Tag Archives: auditions

23 Brain Hacks for Bulletproof Stage Presence

I’m fascinated by the effect of the spotlight on performers. Some of us shine, some of us choke. I perform terribly in auditions but really kill it in rehearsals. Why is that?

I recently read a book called Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing Your Best When It Matters Most. It talks about how your brain shuts down when you’re in a situation where you desperately want or need to succeed. It also offers solutions on how to trick your brain so it doesn’t sabotage you when you need peak performance.

Tip #1: Think of pressure moments as a challenge or opportunity/fun.

Instead of feeling like your entire performance career is hanging on this one moment, try reframing the situation. You’re here to have fun. You’re here to show off. Can you do something in this performance that no one else is doing? Give yourself the freedom to take a big running cannonball into the pool. Approach your stage time with an attitude of, “Watch this!” instead of, “Please don’t hate me.”

Tip #2: This is one of many opportunities.

This is especially true of improvisation. Everyone throws up a clunker scene now and then. The trick is not letting that derail you for the next scene. As far as auditions go, you can have as many as you want. Getting an audition slot is pretty easy if you cast a wide enough net. Your next audition will never be your last audition (unless you quit). Every single famous person on the planet has been rejected. The difference is, they keep trying. Richard Nixon lost to JFK, dusted himself off and won the presidency eight years later. Nixon was so single-minded, he courted his eventual wife for two years before she agreed to date him. During that time, Nixon chauffeured her around on dates with other men. Seriously. His greatest talent seemed to be a refusal to give up.

Tip #3: Shrink the importance of pressure moments.

Your brain plays tricks on you when you tell yourself you’re in an important moment. The book says, “track sprinters have more false starts when told their time is important and will be recorded as opposed to being discarded and used for training purposes.” Whether you’re reciting lines for a play or running a race or doing your 4,000th improv scene, you’re bound to perform better if you’re not really thinking about anything. Let your brain and your body do what you’ve practiced. I can’t imagine anyone has ever solved a problem by being told to THINK HARDER. (There’s a reason UCB sells a hoodie that says, “Don’t Think” on the front.)

Tip #4: Focus on the mission.

The book words this strangely. What they really mean is, “Focus on the immediate task.” If you’re in an improv scene, you should be focused on the things that will make that scene better: listening, reacting, adding information, providing callbacks, object work, etc. If you’re in a scene thinking about whether this audition is going well, your focus is in the wrong place and you’re setting yourself up for failure. When you’re in the moment, be present. Don’t let your mind drift to the outcome.

Tip #5: Expect the unexpected.

If you’re walking into an audition, think about the worst thing that could happen. In my experience, the worst outcome is finding yourself paired with someone who’s totally awful. Before walking into an audition, think about how you would handle that. The best defense is to take care of yourself like The Annoyance Theatre suggests: give yourself a gift at the top of a scene, so even if your partner is a flailing spaz, you can wall yourself off from that craziness and regulate the scene. (The only thing worse than a drowning man is another man drowning while trying to save him. Don’t kill yourself trying to save someone hell-bent on self-destruction.)

Tip #6: Affirm your self-worth.

Researchers tested people who affirmed their self-worth before a task versus those who did not. The group that self-affirmed made fewer mistakes. The book suggests listing your values and recounting your positive traits before a pressure moment. Those will not change, regardless of the outcome of your performance. Your family will still love you. There are always more opportunities. Even if you totally crash and burn in an audition, you still have important relationships in life and goals you want to conquer.

Tip #7: Flash back to previous successes.

Tell yourself, “I’ve done it before, I can do it again.” If you’re an improviser at nearly any level, you’ve had at least one good scene. Think about the times you made people laugh or got high-fives from your classmates. Think about how you felt invincible at that moment. You are that same person. This next moment on stage could match or surpass everything that’s come before.

Tip #8: Be positive before and during high-pressure moments.

