Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Acting improv exercises

  1. Nov 11, 2012 #1
    I take acting classes and I'm pretty good at working with a script, but when it comes to doing improvisation scenes, I'm terrible. I'm nervous and I can't think of anything to say. I've been looking for some exercises I could do by myself to train my mind to think faster in those situations to have one thing to say right after the other, but I can't find anything. Anyone have any ideas on some exercises I could do on my own that might help me improve my improv acting?
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 11, 2012 #2
    I majored in Theater and did a fair amount of improv. It wasn't my strong suit but I usually had no trouble keeping the flow going.

    Another actor I met used to say "Acting is reacting." That was his whole technique in a nutshell: to react to the situation as if he were actually in it. I used to think that would be a good strategy for improv, but not necessarily for Shakespeare.

    So, that's my advice: put yourself as much in the situation as possible, then simply react to it.
  4. Nov 11, 2012 #3
    Thanks for the response.
    My problem is keeping the flow going, and I do have a hard time putting myself in the situation. Maybe because of my nervousness. I'm perfectly fine if I have a script, but I get extremely nervous when I get up there to begin an improv. It's weird. And I think that keeps me from putting myself in the situation like I should. The other person will say something and I have to struggle to find something relevant to say about the situation.
    That's why I was looking for some kind of exercise that could get my brain to where ideas just pop out of my head and keep the scene going at a good pace. Any ideas?
  5. Nov 11, 2012 #4


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    But how do you bring in the character you're playing? I mean, anyone can come up with "this is how I would react", but how can you quickly get to how the character would react?
  6. Nov 11, 2012 #5


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    Hey leroyjenkins.

    In addition to the above advice, I would suggest that aside from practice take an interest in a variety of different things so that you can expand your scope of things to draw off.

    If you are aware of a lot of different kinds of things then not only with things be organized differently internally, you will also be able to be more creative with those ideas since there are a lot of things in that head and not just things that are related to a few specialized topics.

    If you can get training in a situation that trains and forces you to think in ways you are not accustomed to then do that, but also take an interest in some of the weird and bizarre things and things you would not even think about doing.

    I guarantee that when you do this you'll get all kinds of crazy inspiration.

    It can also help to watch some of the most insane, random, out there, artistic, nutty and extreme stuff out there to draw inspiration from because the element of exaggeration in these things helps make for an exaggerated performance and performing is meant to be exaggerated (and for improv, exaggeration is a critical element along with satire).
  7. Nov 11, 2012 #6
    Improv is generally used when you're creating a script from scratch. The writer/director will set some parameters for a scene and then the actors improvise within those parameters. The particular features of the characters get created in the process. An actor may be told, "You're the bank teller during a robbery," and that actor creates the personal details of that bank teller, in conjunction with how the robber treats them (by reacting to the robber) during the improv. The only parameters constraining the actor is that his or her actions must be consistent with being in the position of a bank teller in the situation of a robbery.

    What the actors are doing here is throwing out raw material for the writer/director to work with. S/he will extrapolate the things that were interesting and readjust the parameters of future improvs to highlight those things. Eventually they start putting together a tentative script. (That was readjusted right up to opening night in all the cases like this I participated in.)

    The only other time I've seen improv used is as a general exercise in acting classes. I am not aware anyone does it in the case of finished, set scripts where the characters are already fully developed on paper.
  8. Nov 11, 2012 #7
    I'm feeling kinda baffled by this. Generally speaking people who are attracted to acting are rather frank attention whores ( I am, yes.) and chronic fantasizers: always mentally exploring being in situations they aren't actually in. In Shakespeare's day, actors, as you know, were referred to as "players". Acting is the "lets pretend" of childhood taken into adulthood and to the level of art (ideally). In other words, there's no where to get ideas about what to say in an improv except from taking the situation as real and reacting to it. I mean, if you're playing bank robbery everything you say has to be specific, not just to bank robberies, but to that bank robbery right then and there, and if you're the bank robber you have to take very seriously that you're about to force people to fork over money at gunpoint and that you might have to shoot someone to get compliance.

