Improvisation, also known as improv, is a form of theatre or theatre sports, where the performance is unplanned or unscripted. Instead, the dialogue, action, story, and characters are created spontaneously, and collaboratively, by the performers. Improv techniques are used in drama programs to train actors for stage, film, and television. Moreover, improv is often used to develop characters and scripts, sometimes ending up as part of the final product.
Improv can be used by actors to develop a genuine element to their performance and relationships with other characters. This is done by teaching actors to:
- Listen – respond – react
- Have more confidence
- Stay present and open
- Go with the flow
- Make strong choices on the spot
- Connect with your scene partner
- Have fun with your performances
When preparing for a script, actors have time to work through their characterisations and come up with solid choices. When auditioning, they do not have the same time to prepare. Moreover, auditions often incorporate an improv task or two. This results in most auditioning actors not feeling very confident or strong when starting out. Therefore, developing improv skills is empowering for the auditioning actor.
While actors and directors endeavour to stick to a script, sometimes that’s not always possible. There are often times when an actor or director has to improvise a line or a scene. Occasionally the improvised line or scene becomes immortalised in cinema history:
Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Director – John Schlesinger
Scene: Want-to-be gigolo Joe Buck (Jon Voight) and crippled scam artist Ratso (Dustin Hoffman) cross a street in New York City. A NYC taxi cab drives through the scene and runs into Hoffman.
Improv: The taxi cab driver was a real NYC taxi cab driver who ignored the “Street Closed for Filming” signs. Hoffman responds with “I’m walking here!” and bangs on the car hood as he and Voight continue the scene.
Taxi Driver (1976)
Director – Martin Scorsese
Scene: Insomnia-plagued taxi driver Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) talks to himself in a mirror. All screen writer Paul Schrader wrote was “Travis talks to himself in the mirror”. There was no specific dialog.
Improv: Everything that Travis says during his faux-conversation was improvised by De Niro on the spot. Including the now famous line, “You talking to me?”
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Director – Steven Spielberg
Scene: During a chase, archaeologist and adventurer Dr. Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) runs into a large sword-wielding bad guy. Instead of fighting him, he pulls out his revolver and puts the man down with one shot.
Improv: The original script actually called for a lengthy sword fight. However, a day earlier Ford got a severe case of food poisoning and didn’t have the energy to film the scene as written. After a discussion with director Steven Spielberg, the scene was changed and became an iconic part of Indiana Jones mythos.
The Usual Suspects (1995)
Director – Bryan Singer
Scene: Christopher McQuarrie wrote only one line for this scene – “Give me the keys, you f*cking c*cksucker!” It was up to the individual actors to deliver the line however they wanted.
Improv: McQuarrie actually plays the cop speaking with the suspects. Both his line to Fred Fenster (Benicio Del Toro) “In English please?” and Del Toro’s reaction were unscripted. And the laughing by the other actors during Del Toro’s delivery was due to his constant farting while filming.
Director – Ben Stiller
Scene: Former hand model J.P. Prewitt (David Duchovny) and the dimwitted male model Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) discuss Prewitt’s conspiracy theory. Prewitt explains how the fashion industry has been behind every high profile political assassination of the last hundred years. Zoolander asks, “Why male models?” Prewitt answers with a lengthy explanation, after which Zoolander responds again, “Why male models?”
Improv: Stiller actually forgot his original line and just repeated his previous line instead. This prompted Duchovny to improv his response “Are you kidding? I just told you like a minute ago.” The scene ends up reinforcing the movie’s narrative and is one of the funniest parts of the film.
When taken alongside acting classes, improv classes help speed up actor development. This is because most acting techniques are focused on emotional connection, character work, truthful expression, and script interpretation. Improv, however, is about freeing up the mind, so as to be more creative with choices and instincts. The combination of the two provides more rounded and empowering training for all actors.