Alternatives to Holding Improv Auditions

Are you trying to form an improv group or looking to add more talent to your existing group? Or do you run an improv theater? If so, you might assume that your first order of business is to hold auditions.

However, holding auditions isn’t always the best way to discover the best talent.

This week, Improv Nerd director Sam Bowers shares his ideas for four alternative ways you can cast your shows…

Many improvisers are at their best when they are comfortable, calm, and thinking clearly. You know, things that have never happened during an improv audition. So, often, holding formal auditions only highlights improvisers who are both lucky and potentially capable of performing under extreme pressure.

While delivering in primetime is certainly a valuable skill, there are so many more skills that often don’t get shown unless someone is level headed, which they likely aren’t during an audition.

Unless you’re an equity theater like The Second City and are legally required to hold annual auditions, there are far more effective ways to discover talent. Here are four alternative approaches you can use to cast your shows.

For improv groups:

  1. Host a Jam
    You’re a team of five that you want to turn into a team of six, and there are a bunch of performers on your radar. Throw a jam and invite all of them to come play. This doesn’t even need to be on a stage in a theater; even a house or backyard jam will do. This will allow your existing ensemble to get a ton of reps with all prospects in a low-stakes environment. If someone really stands out, ask them if they’d like to start practicing or playing with you. Nobody will ever know it was an audition.
  1. Invite someone to practice
    Scout your community and highlight a player you think could really benefit your team. Invite that person to sit in on a practice. Make the environment as welcoming as possible and give them a solid one to two hours of play with your group so they can be comfortable and get a feel for your team’s vibe. This way, every member of your ensemble will have the chance to play with them, allowing everyone the opportunity to thoroughly analyze if this is someone you want to join your team.
  1. Ask someone to sit in on a show
    “Hey, ______ dropped out tonight, do you want to sit in with us?” Even if it’s totally manufactured, this is often a very low-pressure way to see if someone can deliver with your team in front of a live audience. Since they’re dropping in last minute, they can’t be expected to full-on crush the show, but you can see how they handle a live audience and play with your team. If it goes well, you can naturally invite them to join you more often, and then permanently. If they tank, everyone can thank them for stepping up to fill a hole that night and move on, without that person knowing they were auditioning in the first place.

For improv theaters:

  1. Pull up performers from your classes
    This should absolutely be your method if you run an institution that offers a training program. At the end of your training program, offer an indefinite opportunity for students to perform during an off night or less-valuable slot. Several ComedySportz cities call this “minor league,” while many other theaters call them “house teams.” By giving these actors the opportunity to perform a version of your show every week, you can easily track their progress and continue training them to fit your philosophy. This also removes the folks who don’t really have their heart in it, such as people who come out of nowhere and nail an audition, only to quit six months later. When a player seems to be ready for your main ensemble, or you have the need for more bodies, pull up the players who are delivering week in and week out.

Sam Bowers is the director of Improv Nerd and the co-producer of the 24-Hour Sketch Comedy Competition, happening Feb. 10 from 8-9:30 p.m. at Second City.

Want to try a new approach to improv? Don’t miss Jimmy’s Art of Slow Comedy Level 1 class, starting March 6! Save $30 when you sign up by Feb. 20.

How Not to Sabotage Your Auditions

I have a good friend who is an accomplished singer and actor who recently got a great callback for a play she auditioned for. She put a lot effort into the audition and she was excited about it, but a couple of days before the callback, she started to doubt whether she really wanted the part.

“I don’t know. Maybe I don’t really want to be in this show after all,” she told me. “I mean, it’s during the winter. Maybe I won’t want to drive to the theater in the snow. Maybe I’ll want to go to Florida at that time.”

To me, this makes perfect sense. I can totally relate to wanting to back out of something even though she hadn’t even been offered the part yet. In my experience, the harder you work for something and the closer you come to achieving it, the more you want to talk yourself out of it.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten a call back for films, TV shows and commercials where I don’t even want to show up because I start telling myself that the process will be inconvenient for me. I’ll say to myself, “Ugh, why am I even going on this? They’re shooting in Atlanta, and I don’t want to go to Atlanta,” or “Maybe I shouldn’t even go to this callback. They’re looking for a chef, and I can’t play a chef.”

