. I want to kill myself.

But after a few minutes I realized that her feedback was actually incredibly helpful, and I felt hopefully that she’d taken the time to give me some constructive notes. Maybe it meant she thought I had potential.

The next night I went to couples therapy with Lauren, and I still had a bit of an emotional whiplash from the day before.

At the end of the session I said: “Maybe I am projecting this onto Lauren, but I don’t think Lauren thinks I am a good actor.”

There was a long pause, and I heard her squirm on the couch next to me.

“I have to be honest with you. I don’t think you are a good actor.”

Another brick. Then I went to those three places again. (Refer to above)

I felt angry. She was telling me this now, after we just got married?! She is my wife, she is supposed to support me. I was devastated. What was I supposed to do with this?

Later, I talked to my friend, Dan, who said, “I don’t know what this all means, but I bet it makes you a better actor.” Though I still felt angry about this, I had to agree with Dan.

After a week of wanting to kill my wife for saying this, I started realizing something: What I hated wasn’t her opinion about my acting, it was my opinion about my acting. I was the one who didn’t think I was very good. And though in perfect world your partner should think everything you do is Oscar-worthy, I would rather have her be honest with me than blow smoke up my ass.

And I started thinking about some of the lessons I’ve learned from other improvisers over the years. Jon Favreau used to be an improviser here in Chicago before he went on to become a hugely successful writer, director and actor. He wasn’t known as a great improviser, and he got lost at iO and couldn’t get any recognition at Second City or The Annoyance Theater. It was safe to say Jon wasn’t getting much validation from the improv community he wanted to to be part of, but he didn’t let that stop him. Favreau believed in himself. He believed he had talent. And he especially didn’t care what other people said. After he got a co-starring role in the film “Rudy,” he went out to LA and made things happen for himself, starting with writing and starring in “Swingers.” He surprised everyone, except himself.

When it comes to confidence, I am a work in progress. The one thing I am clear about is no one is going to have confidence in you, if you don’t have confidence in you.  If you believe you are good, they will believe you are good. Any TV and film jobs I have booked over the years all had the same thing in common: I went into the audition ready to play with confidence.

I am going to be blunt. Working on my confidence takes work. Constant work, hard work, and sometimes I will be able to get help form the people I am closest to and sometimes not. And the more confidence I get, the less I look for outside validation. Even from my wife.