Tuesday, 1 April 2008


Improvisation is the art of making things up as you go along. Since this is something we all do every day and is often just called 'living', improvised performances have been accused of cheating. 'What is wrong with getting an author to write a play/film and having actors learn the lines?' some people ask. 'We like it when actors learn lines, it shows they are doing some work for the vast quantities of money they earn.' But of course, there is more to it than that. 
Actors who improvise are not making things up as themselves, they are making things up as someone else. To do this, an actor must have developed an intimate knowledge of the character they are playing. This sort of knowledge is very helpful as an actor even when you are working on scripted material, which is why improvisation is often used as a rehearsal exercise. If the director suddenly screams 'Where have you been?' as you step on to the set, they are probably not interested in the cup of herbal tea you brewed in the office while chatting with another actor about your respective agents. They are asking what you think your character has been doing during the time you were offstage. This is a good moment to improvise.
Directors might also want the actors to have improvised conversations in character. If the writer has referred to the time the lovers in the play first met in prison ten years ago, the actors could improvise the scene as a way of making  a 'real' memory. There is not usually enough rehearsal time to spend on improvisation; learning what to say in addition to how, where and most importantly when to say it, takes up the larger portion of the commonly allocated three weeks. If your fellow actor's prison antics are not conducive to the happy love affair you imagined, you may be glad that the improvisation exercises had to be squeezed into an afternoon between costume fittings.
Where whole plays or films are constructed from actors improvising scenes, you might think that the actors also receive writing credits/payment. This is not the case. The improvisation is seen as an extension of the actor's normal range of duties. It does not work the other way round. David Hare is paid to perform and if Richard Curtis wanted to serenade Laura Linney under a Fig Tree in his next Romantic Comedy, I'm sure he could command a small fee. However, since actors often develop characters with writers, frequently work on scripts with directors and request line changes all the time, I suspect that this is a Can of Worms.
  One of the first plays I was in was directed by an enthusiastic improvisor. That is, he told us to improvise and we did it. The atmosphere was quite intimidating. We were not allowed to bring anything in to the rehearsal room that did not pertain to the play or the time period (1940's). We had a lot of character 'homework' to do and there was plenty of shouting. One day, the director told everyone to leave the room so that I could work on a private improvisation with one of the other actors. It was to be an intimate moment in our affair that would lend some truth to our relationship history. The other actor was not from the improvisation school of acting and was reluctant to take part. I was from a school that only used improvisation and particularly wanted to avoid more shouting. I'm not sure what Terrence Rattigan would have written had he included the scene, but as soon as the director asked us to start my co-star turned to me with a look of fury and said 'Why do you have be such a bitch?'. It went downhill from there. 
The play, however, was a hit.


  1. Writer and director Jonas Elmer often starts working with the actors before his screenplay is finished. He has an outline of the scenes but does not write the exact dialogue until after the actors have improvised. I saw his movie “Let’s Get Lost” (which got an award for best picture over here about 10 years ago) and the dialogue was extremely alive and realistic – maybe for obvious reasons. But the actors weren’t credited for writing. I don’t know how involved an actor would have to be in order to be credited, but as far as I remember Uma Thurman was credited for ‘writing’ because she helped develop her character in “Kill Bill.”

    After getting to know your own character really well, has it ever occurred that your character had a line which you felt she would never say in that particular way? Is the writer and/or director always right or would something like that ever be brought up for discussion?

    I suppose one thing is improvisation as a way of getting to know or develop a character. But what if an actor suddenly improvises during a performance? (I don’t mean if he has forgotten his lines (!) but when it is done deliberately). Has this ever happened to you? There was a well-known actor who did this regularly on stage. Almost every night he would come up with something, and never at the same point of the play. He would add an extra sentence or do something different than he was supposed to. He was a big star and the audience loved him. However, I can’t help thinking he was doing this at the expense of the other actors. I wonder what this must feel like from the perspective of the actors on stage, who never knew when he would improvise, and they somehow had to continue, even though they did not get the right cue.

    I suppose you are right that we all improvise in our everyday lives. I have my work day planned, but I also know this will always just be plan B. Something unexpected will always happen and we’ll take it from there. Which is fine. But wouldn’t it be nice if ‘real life’ could be a bit more like movie making, so we would have a chance to do another take, whenever we completely mess up a ‘scene’ :o)?

  2. I will look for 'Let's get Lost', it sounds interesting.
    As far as re-shooting mistakes from life goes, I'd still be going through primary school, so maybe it's just as well we only get one take.

  3. Improvisation sounds a lot like flying by the seat of your pants. Hard on the nerves, I should think, unless you are well into your character, then perhaps loads of freedom. Maybe it is reflective of how life is, because you're there on the spot trying to figure out, who am I?

  4. Un bon point.
    (As opposed to au bon point)

  5. Which one is more imaginative?