“Studies have shown that individuals’ feelings and moods respond to their actions.” Ever show up to an improv show feeling run-down and annoyed? How did that show go? How did your shows go when you arrived feeling excited to play? Give your brain a boost by thinking of all the fun you’re about to have. If you’re not having fun, why are you doing it?

Tip #9: Tune into your senses.

This is similar to Tip #4, but it’s also good acting advice. If you find your mind drifting, bring yourself back to the present by focusing on your five senses. What can you see? What can you smell? What can you touch? Worry exists when you let your mind drift to the future. Snap back to the present and deal with the future when your body arrives there.

Tip #10: Focus on what you can control.

The book talks about former MLB pitcher Greg Maddux. When asked to assess his performance after a game, he said, “73 out of 78.” That simply meant 73 of the 78 balls he pitched left his fingers as he wanted them to. Everything after that (including whether the batters made contact) was academic. You can’t control if your auditors are bored or cranky. You can’t control your scene partner. In fact, most of an audition is completely out of your control. So just do what you can do and let the results be what they will be.

Tip #11: Listen to (or sing) a favorite song.

This tip is more for people performing a muscle-memory task. The music distracts our brains well enough to let our bodies take over. This tip is not recommended for people trying to learn a new task. Think about how playing video games is easier when there’s music playing in the background. Tetris would probably be much harder without that iconic theme.

Tip #12: Use a holistic word/image “cue” to guide performance.

The book says golfers perform better when focusing on a word like “smooth” or “balanced.” What word might encompass how a good improv scene feels? “Playful?” “Joyful?” “Agree?” The book says a Chinese psychologist worked with two groups of women shooting basketballs. The group that was told to “shoot as if you’re trying to put a cookie into a cookie jar on a high shelf” made more shots after two weeks of practice. What unrelated activity does a good improv scene look like in your mind? Playing catch? Handing out Valentine’s Day cards?

Tip #13: Practice experiencing pressure.

This is perhaps more difficult for actors, since it’s hard to replicate performance pressure. The book suggests taking practice tests in less time than you’d normally be allowed. Other artificial handicaps can make performance easier when they’re removed. For an actor, this probably just means you should audition and perform a lot!

Tip #14: Squeeze a ball.

What? The book says athletes are less likely to choke when they squeezed a ball or clenched their left hand before competition. Apparently, the left hand squeeze primes the right hemisphere of the brain – the part associated with fluent, automatic and largely unconscious neural pathways controlling the skill. I’m not sure how this would apply in an improvisation situation, since it seems like you’d need both halves of the brain to be logical and process what’s coming your way. Somebody squeeze their left hand before an audition and get back to me on this one.

Tip #15: Write out your concerns about the high-pressure situation you are facing.

“Writing out your specific concerns before a high-pressure situation helps you to minimize distractive thinking, which eats up your working memory capacity.” You need a clear head to improvise well. Put those worries on the shelf by literally writing them down and leaving them off the stage.

Tip #16: Put away self-consciousness.

That alone is fantastic advice for performers. Being self-aware is key, being self-conscious is crippling. The book suggests videotaping yourself and being highly critical of your performance before you have to deliver it for real. The idea is that getting that criticism out of the way early leaves you less self-critical in the moment. That method seems more appropriate for people rehearsing a set task, rather than a fluid, improvisational scenario.

Tip #17: Meditate.

“Meditation training altered for the better the white matter that connects the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) to other structures in the brain. In other words, after meditation training, your ACC is able to regulate your thoughts, behaviors and emotions more effectively and thus help you respond more effectively in pressure moments.”

Tip #18: Create and practice a pre-routine.

Much like NBA players with their pre-free throw routines, the book suggests having something you always do before a pressure moment to signal to your body that it’s time to go to work.  The authors suggest the following…

  • The routine should be relatively short (3-5 minutes).
  • It should be done immediately prior to the high-pressure situation.
  • It should include a mental component – reviewing some positive thoughts.
  • It should include a physical component – deep breathing, stretching, striking a power pose, etc.
  • Part of the routine should deal with kinesthetic imagery – visualize yourself performing at your best.
  • Upon completion, say a mantra or use an anchor word or phrase that signals that you’re ready for showtime.

