Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Note to the Actor/Improviser

Stop ad-libbing.

Thank you.

P.S. Here’s why…

In 1998, I wrote a play called “A Hard Day’s Journey Into Night” about the break-up of a Beatles tribute band. I put a year into writing that play. Dug into the characters and relationships. Poured my heart and soul into it. The production never came together like I envisioned. The first compromise was dropping having actors who also played instruments who could pass themselves off as a tribute band, if even a mediocre one. I was told there was no way we could find people who could do that (in Chicago, no less). The second compromise came in choosing a director who, while a great guy, was better at directing/coaching improv than traditional theater. The third turn down a long dark tunnel came when the cast was chosen. All improvisers who preferred to “riff” than memorize their lines. That’s an exaggeration. There were some hardworking folks in that show who worked their butts off to deliver what I wrote. And then there were others who simply used what I wrote as a springboard. One guy even told me he should have co-writer credit. I declined. The experience was a nightmare.

“The Saga of the Viking Women…” just completed its fourth weekend. It’s a fun show with big characters and lots of music and action. Everyone at RvD is proud of it and considers it to be our best show, yet. RvD is made up of writers. When we’re in a show or supporting a show, we may be doing the task at hand, but we’re always filtering everything through our writer sensibilities. We know when actors are going off script and we’re aware of how it affects the story. On Saturday, there was so much ad-libbing going on in the show that it dragged the momentum we’re trying to build in the last half of the piece making the climax less so.

Why do actors ad-lib?

- It could be they are not confident in the script and, as performers, are covering their asses. If they can just get the audience to laugh at what they’re doing, the audience will see it’s not they’re fault the show sucks. This is not the case with “Viking Women.” We all love the show and the characters.
- They’re bored. I have seen Second City revues devolve into big soupy messes simply because the performers got bored with the material and started to change it up unaware of or unconcerned with how far they have drifted from the original show. They’re keeping it fresh for themselves at the expense of a paying audience who came to see the revue they heard or read about. Since “Viking Women” is only a ten-show run and last Saturday was only number eight, I’ll assume that’s not it, either. If it is, these actors need to learn more about how one keeps a role fresh and interesting internally without damaging the story telling experience.
- I let them.

Yep. I think that’s the one.

As a director, I don’t mind when actors try new things… in rehearsal. It often leads to moments that truthfully flesh out a character or aspect of the tale being told. As a writer, it sometimes leads to a better line of dialogue, which makes me look smarter and funnier than I am. It’s a win-win. It also helps build ensemble and the sense that we are all creating this thing together. This is essential, in my experience. The actors aren’t meat puppets. They are co-creators. They’re the ones who breathe life into what’s on the page.

This is also tricky. I want actors to honor the script and I want them to discover exciting, spontaneous moments. Where this becomes a burden is when an actor “runs” with it and changes lines that aren’t an improvement, often just different, often simply not as good as what was written. Or their ad-lib is simply them speaking the subtext of their character when it would be far more interesting to keep those comments internal and show them to us.

Again, at a rehearsal level, this is easier to address and handle. Once the show opens, it becomes a different animal. Lights come up and the actor is now in control. This is as it should be, but with all the weeks of preparation and proven moments, why would an actor ad-lib? (By the way, I am distinguishing ad-libbing from improvising. Improvising is discovery and exploration. Ad-libbing is an actor trying something they think will be funny. Usually premeditated and not in the moment. Also, don’t improvise during my written show!)

Ad-libs usually start flying because an actor had success at it and now wants more. They’re high on how clever they can be and how much the audience shows their approval through laughter. Laughter solely caused by that actor’s wit. The actor has shifted from being an ensemble member to being in it for him or herself. This leads to the kind of ad-libbing that breaks character, calls out the story or other characters/actors and does NOT forward the action or make the play more engaging. It’s an indulgence.

And it’s my fault for not telling the actors to knock it off after the first weekend. The show is now set. Deliver the show.

“Saga of the Viking Women” is filled with brilliant comic talent. It’s a big show with lots of props and costume changes and the story is complicated. We rehearsed in a space too small for the show and we have performed on all three stages at Stage773. Two of them were last minute changes and done without a tech rehearsal. We own this show – the writers, the crew and the actors – and feel like we can do this show anywhere, anytime. But, we’re also not infallible.

Saturday’s new ad-libs were mostly chitchat and spoken subtext that landed with slow-motion thuds. The audience still enjoyed the show, but we, the writers, know they didn’t get the full experience of what we intended.

Actors. Want to look like rock stars? Commit to your character. Commit to the relationships. Commit to the story. Deliver the show everyone is there to see.


Anonymous said...

Bravo Joe! Having only been in 3 sketch comedy shows and having none of the Chicago improv training, the whole "we can say whatever we want in rehearsal" is really intimidating at first. I was trained to stick to the script like it was covered in chocolate...unless the director released you. Once you're allowed to let go, I see the opportunities and discoveries that allow performers to make such great choices.'s never discussed...the letting go or the pulling back. The first show I did where folks "explored" the script seemed so masturbatory and no one said anything...for or against. I may be one of those performers who needs their hand held (or maybe I just like the way you smell) but establishing this at the begining of a process is so useful. Thank you for addressing it.

Joe Janes said...

Thea Lux wrote a comment to this piece on my Facebook page about her experience with The New Colony.

here it is...

"At TNC we have brackets for lines that can be changed each production. That varies from character to character, depending on the "bittiness" of a character. We also have such a hippy dippy collaborative process that the lines change from ...time to time. As long as the subtext or intention is the same, if the phrase is said differently but the sentiment is the same, it's fine. It's nice because it provides the spontaneity that you can sometimes lose night after night. It's controlled ad-libbing, I guess and brevity is welcomed. Of course there's the occasional "hey, we like hearing ourselves talk" every now and then after a few weeks into a run...

Obviously this differs from theater company to theater company and from process to process. TNC's spoils you, and solidifies my preference for contemporary theater vs. Chekov... being a bastard child of Anton, I guess this makes sense.

Some actors really don't know what to do with the freedom the first time. Some go too far and will not trust the writer enough, thinking they have to completely take charge of their character. Some don't trust themselves enough and forget that their character is based on their input and energy.

Tangent, right? I agree and disagree and and as libra as I am saying that every circumstance is different. But if it's set up to be a certain way, maintain that. Or, if that's how you want it to be set up, then make sure that's stated in the beginning otherwise an easy going mentality will accidentally be taken advantage of in the most innocent way."

I think it all boils down to setting parameters.

Anonymous said...

Maybe actors are too aware of the audience.