Peter Grosz is best known as one of the two guys in the Sonic commercials, but he has also written for The Colbert Report and Late Night with Seth Meyers. He has performed at The Second City etc., the UCB, Boom Chicago, and iO Chicago. Jimmy talks to him about why he still loves improvising, getting hired to write for Colbert and why he likes to play the unlikable Sidney Purcell in HBO’s VEEP.
Improvisers and actors usually classify themselves either as one or the other. But you know what? I wish improvisers would realize they are really actors and actors to realize that learning how to improvise is a necessary part of acting.
Over the years, I’ve found that actors are afraid to improvise, convincing themselves they can’t work without a script. They will they get an audition where they will be asked to improvise and they will freeze up and leave dejected and won’t come close to getting cast.
On the flip side, often when improvisers have a script in their hands, they don’t have a clue what they are doing. They think that they’re such great improvisers, they don’t need to learn how to act. Both the actor and the improviser are missing opportunities.
Both the actor and improviser can learn from each other, and the easiest way to do that is for the improviser to take an acting class and the actor to take an improv class.
To help me explain why this is important, I asked Andrew Gallant, who teaches Meisner acting classes at Green Shirt Studio in Chicago, to give me his thoughts on the subject.
Why Improvisers Should Take Acting Classes
— Jimmy Carrane
1. It helps you get good with a script
Guess what improvisers? If you want to do commercials, TV and films — the things that actually pay you money and may bring some exposure to your career — then you are going to have to audition to get them. Which means you are going to have be good with a script. This translates to knowing how to ACT!
Improvisers have had the reputation for years that when they get in casting session and are asked to read off the script they usually suck. The reason they do is they usually have no formal ACTING experience or training. Remember, the last time I checked, there was no one getting rich off of just doing improv.
- It helps you develop your serious side
Improvisers for the most part want to be liked and make people laugh. They are terrified to go to the places where actors love to go to naturally. Acting classes are a great place to force improvisers out of their comfort zone and re-wire their brains to give them the confidence to go dramatic and let go of needing to get a laugh. Not only is this going to make them a much better improviser, it’s also going to give them so much more range as an actor. In my career, 80 percent of my TV and film credits have come from dramas, not comedies.
- You are both an actor and improviser
Yes, you call yourself an improviser but you are also an actor, so you as an actor, you should know the basic terminology of acting and know that your work ethic as improviser is not going to cut in theater, movies and television. Acting takes discipline. Actors prepare their asses off. Even if you are doing a scene in class you, will have to memorize the script, emotionally prepare for the scene and meet with your partner outside of class to rehearse. This takes hours and hours of work and commitment. Since improvisers can be extremely lazy and a little flaky, taking an acting class can be a rude, but necessary awakening if they want more from their career and themselves.
Why Actors Should Take Improv Classes
— Andrew Gallant, co-founder of Green Shirt Studio
- You will be asked to improvise whether you are a trained improviser or not
Guess what actors: You will be asked to improvise in your career as an actor. No matter how much you think of yourself as “not an improviser,” you will be asked to do it in auditions and on film sets. You will be asked to improvise in rehearsals. Commercials are FULL of improvisers. It will happen at some point in your career, no matter how afraid of improv you are. You will be asked to improvise. It is simply a skill that you need to develop if you want to be ready in the room.
- It reminds you how to play
There is a reason that you play a lot of games in improv classes: They reconnect you to the part of yourself that is impulsive, playful and willing to take risks. Games teach you to BE GAME. To be up for anything, ready to go, eager to jump into the unknown just for the fun of it. It’s so easy when actors are working on deeply dramatic texts to forget that there is joy and fun even in the hardest of work. Improv teaches us to relish play and open ourselves up to the joy of working with other people to make something in the moment we are sharing together.