That seems like a lot to do right before a scene, but you could do that before a show or an audition. I remember seeing TJ & Dave doing the same physical warm-ups before each show at the old iO Theater on Clark Street. It wouldn’t surprise me if they ran through the rest of the list, whether consciously or not. Before shows with Whiskey Rebellion, I used to approach every member of the team individually, grab their shoulders, look them in the eye and say, “Spirit of the eagle, way of the hunter.” I have no idea if that made a difference, but I had a hell of a lot of fun in those shows.

Tip #19: Slow down your response.

Here’s where you’d encounter Jimmy Carrane’s “Art of Slow Comedy.” The idea is that slowing down reduces your arousal, which allows you to think more flexibly, creatively and attentively. Del Close used to advocate responding with your third idea, never your first. Remember that an improv scene is not a race. There are some performers like Craig Uhlir who have cultivated a high-energy, rapid-fire playing style. That’s not for everyone, and very difficult for beginners. Give yourself the space to think before responding. Time moves faster in your head than it does to the audience.

Tip #20: Regulate your breathing.

If you’re breathing weird, your body will start to freak out. If you watch beginning improvisers, some seem to forget to breathe on stage. Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman devised a breathing tactic he teaches to soldiers and police officers to use in intense combat situations.

  • Inhale through your nose, deeply, expanding your stomach for a count of four.
  • Hold that breath in for a count of four.
  • Slowly exhale through your mouth, completely, contracting your stomach for a count of four.
  • Hold the empty breath for a count of four.

The book recommends practicing this two minutes a night for a week.

Tip #21: Go first.

“Studies of World Cup soccer and the National Hockey League show that when shoot-outs determine the winner, the team (or player) that goes first has a strong statistical advantage.” This correlates with Susan Messing’s priceless advice: “The longer you wait, the more the jump rope becomes a big steel cable.” Jump in that first scene and it slays any jitters.

Tip #22: Communicate your feelings of being under pressure.

Not sure how this would apply in an audition situation, but maybe that’s where Facebook can come in handy. Posting something like, “Headed for an audition,” might result in some supportive comments from your friends. Of course, actors audition so much, that could get annoying. Remind yourself that every performer deals with jitters or nerves. Some even take drugs (legal, prescription or illegal) to cope. Being nervous is normal and you’re not alone if you feel shaky before an audition.

Final tip: Strike a power pose.

I’ve read about this in other books on the topic of pressure performance and choking. If you expand your body and raise your arms wide, your brain and body increase testosterone levels 20-25% and reduce cortisol 20-25%. (Cortisol is released in response to fear or stress by the adrenal glands as part of the fight-or-flight mechanism.) In job interviews, applicants who took a power pose beforehand were rated higher in confidence and presence. You only need to do it for two minutes to feel the effect.

Initiations: Lessons from Auditions

Today, I watched dozens of people audition to join the Under the Gun Theater ensemble.  I wrote down their initiations.  Take a look and consider how you’d react to these first lines.

“I just don’t understand why it’s so hard for you to stay out of my stuff.”

“And that is how you make an apple streudel.”

“Sometimes I wonder if OPI changes the color or changes the name to make more sales.”

“Guess who just submitted their application to Domino’s!”

“You know, people really underestimate the qualities of digging a hole.”

“Honey, I got your report card in the mail.”

“Jessica, fancy seeing you here.”

“Eggs benedict – the top item in the whole chain of breakfast items.”

“Not gonna lie.  I don’t remember how I got here.”

“Oh my God.  I don’t know what I’m gonna get from the concession stand.”

“I’m just… it’s too much.  These muffins are too much.  I can’t think of another flavor.”

“Thanks.  You know, most people won’t help me dig out my space because I have a smart car.”

