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To improv or not to improv...

Great advice to actors from improvise or not to improvise.
How to make yourself stand out at commercial castings.

To Improvise or not to Improvise

By Paul Haber
JUNE 2, 2011
When an actor doesn't book a commercial, his or her agent may proffer a comforting bit of pablum that actors have heard since Vitameatavegamin entered the pop-culture lexicon: "It's not you; they just went another way."

The phrase is probably meant to comfort a fragile ego, and sometimes it may be true. Some casting directors, though, maintain that the real reason you didn't book is because you performed exactly what was on the page but didn't go enough beyond it. That's when improv plus commercial copy could equal a booking—or maybe not.

"Although we can't ask anyone to improvise"—because of Screen Actors Guild rules—"people will expect you to be able to," says David Cady, a session director with Donna DeSeta's office in New York. "At the very least, people will appreciate that you can make a funny script funnier." Ultimately, you have to find a way to make your audition stand out from everyone else's, observes Cady, who has personally cast more than 1,500 commercials in the last decade. Improv, he says, may be the way to do it.
The numbers make clear just how wise this advice is. According to Cady, who also teaches commercial classes in New York, they may see 70 to 80 actors for a single role, and often many more. Given those figures, if you don't bring something different and creative to the audition, you're putting yourself at a statistical disadvantage.

"One of the values of improv is to train you as an actor to come into an audition with 10 ideas instead of two, even in a nonverbal scenario," Cady says. "Having too many ideas is always better than having only one."

This is not to say you should ignore the script and direction in an effort to stand out as the funny guy or girl. There's a vital difference between what you might do onstage Saturday night at Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, where you create the whole world, and what you do Monday morning at your commercial audition.

"Show them you respect the world they created, the world they wrote," says Killian McHugh, a session director with Hollywood's Alyson Horn Casting. Even when you're improvising, your acting choices must be based on the choices the ad agency has created for you. "The director's goal in calling you back is to see that you can take direction," he says. "But if you're not making any choices, then what's the point? Why would he direct you?"

Moreover, you can't add lots of time to your audition—a 30-second spot can't morph into a two-minute comedy routine. How much is too much when it comes to improv? "It's a skill guided by your internal barometer, then honing that skill in class," says McHugh, who teaches improv for commercials.

"The script is a guide," adds Cady. "You can't make up the script; otherwise, the people watching you will wonder what kind of a loose cannon you are."

Still, one thing that Cady reminds his actors is just how little the clients actually see of them: "My client sees 20- to 30-second takes, then at the callback they'll spend five or 10 minutes with you. That's all. So you really want to make those moments count."

One casting director, who preferred to offer his advice anonymously, says, "If I give someone a script and say, 'Feel free to make it your own,' what I'm implicitly telling that actor to do is embellish it or improvise. I can't say that because of SAG rules, but by making it the actor's choice—'Feel free to do this if you so choose'—I'm telling the actor, 'It might behoove you to do that.' If they choose to do the script exactly as written, that's their choice. And if they choose to embellish, who am I to stop them?"

One of McHugh's tips to actors: As soon as you walk into the audition room, ask if you're "married to the copy." If they say they want it verbatim, that's what you should give them. But if they say, "Feel free to make it your own" (or words to that effect), that's your cue to really do that.

"I tell my students, 'It's your job to show them how creative you are in an audition,' " says Cady. "If you're an incredible actor and improviser who can come up with funny, off-the-cuff things to say, I won't necessarily know that if you don't show me you can do that."

In essence, all actors are telling the same story when they come in for an audition. "But," says Cady, "it's how you tell the story. If you add some personal embellishments, in a way that no one else will tell it, that's what will make you stand out."

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