Sounds convincing, doesn’t it?

I have to constantly remind myself that the voice in my head that is telling me to quit is not the voice of my better self; it’s the voice of my inner critic. And that voice really does not belong to me. Maybe it belongs to your parents or to a teacher or a sibling that put you down. The hard part is we are convinced that that voice is really looking out for us. We think those doubts are our intuition. But let me tell you, the voice that is doubting yourself is not a voice that should be trusted.

Luckily, my friend did the thing that your inner critic hates the most, and that is to talk to other people about it. Your inner critic wants you to keep the secret to yourself so that you have better chance of not showing up for your big break. And when you talk to other people, they will remind you of what your true goals are.

Your inner critic will do anything to make you think that quitting is not only a good idea, but that you came up with it.

Of course if you really want to piss off your inner critic off, then keep going after something big. It will feel threatened. It will start kicking and screaming. It is like a trained actor who will try different tactics to achieve his wants in the scene.

My inner critic has become very clever over the years. Usually, when I am about to cross the finish line of something, my inner critic shows up as apathy. In this very convincing and concerned voice it will say, “That’s not really important to you; you really don’t want that.” Sometimes I can laugh at it. Sometimes I lash out, but most of the time it’s like an uninvited party guest who is there to ruin my birthday.

I think I have written about this before — we think that that when we reach our goals, like being cast in a movie or in a play or on an improv team, that we will be jumping for joy. That has not been my experience. For me, when I achieve something, my first response is never joy. It’s usually fear followed by dread with a little doom mixed in.

Can I stop the inner critic voice in my head? No way, I cannot. It’s too powerful.

But what I can do is reframe it. I can be aware that the bigger the opportunity, the louder the voice will be in my head telling me to quit or give up. Sometimes today I look at it as a highway sign that says Success Town is four miles away. I have come to accept that is how my mind works.

Take your improv to new heights this summer! Spots are still available in Jimmy’s Art of Slow Comedy Level 2 class starting July 11, and his summer intensives July 14-15, July 28-29, and Aug. 11-12. Sign up today!

What To Do When You Choke in Auditions

If you have been doing improv for a while you will eventually get a chance to audition for some pretty cool stuff. Stuff you will really want to get. It may be for a Harold team, or a show, or if you’re lucky, even bigger things like a role on TV or film. Some stuff you will get and some you will have the opportunity to choke — you know, blow it, bomb, stink up the room.

Why do we choke in auditions? There are a million reasons. All I know is it cannot be avoided. It’s real. It exists. When it happens, it’s as painful as getting your hand slammed in the car door. The point is, it hurts.

When (not if) you choke, the goal is to feel your feelings and not let it ruin the rest of your day, the rest of your week, or in severe cases, the rest of your life. I cannot believe I am going to say this, but I am actually getting better at dealing with both choking and the aftermath.

Last month, I had a big audition for me. It was for two lines as shlubby drug dealer for the NBC show Chicago PD.   Because it was  for a network TV shows, and  I get scared whenever I audition for this particular casting director, and  I knew there was a good chance I was going to choke.

Even though I had over rehearsed the lines in the front of the mirror in the bathroom at my house and on the L on the way downtown, it didn’t seem to make a difference.

When I got into the audition room and stood in front of the camera, my breathing stopped and my heart rate increased. I was light headed and could not feel my hands. The casting director read the script and gave me my cue. That’s when I went blank. Deer-in-the- head-lights-blank.

Trying to recover, I stated the obvious, “I am drawing a blank.” (Remember, this was two lousy lines for Christ’s sake!) The casting director read the lines I was supposed to say out loud before she gave me another try. On the second take, I forced the lines out of my mouth, which by this time had gone dry. In terms of performance, I had clearly choked, and this time it only took two lines to do so. I had broken my old record.

Here is where the story gets good. Sure, I felt shame and fear that I would never be called back in, but they weren’t at my usual toxic levels. And just as the negative voices started in my head — “You’re a bad actor,” “You need to quit” — they were interrupted by one gentle thought: “How about you just got nervous?”