“So what, you’re just gonna do the laundry?”

“I’m just a sucker for polka dot drapes.  I’ll be honest.”

“I don’t know if I’m comfortable selling my marble collection.”

“Aw, hey, Linda.”

“Listen, sweetheart, your mother is suffocating me right now.”

“Janet, if you want a smoothie, just ask for another smoothie.”

“Another flight canceled.”

“Apparently, people aren’t buying Big Macs anymore.  They’re going gluten-free.”

“Here is your water.”

“You’re a little obnoxious about your pies.”

“Your form has gotten so specific.”

“Okay.”  (Actor hugs the other actor.)

“I really have to go.”

“Hey, Stacy.  Super cool running into you at the mall.”

“Welcome to the campsite.”

“I hope it’s not delayed again.”

“The answer’s Tom Cruise.”

“I took it.  I was hungry.”

“Lizzie, you look fantastic.”

“You don’t have to get me a Father’s Day present.  I’m good.”

“Thanks for coming in.  Here at Pooch Day Care, we take our jobs seriously.  Your dog ran away.”

“Volcano looks like it’s going to blow.”

“Megan, come here.  (Actor hugs the other actor.)  Am I really fired?”

“You’re makin’ me nervous.”

“I’m still hungover from last night.”

“So, iceberg lettuce, right?”

(Actor hugs the other actor.)  “I’ve missed you.”

“Maggie, we’ve done it.  The orange grove looks amazing.”

“So I’ve started wearing less and going out more.”

“Young man, this library book is six months overdue.”

“I knew you were great at growing trees, but I never knew you could grow an elm like that.”

“I hear that this is where they keep the old skeletons.”

None of these is a great first line.  (I am partial to the one about digging holes, however.)  A few are woefully inadequate.  You do need to give some information in that first line, so a generic, “Hello,” doesn’t get much across.  But in reality, you could probably have a good scene with any of these lines.

An improv scene’s success usually hinges much more on the second line than the first.  It is your reaction that sets the stage for the scene to come.  Think of how Big Bird might react to any of these lines.  Now consider how Oscar the Grouch might react.  To quote Hamlet, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”  If you had any kind of emotional reaction to any of these initiations, the scene would be off and running.

The scenes that failed in these auditions usually suffered from one of three fatal flaws:

The initiator was not particularly invested in the initiation.  Nonchalant characters are hard for the audience to care about.  Consider, “So, iceberg lettuce, right?”  If you heard that spoken to you, what could you possibly intuit from those words?  Is this character happy/angry/sad/lonely?  The words themselves don’t matter, but the intent behind them does.  For more on this, read up on the genius TJ Jagodowski’s take on “heat” and “weight.”  A simple line can have tremendous weight if delivered properly.  The heat refers to the implied intimacy of the relationship.  As it was delivered in the audition, there was no weight and no heat to the relationship in that line.  The scene sputtered.

The initiator was indecisive.  These phrases popped up in the first lines of the scenes I watched: “I just don’t understand,” “I wonder,” “I don’t remember how I got here,” “I don’t know,” “I can’t think,” and, “I don’t know if I’m comfortable.”  These lines indicate subconscious fear on the part of the performer.  Yes, auditioning is nerve-wracking.  As an improviser, your scenes will be more successful if you’re declarative at the start.

Which is the better first line in these examples?

“I just don’t understand why it’s so hard for you to stay out of my stuff.”
or
“Stay out of my stuff!”

“I don’t know if I’m comfortable selling my marble collection.”
or
“If you want my marble collection, you can pry it from my cold, dead hands.”

This is what your teachers are saying when they tell you not to ask questions in a scene.  I think the “no questions” rule is awful, since real humans use questions frequently and you sound like a monster if you never ask questions in a scene.  But it’s the ambiguity and uncertainty of questions that really drags down a scene.  Wile E. Coyote doesn’t walk up to the Road Runner to ask, “Can I eat you?”  He just pounces.  Asking permission or seeking approval of your fellow human is a wonderful quality in life.  In improv, just make assumptions and take action.  The scene will go more smoothly.

