Improvisation: Fearless Factor

actor director relationshipsGina Morley continues to explore the actor/director relationship, looking at improvisation tools that can produce fearless performances on screen.

BE BORING. This is the direction given to me in an improvisation class last year. Yes, be boring!

In my many years as an actor I have loved experimenting with improvisation, but had never actually learnt the formal mechanical skills of the craft , or the directional gems such as be boring. Over the past 12 months I have been learning and experimenting with the base skills of improvisation and applying them to my own personal acting process. It has changed the way I work and unlocked a playful fearlessness in my film performances. So I have been inspired to write about to give directors insight into how to use this exciting and simple craft.

The concept of being boring refers to the improvisational credo of doing the very first thing that comes to your mind, rather than second guessing yourself and trying to come up with something that is ‘clever’ and will ‘impress’. Actors, including myself in past performances, want to impress with their choices and feel their first thought is ‘too easy’ and they should come up with the ‘best’ idea possible. What improvisation embraces is that the very first thought is actually the best idea possible.

As Patti Stiles – a student of Keith Johnstone and former artistic director of Impro Melbourne and Rapid Fire Theatre in Canada – puts it, “Keith’s work (in improvisation) is not worrying about being good or bad, just be obvious. Just be present.” These keys to improvisation encourage the actor to trust their instincts, stop thinking and to live in the moment.

Director Ian Dixon (Crushed, released at Nova Cinema; the halfhour SBS drama Wee Jimmy, winner of a director commendation at the San Francisco International Film Festival) explains that he “always uses improvisation because it liberates the actor and stops them from watching themselves and just waiting for their turn to speak their lines.”

Before working with the script Dixon uses improvisation to “allow the actor to experiment with elements of their back story that they cannot find through the intellect.” He believes it “gives them an opportunity to expand their characters in ways which the intellect might otherwise trip them up.”

When preparing for an audition a few weeks ago where the character was a school teacher, I invited other actors to work with me and improvise what had happened in that character’s past. We had fun playing out general classroom scenes, a scene where I caught a student smoking, a morning staff meeting and scenes from the characters personal life outside of school. Although not part of the text, all of this work on back story gave me tangible experiences to draw on that informed how my character would act and more importantly react within the context of the scripted scenes. It allowed me to understand my character by experiencing what she had experienced. I find it very exciting and liberating when directors work with me in this way during rehearsal. Although it is important to note that to work with improvisation you need actors who are willing to take a leap and be brave. Because as Stiles says “actors with a high level of fear will want to know exactly what to do,” and the whole point of improvisation is that actors enter a scene not having any ideas what they will end up doing. This is what makes it exciting.

According to Dixon, improvisation is key because it “gets the actor away from their intellect, allows the actors to go to places that they would not normally go and it provides the illusion of spontaneity because the actor is just living the moment.“


Stiles is passionate that “there are a lot of improvisation exercises that develop connection and reality between characters.” A favourite exercise of mine that Stiles uses to promote inhibition is what Johnstone calls ‘Fast Food Stanislavski Lists’ where you literally have a list of physical and vocal attributes that a type of person exhibits and you use as many of the attributes as you can while performing to give characterisations depth. Real people use the attributes found in the lists, but actors often solely rely on their own natural physicality and vocal patterns – using lists can break this.

For example, Stiles questions how if an actor “comes into a scene and they’re being very strong willed, what if you give them a list that is ‘to be loved’?” Someone who wants to be loved may have the following list: smiles sweetly often, gazes longingly at other person, agrees with anything, clasps hands earnestly, etc. By giving an actor this list, which is contrary to the subtext of the scene, there is suddenly surprising and exciting multi-layered work happening. Imagine an actor that needs to be strong-willed acting like they want to be loved! For each scene it is great to experiment with different lists to see what comes out of it. A series of these lists can be found in Johnstone’s book Impro for Storytellers.

Another exercise that I enjoy using to take me ‘out of my intellect’ and make me fearless is to make up one thing about the other characters in a scene. For the audition mentioned earlier I imagined that I had caught the headmaster drinking in his office at lunchtime. And while this had no bearing on the scene we played, it gave me more reality to ground my work in and more truth and meaning with which to address his character.

Dixon uses the idea of secrets in a similar way. He shares that he will “divide the actors and say to one actor a secret and to the other another secret.” For example, in his VCA film Cut he had “two actors who were meeting and she needed to borrow a pen.” Dixon took the actress aside and said “I want you to just want to kiss him for the entire scene” and then asked the actor “to get away from her as quickly as he could”. Dixon felt that immediately “the space was ignited and the camera was capturing it because it’s new, it’s fresh.”

In a similar vein there are improvisation exercises where you focus on a single mantra or attitude for the entire scene. To link this with my own method-based acting technique I layer this improvisation work on top. For example I may be in a scene playing a character that has the traditional objective of wanting her boyfriend to ask her to marry him. I can also use a mantra during the scene and repeat in my mind that ‘I want you to leave’. I don’t even need to think of the reason for this, the audience will fill it in, perhaps he didn’t pick up the towels in the bathroom and she’s mad. It could be anything, the point is that this is how people actually behave in real life, so using these exercises creates characters that have motivations as complex as real people’s. There are many kinds of exercises that can be used for different situations.

“What game to teach, what structure, what application you use is going to be specific to the actor, the environment and depending on what you’re trying to achieve, but you need to research the work, to find what works for you,” Stiles said.

This research is worth undertaking for any director. Using improvisation techniques gives directors a freedom to experiment that will open and broaden the story of the script and lead to fearless film performances.
Gina Morley can be contacted at www.ginamorley.com


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