Improv Nerd with John Hartman

Guess what? You're acting

This message is going out to all you talented, young improvisers out there: Good improv is good acting.

I know what you are thinking: “I am doing comedy, I don’t need to be a better actor.” Or maybe you’re you didn’t even realize that what you are doing on stage when you’re improvising IS acting. I am here to tell you that it is, and that the better you get at acting, the better you will be at improv.

If you say that you don’t want to learn how to act, it’s like saying you don’t want to learn how to do object work or learn how to do yes… and. How many more father and son scenes can we see where the improvisers aren’t really emotionally invested in the relationship? Naming someone “Dad” in scene does not mean you have created a relationship that the audience cares about. We’re doing theater, here, people. If we’re not acting, we’re just doing a parlor game, and a hacky one at that.

I just had John Hartman on Improv Nerd this past week, and we did a scene where I was a restaurant manager who was trying to get his employee to keep working during the lunch rush instead of going to see his wife have their baby. What made the scene great was John’s emotional reactions to me as the bullying manager. Because we were both invested in our characters, the audience was invested in us. We were acting.

I’ve taken Meisner classes, cold reading classes and scene study classes over the years, and the biggest thing I’ve realize is that it’s not about the words, it’s about the connection. We believe a character by who he IS and not always what he says. I know improv is slightly different and the words are important to keeping a scene going forward, but if you are willing to put the acting first and the words (i.e. trying to be witty or clever) second, you will see a big difference in your work.

Recently, in my Advanced Level class of The Art of Slow Comedy, I had student who was naturally funny and a seasoned improviser who seemed to be getting in his own way by worrying about being funny. I could relate, so I gave him this note early on in the six-week class: “Think of this as an acting class.”

Gradually his work came to life. He focused on listening and emotionally connecting to his partner. His scene work became fluid and he even admitted a couple of times in class that he resisted going for the laugh. That’s always a great sign that he took the note to heart and was willing to try a different approach to the work.

And it paid off. At the last class we did a long form performance for family and friends, and he and the group hit it out of the park. Because he was listening and reacting to his partner on stage, he was ten times as funny and 100 times more compelling to watch. He was acting. After the show, when I was giving notes, he said the thing that help him the most was the note “Think of this like an acting class.”

Personally, I forget this note all the time and need to be reminded. When I am terrified to improvise, I will sometimes call my friend, Bill Boehler, before a show, and say “I don’t feel funny,” or “I am afraid,” and he will say “All you have to do is act up there.” I am not the most gifted actor, but I know exactly what he means.

So to all you talented young improvisers out there, “All you have to is just act up there.”

3 replies
  1. Ruby Vega
    Ruby Vega says:

    I have found it is so tough for some people to just let go of inhibitions and the fact that there is an audience and simply commit to the character they are slowly building as an improviser. But essentially yes, what is going on up there is portraying the emotions, the statements of a character that is not necessarily you… acting. The funny will come naturally, but regardless of what is being said, you are acting without a script. And once you have that break through, being on stage is SO MUCH FUN!!!

  2. Pat Shay
    Pat Shay says:

    I also frequently tell my students that the converse is true:

    Scripted Acting IS improvising – you’re just taking more suggestions.

    I may be improvising a piece in which the lines are set and the blocking and fight choreo is all set… but my job is the same – listen in this moment. Be affected in this moment. Show it. The fact that I have words ready doesn’t change my job description: send energy back and forth between my partner and the audience.

    The words may come from the script but the moment comes NOW.

  3. Pete
    Pete says:

    This is the best blog post yet, Jimmy. Great advice. “Think of this as an acting class” is the perfect note.

    And I like Pat Shay’s comment that scripted acting is improvising. Yes!


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