I have been auditioning for close to 25 years and choking for way more than that, and I have NEVER had that kind of thought. The truth is, I’m not a bad actor. I have gotten my fair share of parts on network TV shows and major studio movies when they come to Chicago, and some have been larger parts then what I just auditioned/choked for, so to say I am bad actor was a lie.

What was true was I got nervous. I actually knew the lines, and once again, I psyched myself out. It was also clear that what I need to do next time is to take care of myself and calm my nerves.

What surprised me was how kind I was to myself under these circumstances. I do not have the reputation for being particularly nice to myself, especially when I think I  fuck up. Not only did I realize that being kind to myself stopped my shame spiral, but also I realized that I might actually be getting better. The whole aftermath of choking lasted a matter of minutes when it normally would last days, sometimes weeks. Now the only thing that scares me now is what am I going to do with all of this free time?

Want to study with Jimmy Carrane? Sign up for his next Two-Person Scene Tune-Up on Aug. 22! This 3-hour workshop is open to 14 people. Register today.

Tips to Nail Your Next Improv Audition

Auditioning is a way of life for improvisers. You’ll never stop auditioning, so you’ll just have to get good at it! Learning to embrace the audition process, and to finally relax and have fun, will do wonders for your performance. We asked some professional improvisers — Jay Sukow, a former teacher at Second City; Amey Goerlich, an independent improv teacher in New York; Will Hines, former head of the UCB Training Center in New York; Brian Posen, Program Head at the Second City Training Center; and Adal Rifai, member of the Harold Commission, which selects teams for iO Chicago — for their best tips to use at your next improv audition.

Here’s what they had to say:

Headshots and Resumes

“Get a good, professional headshot. Not a photo from a friend who shoots weddings, or a Facebook photo, or a stick figure drawing (I’ve personally seen this more than 10 times). And get an acting resume together. It’s different than a professional resume. A sparse resume is fine if you’re just starting off. But never, ever lie on your resume. Your resume lists an Irish accent? Be ready to speak it. Says you can do a New York accent? Change it immediately. There is no ‘New York’ accent. There are boroughs, the Hudson Valley, upstate New York, but no one New York accent. My wife and I ran a company who cast actors and improvisers. She’s from the Bronx. If during our audition you claimed you could do a New York accent, she’d ask to hear it. It was always a caricature of Jersey/Boston/Sopranos. And we never cast that person. Ever.” — Jay Sukow

“Be prepared. Have a few headshots and resumes always ready to go. Even though many people do not take hard copies anymore it’s still good to have them on hand and replace as you go. Don’t scramble around the day-of making copies at Kinkos.” — Amey Goerlich

Audition-Appropriate Appearance

“Treat this audition like a job; which it is. No shorts, t-shirts, sunglasses, baseball hats, loud shoes, dangling jewelry. Look sharp.” — Jay Sukow

“Look your best. Don’t dress like a slob, but don’t overdress for an audition. Know your type and have some outfits on hand that are your go-to winning looks.” — Amey Goerlich

“Dress appropriately. Look nice. And try to wear a little something that would have the auditioners remember you. A bow in your hair. A vest. Something that makes you pop a bit without being ‘on.’” — Brian Posen

“Dress as if you’re doing a show. If you wear a t-shirt, sandals, shorts, a hat (on stage), a scarf or anything else that’s distracting or could be used as a prop then I’m not going to take you seriously. Even just blue jeans and a button-up are fine. Doesn’t have to be a tux. And for God’s sake, turn off your phones.” — Adal Rifai

Be On Time

“Show up early, be ready to wait. Be nice to the person checking you in. Let them know if you have to step out so when they call your name, they aren’t searching for you.” — Jay Sukow

“Be on time. Even though you may have three auditions in one day, schedule appropriately and give yourself enough time to get to each location. Try to be 10 minutes early. Sometimes you can slip in before your time, which is great, because most auditions are at least 30 minutes behind.” — Amey Goerlich

“Arrive early. You need time to breathe and get yourself in the right frame of mind.” — Brian Posen

