If you are an improviser, you’ll audition for a slot on a team someday. When that happens, you’ll find yourself in a very weird place.
Improv auditions usually run contrary to all the things you love about improv. It’s rarely supportive, often judgmental and certainly nerve-wracking. But the best improv you’ll ever do will have you feeling safe, free and brave. So how do you bring those worlds together to give an accurate representation of your skill?
I think the rules of audition-prov are different from improv. Great improv is about making your fellow players look good, serving the piece and trusting your friends to get you out of those sticky situations you throw yourself in. If you do those things in an audition, you’ll only succeed in getting someone else noticed.
Improv is a dance. People praise Fred Astaire and he was great. But Ginger Rogers had to do everything Fred did, backwards and in heels. The greatest improvisers are Ginger. One of the best Gingers I know is Danny Mora. Danny plays with “3033” and appears to be totally selfless on stage. I once saw a fellow player get up on a chair, then inadvertently wobble and fall off. Danny jumped up on a chair and purposely fell off. It’s one of the most generous improv moves I’ve ever seen. If you were the guy to fall off the chair, you might feel stupid. But Danny’s there to say, “It wasn’t stupid. It was a deliberate move. And I’m going to follow you and make you look like a rock star.” If you can take a mistake and make it seem purposeful, you are an improv Jedi Master.
Playing like Danny will make you invaluable to a team. Invaluable. All your teammates will love you. But playing like Danny in an audition would likely work against you, unless your auditors were extremely, extremely perceptive. Here’s why…
Most auditors, like most audience members, follow the action. Aggressive players carry the action. Think of them as a quarterback, running back or wide receiver in football. Fans buy their jerseys. People know their names. They touch the ball (the action), so you’re paying attention. When they screw up, it’s major. When they succeed, it’s major. And the more you watch, the more you become convinced that they are mostly responsible for a victory or loss.
But what you don’t always notice in a football game is what’s happening up front. The unglamorous offensive and defensive linemen are battling in the trenches. They decide how much time the quarterback has and how big an opening the running back has. Great NFL coaches say the battle is won or lost “in the trenches.” If that’s where the game is won or lost, why are we watching the ball?
In an audition, you must get noticed. The only time an offensive lineman gets noticed is when he screws up. And you don’t want that kind of audition. So you have to find a way to grab the ball a few times. And ultimately, that should be part of your improv arsenal. You should be able to “drive” a scene and play lead characters. That’s probably less a test of your improv IQ than making connections or support moves, but it’s a necessary step. After all, someone has to carry the ball.
I recently finished an audition that was a tale of two different improvisers. Both of them were me.
On the first day, I was with a group of hopefuls that didn’t really make moves. They were quiet and shy. They sat back and didn’t attack. Sensing this, I really jumped forward and grabbed the ball. Someone had to lead, so I led. I got laughs and felt pretty good.
For the next day’s callback, most people were aggressive. That aggression served them well in Round One. But in Round Two, it was a situation of too many chiefs and not enough Indians. When I took the temperature of the room, I decided to play more of a support role. That day did not go as well for me. It wasn’t Fred & Ginger dancing. It was an aggressive battle royale dance-off. And I was looking for dance partners who weren’t there.
I did see some great moments on that second day, but very, very few were wholly supportive. The best scenes came from pairings of improvisers who could switch between support and lead within the same scene. I don’t know that I’m that advanced yet. It’s a really hard thing to pull off. In football terms, it’s like a flea flicker, where the quarterback throws to the running back, the running back catches, then throws back to the quarterback, who has to catch, then turn and throw to the wide receiver and then he has to catch it. That’s a lot of opportunities for the ball to hit the ground, but it’s exciting when executed correctly.
It feels great to throw and have someone catch. In an audition, people usually only catch OR throw. The throwers get noticed more, especially if all their passes get caught. But the catchers aren’t often noticed unless they can throw back. And they’ll look worse if the original thrower can’t catch, too.
At this point, my metaphors are fatally mixed. I understand. So let me throw another one in there.
If you go to the bar, you might see a gorgeous guy or girl. They catch your eye. You want them. Over in the corner is someone with a great personality. You have no idea, because that part is hidden. You approach the hot guy or girl, hoping they have a great personality. And even if they don’t, you might be okay with that because you’re dazzled by their looks. But in the long run, you want someone who looks good AND has a great personality. You want the total package. And that’s what an improv team wants, too.
So going into an audition, if you’re that person with the great personality/the football lineman/the support player, you have to give yourself a makeover. You know those makeover scenes in the movies? Do that to yourself. Because when you hit the stage, you need to draw eyeballs. It may not feel comfortable, but you have to do it to get noticed. Trust that you still have your core skills of support, but push yourself to be more aggressive than normal. Ultimately, you probably won’t get selected if all you do is make others look great. You have to look great, too. And you can’t count on your audition partners to do that.
Your best audition prep will follow the Annoyance Theatre mantra of “take care of yourself first.” Give yourself a character. Prepare to carry the scene. Your partner might be awful. Your partner may be mute. Your partner may freeze. Or he might grab you by the neck. That guy hasn’t earned your trust yet, so trust yourself and concentrate on your character.
Once you know who you are in a scene, see if your partner will take the bait. Say something and see how he responds. Is he “yes and-ing” you? Good. Trust him more and open yourself up to supporting him. Did he shoot you down or ignore you or make a terrible choice? Condolences. You’re on your own in this scene. Hold on to your original character and don’t let him knock you out of it. You’ll essentially tread water and wait for another opportunity to shine.
Ultimately, if you get the slot on the team, that’s great. If you don’t, you won’t be the first improviser to suffer that. Improv auditions emphasize a lot of bad habits and they’re not the warm, supporting environment you want from a team. So regroup and try again. Bad scenes happen to all of us. And they happen more frequently in auditions. Because, let’s face it, some of those people on stage in an audition have no business being there.