    Most improvs I recall were a lot tamer, like you're part of a couple breaking up, or you're a boss firing an employee. Same thing in all cases: everyone present has already agreed to play "lets pretend", so you just take the situation seriously and start acting and reacting. There's no right or wrong things to say and you're completely protected from the consequences by the fact it's just acting. You can yell at people or speak lovingly to them, rob them or give them a million dollars, make fun of them or flatter them, anything (except violence, of course). Your bank robber will be a unique creation arising from you and the other actors; your jilted lover, unique to you and that actress, your boss firing an underling unique to you and that actor. You focus on your goal and the situation feeds the script to you a piece at a time just as it does in real conversations.

    I always got plenty nervous at auditions and on opening nights. Never in improv because it's just "lets pretend" with loose parameters. I don't really know what to say because it's not a problem I had to cure in myself.
  9. Nov 12, 2012 #8
    Do you know the subjects the conversations will be about? Generally I found when trying to do this it was my lack of knowledge about subjects that was the biggest thing holding my improv back. Say you know nothing about baseball but are asked to improv like your at a baseball game then what do you talk about that's actually related to baseball? I don't like this saying for science type things but in acting the saying goes fake it till you make it.
  10. Nov 12, 2012 #9
    What you said makes a lot of sense. If you just sit around your house all day, I'd think your mind would become stagnant. Going out and doing things and staying active, I think, would make for a lively mind that constantly has ideas flowing through it. That's what I'm looking for.
    I'm not an attention whore by any means. What attracted me to acting was the art of it.
    In this example, I think doing the improv would be different than if you were really in that situation. When you're doing the improv, you have to constantly throw out ideas to keep the scene moving. You can't just cower in fear because the scene stops flowing. And you can't just comply with every demand because then the scene is over in 2 seconds. Instead, you kinda have to constantly throw out different ideas to keep the scene going. You have to try different actions. If one doesn't work, you immediately move to the next. For example, "try to convince robber he's ruining his life", "try to convince robber there's no escape because the police are right outside", "try to convince robber to let you go" (which can have a sub category of different ways you can try to convince him, ie, flattery, seduction, intimidation, etc), "avoid giving the robber money hoping he'll give up and leave", "try to take the gun".
    You may never try any of these things in a real robbery situation. So that's why I think you can't really treat it as a real situation, and do what you'd do in a real situation.
    And I'm not shooting down your example or anything like that, I'm just using it to illustrate my problem. Sitting here in front of my computer, it's easy to come up with ideas to keep a scene going. I have time to think of them. But when I'm on stage and put on the spot, I'm no good at just coming up with one thing after another to keep the scene going.
    I hope this makes sense. And I appreciate your input.
    I'm the opposite. When I have to perform for the first time (never did an actual play, but have done scenes from plays in front of an audience), I couldn't be more relaxed. I've rehearsed extensively, I know exactly what I'm going to do, when I'm going to do it, how I'm going to do it, and I go out there and execute.
    It's when things aren't planned, that's when I get nervous.
    We get little note cards that tell us what we're going to do. We read them for a few seconds, think for a few seconds, and then off we go. I'm terrible at that.
    One time I had to be in a band, and one of my bandmates wanted to change something, but I wanted to keep it the same, so we had to act that out.
    Maybe the subject was too dull for me to do anything with, but I got nervous and really didn't know how to keep that scene going. I did my best, but it was pretty bad.
  11. Nov 12, 2012 #10
    One thing I would possibly suggest is to try and talk a tiny bit slower then you normally do. It can be enough of a "stall" to give you the time to think of something else to say. It also could help with being nervous as a clam quite voice can help you keep your cool.
  12. Nov 12, 2012 #11


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper

    I think you missed Zooby's point. That reads like a description of intellectualizing a range of possibilitiies about a situation that you are detached from, not INTERacting with REacting to what's going on in front of you.
  13. Nov 12, 2012 #12
    I'll use the robbery example again. The robbery scene starts and the other person holds a gun up and demands money. What's going on in front of me is a robber demanding money. If I treated this situation as if it were really happening, and reacted accordingly, I would hand over the money and the scene would end in 2 seconds. That's a problem. There's a number of actions I could do to keep the scene going, but to me, treating it like it's a real situation and reacting to what happens as if it were really happening isn't one of them. (for that scene specifically). There may be other scenes that can keep going back and forth, but sometimes you'll run into a wall if you treat it like it's real.

    Like for example we start a scene, your goal is to get a ride home from me.
    You - Can I have a ride home?
    Me - Sure.

