Have you ever taken an improv class? My first improv teacher, Diana Mady Kelly (University of Windsor, School of Dramatic Art) blew my mind wide open early in my career by introducing me to the power of “yes, and…” A student of both Viola Spolin and Uta Hagen, the grounding in “working in the now” Mady Kelly taught me informed all my work since and has made me a better voice over actor.
Improvisation, or improv, is a form of live theatre in which the plot, characters, and dialogue of a game, scene or story are made up live and in real-time. It is a fantastic way to tap into your observation skills, and allows you to focus on being grounded and connected to places, people and actions as they are created. This handy instrument in the actor’s toolkit can help make you a better voice over actor in several ways.
Get Out of Your Space and Comfort Zone
Voice acting can be a very isolating profession, whether we are in the midst of a pandemic or not. Especially with the growth of home pro studios and self-direction, it is not unusual for a voice actor to have very little interaction with their fellow humans (immediate family notwithstanding). Joining an improv group or taking improv lessons, means you get out of your personal space and comfort zone (both physically and emotionally). In the current covid climate, exploring online improv troupes and groups is a way to connect and create.
Improvisation schools and troupes are popular, as are theater sports (competitive comedic improvisation) and all have one thing in common. Stepping out of your personal booth (and other boundaries you may have erected) and teaming up with other actors in the pursuit of story-telling. This collaboration allows actors to “play” off of one another and build stories together – the more elaborate and interesting the better. You’re encouraged to flirt with the unconventional and adopt the eccentric. Improvisation is a safe space for pushing the boundaries of your own imagination with others who have your back and play along. Literally.
To Improvise, Be Fully Present In The Moment
Improvisation is fast-moving and always changing. To do it well, it means that improvisers must be fully present in the moment as the scene, story or game evolves. Because while being present is just good advice for generally living life, if an actor isn’t paying attention, their contribution or lack thereof can grind the improv to a halt. Lack of comfort in staying and playing in the now leads to awkward moments when everyone realizes things aren’t going well whether the medium is theater, film or voice work.
Being able to stay connected and grounded in the here and now benefits the voice actor once back in the booth. Paying attention to the copy, being present in the world of the project can make for less mistakes, less overthinking, and more relaxation and engagement for the actor.
Create A World to Connect With By Improvising One
Improvisers make up worlds from nothing. This imagining and then describing what exists and is happening in the world around them, is what brings the improvised story to life. Like children at play, improvisation happens when actors imagine whole worlds to connect to – full of people and places and activities that then exist collectively in the minds of the audience as they are being created. I call this “world building” and I use it in the booth every day.
Voice actors spend their performance time in small quiet spaces talking to imaginary people. By deciding who they are, who they are talking to, where they are, and what circumstances led them to talk about the product, service or subject, a voice actor fully embodies a character and brings a script to life. All voice over acting IS acting, and a nimble and strong imagination is a valuable asset in any genre, be it commercial, corporate, animation, gaming, audiobooks, e-learning, etc. Improv can greatly enhance the care and feeding of the imagination.
Improv Helps Actors Stay Open to Possibilities
The first rule of improv is to always say “yes, and…” This means whenever fellow improvisers are developing a story, the job of the actor is to agree to whatever direction the story takes and to take it further in the service of the story’s telling. In order to effectively agree and participate, the actor needs to stay open to possibilities and new directions as they are introduced. This openness allows for creativity to flourish. The actor can drop preconceived ideas about what is happening and simply “go with it” to find new ways to connect and explore the story.
This is especially helpful for the voice actor in finding new, fresh ways of delivering the script authentically. Staying open, in the moment and “yes-anding” helps you better work with directors and creatives in a session. You find previously undiscovered voice over performance options whose existence you might not have been aware of until that moment. And in those moments, real brilliance is possible.