- You learn to invest in the world outside yourself
One of my favorite lessons from improv is to “treat your partner like a rock star.” Improv, like the Meisner approach to acting, lays in the fundamental ethic that your partner gives you everything you need in the moment. Trusting your partner can be difficult, especially when you think you have a great idea of how things could go. Improv reinforces the truth that our clever ideas are never as interesting as what’s happening with the people around us. That kind of trust makes you a good performer, a good collaborator and a good person.
Are you an actor or an improviser looking to improve? Take Jimmy Carrane’s Art of Slow Comedy Level 3 class, which features a live performance, starting Jan. 6! Sign up by Dec. 26 to get the Early Bird pricing.
More and more on-camera auditions are asking actors to improvise and most actors think that improvising is about talking really, really fast and “trying” to be funny. These actors are ruining their years of acting experience with their skewed concept of improvisation. What they don’t realize is if you’re not listening and not in the moment, you won’t get the job.
On Jan. 9, Sean Bradley and I sat down with Grace McPhillips of the Chicago Film Actors Meet-Up Group to talk about how you can improvise effectively during on-camera auditions. Here are the top 10 things we think you need to know:
1. Determine WHAT you are reading for.
Most of time you will get a chance to improvise with commercials. If you’re auditioning for network TV shows or studio features, not so much. There is a possibility you may be expected to improvise for auditions for independent films or industrial films.
These are not hard and fast rules. You may get a feature director who wants you to improvise and commercial director who wants you to just say the words that are on the page. Remember your job is to adapt in the moment.
2. If you ad-libbed a line and it works in the audition, use it for the call back.
If you are fortunate enough to get to improvise on the set, by all means use a line or a bit. If it works, incorporate into the script; don’t feel you have to keep re-inventing.
3. It’s OK to pre-plan or write prior to the on-camera audition.
Sean suggested when preparing for an on-camera audition at home, feel free to write lines that come to you as you are working on the script with the intention that you will use them in the audition. As you are rehearsing , know where you would like to insert them, then find a couple of places where you can put the lines in the script and use them during the auditions.
4. Keep it simple.
If you do improvise at home before the audition or on set, don’t overdo it or you might not remember what you did. Instead, do a few things and keep it simple. According to Sean, “Do five things instead of 10.”
5. Know the story.
For commercial copy, know the beats of the script and understand the premise so you could improvise if they told you to throw away the script. The more comfortable you are with it, the more confidence you will have in improvising.
6. Own the room when you walk in.
Confidence can only help you in booking the job. Remember, an on-camera audition starts when you walk in the door, so be a presence when you enter. This is established through body language and feeling good about yourself. Fake till you make it. If you come in like “Oh, they’re just doing me a favor by calling me in for this,” it will affect your getting the part. Instead, walk in with the attitude, “I’m doing them a favor by showing up for this audition.” Directors want to work with confident people, so work on this, and remember sometimes your best acting happens off camera.
7. Ask the right questions.
Confidence can look like asking the right question if you don’t understand something. Ask questions about the material if you need to and remember it may lead to doing it a way you had not planned on. In fact, this may give you the edge on booking the part. This means you’ll be improvising with the script, and you’ll have to switch gears on your feet. It will also show that you can take directions. If you are afraid to ask questions or think you are bothering them or taking up their time, then that might be a bigger issue that you need to look at.
8. If they say to improvise you REALLY need to.
Sean says if they don’t mention improv, you should ANYWAY. If they say DON’T improvise, then don’t. I also discussed improvising into the scene, this means you do a couple lines and then go into the script. I usually ask if it’s okay if I improvise into the scene so they know what I am doing and can follow it.
9. Know what you can improvise.
When improvising for on-camera auditions for commercials, know the important information – whether it’s the benefits of the product or the date for an upcoming sale. That stuff stays in. Also, you need to know the comedy of the script. Don’t pile on the improv before the set up and punch line of the joke.
10. Learn by trying.
The only way to really get good at this is to take risks and actually try this stuff out. The best way to start learning is to take some improv classes.