    In 2 seconds we've already finished the scene if I were to respond how I would in a real situation.
    To keep the scene going, you'd have to most likely deviate from how you'd normally respond. I guess it would basically be like assigning yourself a goal. The goal of the other person is to get a ride from you. Since you know that, for the scene to keep going, you'd need to assign yourself a goal that's in conflict with the other person's goal. So you assign yourself a goal to not give that person a ride. That allows for a lengthy dialogue, neither one giving up immediately, which keeps the scene going. You see what I mean?
    Last edited: Nov 12, 2012
  14. Nov 12, 2012 #13
    OK, in light of your dialog with AlephZero, I should have specifically said that in the improv you can react as you would want to react in real life but wouldn't dare to. That's why I mentioned how you're protected by the fact you're just playing and can do or say anything you want. One of my acting teachers used to say that the actors job was to do what the audience couldn't do. That has significance on many levels but the one that operates here is that an actor can explore impulses the audience can't explore in real life, both because they're not permitted by society and because they're just afraid to:

    "Can I get a ride home with you?"

    "Well, what do I get out of that? Gas money? Oral sex? What's in it for me?"

    The scene won't end in two seconds if you have the balls to let out impulses you normally constrain. As an exercise in balls ask yourself, "What would Jack Nicholson say here?" There's an infinity of things he might say. Your unconscious will push up an impulse in response to that question that actually says more about you than Jack Nicholson. (That's an exercise. You don't want to start imitating other actors.) LeroyJenkin's personal impulse is something I am unaware of and can't predict but I know it's not "Sure." "Sure" is inert and occult. It's a non-reaction. It hides rather than reveals. The audience wants to watch actors revealing things they, themselves, can't reveal. I guarantee you there's more you want to say to the request for a ride which you're holding in, because no one's that dull.

    So, you're right: if you do exactly what you'd do in real life you might end up with a non-scene. Therefore, do what you want to do in real life, but usually repress.
    Last edited: Nov 12, 2012
  15. Nov 13, 2012 #14
    Thanks, you're giving me a lot of good information.

    I think the fact that I'm nervous doesn't allow me to express myself in improv as I would like to. I'm nervous because I'm afraid I won't be able to keep the scene going at a constant rate, but the fact that I'm nervous is probably the main thing that's keeping that from happening. It's a catch-22. Maybe I just need more experience at it. I know some people don't have problems with it. A couple of people in the class just go for it like it's second nature, while others tend to struggle.
    It depends on who is asking. If it's a girl I like "sure" would be my response. If it's a guy, I'd be more reluctant and try to find out where he lives, and depending on that answer, I might try to come up with excuses. Or I might try to come up with excuses immediately. It all depends.
    But again, real life is not what I want to mimic in improv. It's gotta be like a ping pong match. You have to have an idea to hit back to the other actor the moment they hit one your way. If you wait too long, it goes right by you and you lose. At least that's how I feel about it.
    It's kinda like the words just have to flow out, you can't sit there thinking about what to say. And that's my problem, the words don't flow. That's why I'm looking for an exercise I can practice to get my brain in the right mindset that just lets ideas flow in response to the other actor, instead of hearing what they say and then having to think about how to respond.
    In some scenes I'm able to do that, but in the ones that are kind of obscure, it's hard for me. Like one I was doing where I was in a band and had to basically talk about a music situation I didn't like. I was lost. I've never played any instruments or anything like that, so the topic of music is kinda foreign to me, so I couldn't really get into the scene of being a musician, and that caused me to hinder the flow of the scene.

    I know my descriptions of what my problem is is vague, but it's hard for me to pinpoint exactly what the problem is. So I'm just trying to find ways to practice by myself outside of class to improve myself.
  16. Nov 13, 2012 #15
    No. "Sure" is just the tip of an iceberg. What's actually going through your mind, and what you could let out, is more elaborate: "Spend an extra 15 minutes alone in my car with a hot babe? SURE!"
    There's no right or wrong. Let out exactly what you're feeling. If the other actor asks, "How ya doing?" your current impulse seems to be something like: "Whoah there buddy! Hold it right there! What exactly is that question supposed to mean? How am I doing in what sense? What is it I am supposed to understand by that seemingly simple question? Huh?" That sort of thing.
    You're choking up because you think the actual impulses you're having are somehow improper instead of letting them out as they occur. If a guy actor asks you for a ride home your response would be something like, "Well, it depends, Joe. I'm not sure I have time. How far away do you live, anyway? It's probably too far, I don't have much gas. I really don't like being imposed on, you know. Why is it you can't arrange your own transportation? ..." . In other words, a jumble of perhaps irritated excuses and evasive rambling. That's a perfectly good improv response and something you might easily encounter in real life for that matter.
    This scene has nothing to do with a band. It's a scene about the other person wanting to change something you don't want to be changed. The band aspects are superficialities. In your allotted time for preparation you want to be thinking about all the times people wanted to change things you thought were perfectly OK as they were. It doesn't matter if you know what it's like to have, say, song lyrics changed on you because you DO know what it's like to have something changed on you. Song lyrics, or whatever specific thing gets chosen, stand for the thing you really did experience.