“Be early. If you show up 15 minutes before your timeslot then you’re on time. If you show up on the dot, you’re late.” — Adal Rifai

Take Time to Focus, Prep, and Warm Up

“Relax. Take a deep breath before your audition. Leave your ego at the door. Warm up. A lot improvisers don’t warm up before the audition and they go in nervous and cold and don’t connect to their scene partner. They think they can just show up and be great. Or, they’ll show up late, or flustered and/or sweaty, or not ready in various ways. That will affect your audition. Put yourself in a mind-set to be ready to play.” — Jay Sukow

“Prep yourself before going in. Warm up. Get yourself playful and focused. Have your mind set to initiate, listen, support and have all your scenes filled with feeling.” –Brian Posen

Walking into the Audition

“It is an audition. You are judged once you walk into the room. Auditors each look for something different. I watch how much you support your partner. I watch where your focus is when you’re waiting to improvise. Other people look for different things. There’s no one way to audition, and each person looks for something different. If you want to be an improviser or actor, your job is to audition. This audition is one of many. It is a chance to perform. We want to watch you have fun.” — Jay Sukow

“If you have to introduce yourself as part of the audition, make sure to fill the space with your voice, state your name with confidence, and always have a feel about yourself that is nice and playful.” — Brian Posen

Tips to Follow During the Audition

“Listen. Listen to what the instructions are, listen to your scene partner. In the scene, listen and react. Also, be great. I watch a lot of people think it’s funny to be ‘ironically bad’ at something. It’s not. Play to the height of your intelligence. Also, make emotional connections with your scene partner immediately. Know who they are. Be in a relationship with emphasis on the first part of that word: relate. Give them gifts. We are all supporting actors.” — Jay Sukow

“Don’t start with a fight. The pressure to react decisively and to give yourself a point of view will trick you into being offended by the first choice. Spend your first move being cool with and unsurprised by the start of the scene — say yes, match tone, be cool, be in it. Even if the person initiates (or if YOU initiate) with an accusation, the accusation should not be received with surprise: agree with it. You’ll feel a nice little click of connection. After that click, you’ll be okay reacting however you feel, even if your characters THEN start arguing.” — Will Hines

“Take direction. If a director or casting agent asks you to try it a different way, then show them you can take direction and do it. Be your brand, but show range. If you have two scenes, try to support in one and initiate in another. Play a straight-man and then play a character, or just show that you can have a point of view that is strong.” — Amey Goerlich

“Feel, feel, feel! Please… feel something. And something about your partner. The scene is always about sharing moments between you and the other breathing people on the stage. Make sure you show your range. Make sure not to fall into the trap of playing the same type of character throughout the entire audition. Mix it up. Always be interested and active. Especially if you are watching someone else’s work. Believe me… we watch you watch. Are you a team player or just about yourself? Be nice. Be positive. Be playful. Be confident. Be grateful. Be nice. And be nice.” — Brian Posen

“View everyone you’re playing with as potential teammates and not competition. Show us your unique comedic point of view and sensibilities. Don’t mimic pop culture or your favorite improvisers outright. It’s incredibly important to make your scene partner look good in scenes. If you can make anyone you play with look brilliant, then I want to cast you. If you wait until your partner stops talking and then launch into something ‘funny’ you were thinking about, you’re not going to get a callback. Be ok with spitting out coal and turning it into a diamond. There’s always a handful of people in auditions who struggle and shut down, trying to think of the absolute most brilliant or perfect thing to say for an initiation or response, trying to spit out a diamond. Just react and go from there. I’d rather see a scene start a bit slower and watch the humor build than see a scene start with a killer one liner and then tank because there’s nowhere else to go.” — Adal Rifai

After the Audition

“Once that audition is done, leave it there and move on. Don’t play out the audition in your head and think of things you could’ve done differently. You’ll never be able to change it. Be a nice person. It’s a small community and we talk to each other. And, if you don’t get it, audition again. Follow the fear.” — Jay Sukow

“Depending on the audition, send a ‘thank you’ letter within a few days of the audition. Believe me, a ‘thank you’ goes far and leaves an impression.” — Brian Posen

“Never give up. Also know when to say ‘when.’ Is this goal important to your overall career? Maybe one theater isn’t grooving with your brand or sensibility. That’s fine — go somewhere else and try another theater. If all fails, create your own community of like-minded people to perform and network with. If you are affected too much by rejection then this isn’t a career you want to get into. The wins may be small, but they outweigh the losses by a long-shot.” — Amey Goerlich


What are your best tips for rocking improv auditions? Share in the comments below.