The initiation was too functional.  Consider, “Oh my God.  I don’t know what I’m gonna get from the concession stand.”  Care to guess what the subsequent scene was about?  Yep.  Three minutes debating the merits of various candies.  To be fair, that opening line could work if you had a savvy scene partner.  Instead of making the second line about the stupid concessions, you could make it about the first character’s indecision.  For example, “You never had trouble picking candy before you got engaged, Carla.”  All of a sudden, the scene pivots away from what we don’t care about (the candy) to something we do care about (what’s bothering Carla).  I promise you, no one in the audience cares about the outcome of a fake decision you’re making on stage.  In fact, I’m sure the actor didn’t care about the outcome.  So why are you spending valuable stage time on that?

You’ll hear improv coaches say you should avoid talking about what you’re doing.  That’s because the details of baking a pie or fixing a flat tire are not entertaining.  But if you’re baking a pie while discussing your broken marriage, activities like breaking an egg suddenly take on a huge metaphorical weight.  If you’re fixing a flat tire on your way to propose marriage to the girl in the passenger seat, I’m going to be interested.  Make your activity a metaphor for something larger – ideally something emotional inside you or between you and your scene partner.

Oftentimes, functional scenes occur because people are playing “polite.”  We are taught we are supposed to “Yes And” our partner’s ideas.  You frequently get scenes like, “Let’s go bowling!”  “Okay.”  (Two improvisers bowl for three minutes, talking about what pins they knock down while they hate themselves for their choice and silently beg for the mercy-kill of a sweep edit.)  “Yes And,” does not mean you are a puppet who just has to do what you’re told.  When you hear, “Let’s go bowling,” all you need to respect is that your scene partner has a desire to bowl.  You could say virtually anything in response.  How could you help this initiation by adding context?  Here are some ideas.

“Damn, Ralph, you’re awfully calm considering you just administered a lethal injection.”

“Sir, I can’t let you go bowling.  This says your blood alcohol level is way over the limit.”

“Abraham, you are completely out of control on this Rumspringa.”

“Gonna try out the new prosthetic hand, eh, Bob?”

“So I guess I dressed up in Victoria’s Secret for nothing.”

“If you can unhook this IV, I’m down.”

“But Mr. President, you have the State of the Union tonight!”

If you encounter, “Let’s go bowling,” in an audition, it’s your job to make a choice about how that line affects you.  Hopefully, the first line is delivered in a way that helps that choice.  If not, fill in the blanks.  Who is this person to you?  Why might it be appropriate or inappropriate to go bowling?  How do YOU feel about bowling?  Responding with any of that information gives you so much more to build with.

You can have a great scene that begins with, “Hey,” as an initiation.  And it can be about the dumbest thing in the world.  But the characters need to care about something.  Consider this genius SNL sketch about a “fenced-in area.”  It is literally about a man who only cares about the small part of his back yard he put a fence around.  If he can care about that, you can find a way to care about something in your scene.

I’ll remind you of a quote from the late, great Roger Ebert – “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.”  The text of your sentences can be almost anything.  It’s the meaning behind them that really matters.  Your scene shouldn’t be about digging a hole or selecting brunch items or polka dot curtains.  But any of those scenes can be great if they reveal something about a character or a relationship.  Dig beyond the surface.  Find the gold.  Slay the audition.

Got a question?  E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com

Auditions Part IV: This is Why You Fail

I find it hard to believe anyone is ever really good at auditions.  You have good days and bad days.  When your fate is being decided by as few as two or three scenes, how do you play from a place of joy and fearlessness?

As I helped Under the Gun Theater run their auditions yesterday, I noticed many, many people making the exact same mistakes.  Take heed, future auditioners.

1. They didn’t care about anything.

Words like “divorce” and “cancer” got thrown around a lot in those auditions, but I never saw them take on any weight.  You have to react to the information in the scene.  If you don’t react to someone wanting a divorce, how will the theater expect you to react to more subtle initiations?

In the best auditions, people found a way to react to even the most mundane information.  In one scene, a girl and her father were talking about her troubles with math.  The dad established he was a mathematician.  His daughter said she was struggling with triangles.  The dad acted thrown.  “Triangles, huh?” he said, “That’s pretty advanced stuff.”  By having a big reaction to something stupid, the dad put extra weight on the issue, and people laughed.

Please find a way to care or react in your scenes.  It helps if you care or react to your scene partner, if possible.  (Important: “Caring” doesn’t necessarily mean “liking.”)

2. They had a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to agree.

When you start improv, many teachers lean on the old crutch of “yes and.”  The longer I perform, the more I believe “yes and” is a gross oversimplification of the process.  Taken literally, this can cripple upcoming improvisers.

Let’s say a scene starts with someone saying they want to kill you.  “Okay,” you say, trying to be helpful.  Where does this scene go now?  Your scene partner kills you while you lie there?  Is that funny?  Or is it just bizarre?

When a scene begins, it’s to your benefit to agree to be in the same time and space as your partner.  As facts present themselves, you should agree to those as well.  You are under no obligation to agree with opinions or behavior, except to agree that what is said and done actually happened.

So often, I watched performers stop what they were doing and abandon character because another performer asked them to complete a task.  One woman began a silent scene as if she was swordfighting her scene partner.  The scene partner responded with her own sword.  So we all watched a completely silent scene where they fenced for 60 seconds.  In hindsight, was this really the best use of that time?  Sure, they “agreed” to duel, but that was the entire scene.  Snooze city.

3. They forced things.

Kevin Mullaney, one of Under the Gun’s founders, helped create the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre curriculum that focuses on “The Game.”  The start of every Game scene should be easy.  Just react normally.  I’ll repeat that because it’s important.  Just react normally.  When you notice something unusual happen, simply highlight, explore and reinforce that.  That’s the game.

Too often, because we’re scared of time running out in an audition, we front-load the weirdness.  We say something completely insane in the first or second line, and that sends the scene to hell in a hurry.

Be sure not to overburden the scene with a massive info dump in the early lines.  Great improvisers make discoveries while they play.  That’s a far more useful skill than throwing down a great initiation and doing nothing with it.

In those first few lines, just establish who you are and what your relationship is with your scene partner.  Once we know that, look for the Game, give gifts to the other actor and explore this world you just built.

Think of the first scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  We see a shadowy figure walking through the jungle.  There are lots of little signs of danger – a poison dart, a creepy stone carving and bats.  The man’s helpers run away.  One helper tries to shoot him.  Our hero uses his whip to disarm the would-be assassin.  Three minutes elapse before we even see Indiana Jones’ face.  More than nine minutes go by before the big rock chases him down.

Now imagine if the movie opened with a shot of Harrison Ford running away from a big rock.  You’d probably be seriously confused.  Where are we?  Who’s that guy?  Why is he running?  Where did the boulder come from?  The scene earns that goofy moment because it built to it with many increasingly incredible hazards.

Granted, you don’t have nine minutes to impress an auditor.  But you do have enough time to establish and explore a pattern.  When you get the suggestion of “jungle” for a location, I hope you and your scene partner discover a great boobytrapped pyramid to explore.  Just remember, boobytraps are cool, but we care more about your relationship and your reactions to discoveries.

4.  They didn’t have a headshot.

For most improv auditions, you don’t need a professional headshot.  Hell, even a selfie can do in a pinch.  But you should always have an 8×10 photo of your mug lying around.  Several people said the local drug store had trouble printing them.  Find a decent picture of yourself, print it out today and stick it where you’ll remember it.  When that audition comes up out of the blue, you’ll be ready to go.  When you use that one, print another immediately.

The auditors at yesterday’s audition said they occasionally had someone who had an amazing audition, but without a headshot, they couldn’t remember what the performer looked like.  When you’re casting, you like to spread out those headshots and assemble them visually.  Even if you were God’s gift to improv, they are more likely to select someone whose picture is lying in front of them.

Print a headshot.  Print a resume.  Staple them together so they can see your resume by flipping your picture over.

5. They talked about what they were doing.

If your improv scene begins at a grocery store, we don’t want you to spend the scene collecting each item on your shopping list.  If you’re at a bowling alley, we don’t just want to watch you bowl.  If you’re in a kitchen, we don’t want to hear you talking about making your yummy meatloaf.

We want you to bounce off the other actor.

When you’re in the supermarket, talk to your daughter about her grades.  When you’re in the bowling alley, talk about your reaction to something in the news.  When you’re in the kitchen, forgive your brother for getting hammered and setting your lawn on fire.

The environment can give you opportunities to do object work or add punctuation to a conversation.  But if the conversation is about the environment or the activity, your scene is almost guaranteed to suck.

6. They didn’t listen.

Many times, improvisers missed great opportunities because they were so wrapped up in their own ideas.  If you’re not listening in an audition, the theater won’t expect you to listen when performing for them.

For the record, I suck at auditions and I need to remind myself of many of these lessons when I play.  When you see scene after scene with the same flaws, they start to grow increasingly disheartening.

Kevin’s partner in running the auditions (and the theater) was Angie McMahon.  She posted this on Facebook:

1. Fellas (and a few ladies but mostly fellas) don’t call women bitches or the C word in scenes. You only have about 3 minutes total with me. Just make a new choice.

2. Don’t pick each other up or snuggle your head into a person’s bosom (especially if you don’t know them).

3. You are not more memorable if you make the “wacky” choice of being a space alien… or smoke monster. Everyone is nervous and you are making it hard for everyone.

4. Although I appreciate trying to do social and political satire, you are walking in the room with folks of varying levels.  I would save your smart “political” initiation for later when you are surrounded by folks you know have the skill to do an honest and lovely thoughtful scene about a sensitive subject.

5. We are not judging you, I want you to succeed. I want you to have fun. Nothing makes me happier then smiling because I am watching someone who is also having fun… I know that is hard.

The most important piece of advice I can give to any auditioner is never to give up.  When you get smacked down, lick your wounds, take classes and accumulate stage time wherever you can.  Come back and audition again.  Show them how much you’ve grown.  There are multiple paths to success.  Giving up is a sure shortcut to the end of the road.

Previously: Auditions I / Auditions II / Auditions III

Got an improv question?  E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com

Video: Chicago Improv Summit

Years ago (probably 2007?), I recorded a conversation among some of Chicago’s major improv leaders.  Kick back and listen to Charna Halpern, Jimmy Carrane, Matt Elwell, Susan Messing and Mick Napier discuss the state of the art.

Be sure to listen to the responses to the question at 10:00 – “If you could say anything to a beginning improviser, what would it be?”

Also, enjoy Mick’s candid, invaluable advice at 32:28.

Funny that nothing’s really changed in six years…

Got an improv question?  E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com

Auditions Part II: Tales from Behind the Desk

Last year, I wrote about improv auditions from a performer standpoint.  Earlier this month, I went through the audition process on the other side of the table. As the director of an upcoming show, I had to select a cast.  It was not easy.

When you audition, it’s really no different from any other performance.  The only differences are that A) You’re performing with people you don’t know, and B) The audience consists of 3-4 people.

Let’s deal with “B” first.  Is it weird performing for such a small audience?  Yes.  But the same things that work in a regular performance work in an audition.  Are you smart?  Are you funny?  Are you a good actor?  Are you listening to your fellow actors?  Are you making conscious, varied choices?  Are you being proactive?  Do you look comfortable despite any nerves you’re fighting?

Those things earn you points.