    There was some actress who had to demonstrate extreme embarrassment when shown an incriminating letter her character had written. She found she couldn't get worked up about the letter when the other actor pulled it out, so she pretended he was showing her a pair of her own soiled underwear. That did the trick. Likewise, with the band, you pretend it's all about something that would upset you to have changed.

    Try driving around alone commenting out loud to yourself on everything you see. Keep talking, keep the monolog going, however chaotic or rambling, the point being to express the impulses you're having in response to the sights around you as they come up.
  17. Nov 13, 2012 #16


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper

    I think you are over-thinking this. What you described is a plausible response if you knew beforehand that somebody was going to walk in with a gun and demand money.

    If it happened in real life, you probably woudn't do anything in 2 seconds. And if you did try to hand over the money, you would probably drop half of it on the floor.

    In any case, acting isn't real life. If you get shot in an improv, you don't end up in a real hospital :smile:
  18. Nov 13, 2012 #17


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    A dear friend of mine (died of glioblastoma) was a veteran of a Chicago improv comedy group, and she was a stitch! She hooked up with one my oldest friends, so my wife and I saw her quite often. She was always "on". If she couldn't play off our conversations as well as she wanted, she'd resort to physical humor. My favorite picture of her is one I snapped when she hopped on my John Deere and posed with her teeth clenched as if she wanted to run somebody down with it. She was never too shy or embarrassed to poke fun at herself.

    She had such an "out-there" sense of humor that you had to pay attention in order to play along with her, but it was lots of fun. I miss her, and think of her every time I hear Jackson Browne's "For a Dancer". Perfect.

    Lots of today's "improv" is scripted for the audience, which is a cop-out. Linda was the real deal. She made her money in Chi-town and "retired" back here to Maine. She made my old friend very happy. A life-long bachelor who found love late in life.
  19. Nov 15, 2012 #18
    Thanks a lot Zooby, I think your advice is exactly what I needed. I'm going to work on that and after the next few improvs, I'll post the results.
    I need to try that. My acting teacher had a similar exercise for us to do where we just verbalize the moment to moment of what we're thinking as we walk around the room. I like yours better.
    I over-think everything, and not in a good way. I wish I could just relax and go with the flow sometimes, but my brain is constantly going over and over every little detail of everything. I wish my brain would do that towards schoolwork instead of towards all the trivial things in life.

    But yeah, you're right about the robbery scenario. I didn't even think about that. I get too focused on how something can't work or won't work, and don't think about how it can work.
    One reason I decided to take up acting was that I think it can help me build confidence and charisma. Some people seem to be innately charismatic, but I think it's something you can develop too.
    I've met people like your friend and just being around them makes me feel good.

    But after doing improv, I now have so much respect for people who are good at it. It's one of the hardest things I've ever done.
  20. Nov 15, 2012 #19


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    After spending time with Linda I have a lot of appreciation for the keen awareness and quick wit required for improv. I don't think I could pull it off - at least not at the level of quality that she did.

    Her soon-to-be boyfriend (and old friend and a fantastic guitarist) once showed up at my open-mic jam and during a break, he asked me what he and his new bandmates should name their new band. I suggested "Crunchy Frog" (Monty Python reference) and that hit his funnybone. Then he asked what I thought about the name "The Incontinentals" (all the band members were about his age) and without missing a beat I said "depends". He couldn't breath for a while. He was telling that story for weeks to everybody who would listen. Perfect sense of humor to hook up with our improv friend.
    Last edited: Nov 15, 2012
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook