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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.”

Going to the dark side

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 to 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 also 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 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.