Similarly, things that turn off a regular audience will turn off your auditors.  Failure to listen, steamrolling or hogging the stage, making repetitive choices and being passive will work against you.  I eliminated one woman because she contradicted the location previously established in the scene.

Now let’s deal with the fact that you’re playing with strangers.  That sucks.  Especially in the first round, you may be dealing with people who have no business on a stage.  Like the Russian guy who seemed to make his performance debut during these auditions.  It was easy to eliminate him… but what about his scene partners?  I just focused on how they handled the human roadblock.  You can only control yourself.  Don’t lose control just because you’re with someone out of his depth.

Performers broke down pretty clearly into three groups…

1) Definite callbacks.  These were performers who sparkled.  They offered something unique or different.  Some were funny.  Some were good actors.  Some brought an energy I wanted to see again.

2) The “maybe” pile.  These were people that had some good moments, but they didn’t grab me as much.  Sometimes people have an off day.  Perhaps you sense potential, but you’re not sure.

3) Get these people away from me.  Guy checking his watch throughout the audition, you’re excused.  Russian guy?  Hit the door.  Woman who never made eye contact with her scene partner, vaya con dios.

Out of 70 performers, I had 16 in the definite callback pile.  Nine women, seven men.  We looked in the maybe pile.  Just two men, and a bunch of women.  We decided to call back nine men and nine women.  The goal was to build a cast of six.  (One woman was a holdover from an older version of this show, so that slot was already filled.)

Callbacks

This is where things got tougher.  A few people eliminated themselves by virtue of being in the presence of better performers.  While you may look great opposite someone losing their cool, you’ll look lead-footed if you can’t keep up with someone really sharp.

Some people just didn’t bring the same energy they’d displayed on day one.  (That was my fatal flaw mentioned in my previous audition blog.)

Some people actually performed better in the second round.  They were a pleasant surprise.

Of the five people I cast, three of them were front-runners from day one.  Two people showed dramatic improvement from their first round.

Final Selections

When we set out the headshots of our favorite performers, I once again noticed we had more women than men.  And though it was my intention to cast a gender-balanced show, I felt better about skewing that balance for a more talented cast.  So when you come to see Lady Parts at ComedySportz in 2012, you’ll see a cast of four women and two men.

I should also mention that we wanted an understudy.  And one woman proved herself so versatile, I felt she could handle any of the parts… male or female.  That’s a huge compliment to her.  But it’s an understudy spot, which, you know, kinda sucks for her.

When assembling my cast, I could have just gone for the funniest people.  But you need diversity on stage.  I picked one guy because I believed he could be an excellent straight man.  The other man I selected had a huge variety of characters.  That covered my bases for men.

For women, I chose one woman who played a lot of self-assured, strong characters.  I chose one woman whose characters showed great specificity, but more “stereotypically” feminine/light energy.  And I chose a woman who may have been the best actor of anyone in the auditions.  (She reacted to everything in an honest, believable way.)  You have to have good actors in your ensemble.

Chemistry is impossible to predict, but I tried to come up with a cast whose strengths don’t entirely overlap.  Yes, casting a straight man means losing some of the funnier or more energetic performers who auditioned.  But it will work better in the show.

(You can’t have six Chris Farleys on SNL and expect the show to work, dig?)

Overall, I was impressed by the talent level.  And the decision to cut down was extremely difficult.  I had to go with my gut.  And I know I had to cut a lot of very talented performers.  I’m sure karma will boomerang on me the next time I audition for something.

I’m looking forward to working with this cast.  And I believe I selected the five people who will give us the best show.  (Plus, the understudy wild card is someone I think we can make great use of.)

In the end, if the cast fails me, it was my choice.  And if they succeed, I can take a little credit.  But they’ll be the ones collecting laughs and applause.  After what I put them through, they’ve earned it.

Got an improv question?  E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com

Auditions

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.

Danny Mora

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.

See what I learned as a director by running my own series of auditions here.