Don’t forget to register for the last available spots in Jimmy Carrane’s upcoming Art of Slow Comedy Summer Intensives (July 11-12 and 25-26) before they’re gone!

Making auditions fun again

Years ago there was an actor here in Chicago who used to book a lot of commercials, parts on TV and films and voiceovers. He always had a positive outlook and he was one of only a handful of actors in town making a living at acting.

When I’d see him in the waiting room for an audition I would automatically give up and think, “Why did they even call me in?” Because I knew he’d get the part.

One time after an audition, I asked him “What is your secret of getting so much work?”

He said simply: “I look at an audition is my opportunity to perform. It’s my time during the day where I get to come in and perform, showing them what I can do.” As he spoke, you could see the joy coming from his face. I did not look at auditions that way. In fact, I resented auditioning and did not even know it.

That actor gave me that advice at least 10 to 15 years ago, but I’m a slow learner and did not fully understand it until last week.

Lately, I haven’t been auditioning much, and I’ve been improvising even less, and I need that outlet, not only for professional reasons but for psychological ones. So when my agent called and said he had an audition for me for an independent short film, I jumped at the chance. Sure, I liked the script and loved the character, but I wanted to perform.

Typically, when I get an audition I am filled with anxiety because I put so much pressure on myself for getting the part, which is really more about me validating my existence than getting the part. But this time was different. I felt excited and happy to go in and perform and show them what I could do with the part. The thought that “I have to get this part or I am a piece of shit” was gone.

So I hired an on-camera coach, Catherine Head, and even that was different. Instead of thinking, “God, Catherine, help me get this part. I need it for my low self-esteem,” it was replaced by the excitement of getting to learn from her. This was not me. Catherine gave me lots of tips I had heard before, but this time, I heard them differently, and in about an hour, she had me in good shape for the part.

The next day, I went to the audition with my new mantra: “I want to perform. I want to perform.” As I sat in the waiting room with the other actors, I could hear laughter coming from the closed casting room door like there was a party inside and I wasn’t invited.

Sometimes I can use that to psych myself out, but I’ve been around long enough to know that just because you have the room dying in laughter does not mean you going to get the part. I have been on both sides of that equation before. Finally, the door opened from the casting room and out shot three actors. One of them was Brian Bolland, who had been on the Mainstage at Second City and was someone I like and respect. I forced a theater hug on him and he said, “You are perfect for this part.” He knew my work and I felt he meant it, and I really appreciated.

Then I went into the room. I got to audition with the two other actors, which is always better than just reading the lines with the casting person’s assistant or the intern. Then I did what I always do: my nerves and my neuroses kicked in and I rushed through the scene forgetting my new mantra. Then the director gave the three of us notes, and he told me to slow down, which was a note Catherine had given me, and told me that my character was a know-it-all. The second time through, I took his direction and something amazing happened — I discovered the character. It was the most fun I had performing in a while, and I felt proud of what I did.

On the ride home, for the first time in years, I didn’t second-guess myself and my choices or beat myself up, because I knew I had given it my best. That night, I checked my e-mail, and my agent contacted me saying congratulations, the filmmakers wanted to check my availability to do the film.

I hope I end up getting to do this part, because I want to keep performing.

Thanks for continuing to be such a big fan of my blog! I wanted to let you know that I will be teaching only one more Fundamentals of Art of Slow Comedy Class this summer starting on June 21st. I limit this class to 12 people so you get the reps you deserve and the plenty of personal attention. So whether if you are a seasoned improviser looking for a new approach or relatively newbie to improv, I would love to work with you. Have a great summer. — Jimmy