Improv 101 — Basic Rules

(Explanation for this new type of post at the bottom.)

To start off, let’s talk about bad things that inexperienced actors do. First and foremost, every actor, not just improv actors, need to be aware of some very basic rules. These aren’t all of the rules, of course, but one can never be taken seriously as an actor without mastering the principles of beats, blocking, and pantomiming. Next week we’ll get into things beginning actors do wrong, but its important to know the structure of the stage before we get into “how to act”.

Beats are what actors call moments of pause or change. If a character stops for a second to think about what they’re going to say, or takes a moment to walk across the stage for something, these are beats. They can be used for a great many things. If a character goes off on a tirade and needs to lower the energy of the scene, its important to take a beat, a moment of silence, to let the audience calm down and perceive that change of mood. For improv, beats are also useful to let the other actors on stage know that you are done talking. In many plays and scenes, beats can be manipulated and moved around to change the tone of a scene. Adding in lots of beats in a monologue will make the scene take longer and diminish the energy of the scene. A hyperactive character, then, would take few beats and bring a lot of energy to the scene.

Blocking, though more used in conventional acting, is the actions you as an actor take on stage in order to move the performance along. Rarely do we see a scene where the two characters stand center stage and talk back and forth without moving. In any given scene, most characters move around. They stand up, walk across the stage, pick something up, pantomime an action. A beginning actor may believe that it is the director’s job to establish character blocking, but in reality the actor knows the character best, and thus would know what specific actions he or she would take in any given scene. Regardless of what it is, though, it should have a purpose. there must be a reason that character is taking action, even if they are simply pacing because they are nervous. Blocking at its core is the choreography of the scene, and should be used in order to convey mood and characters. A character that jogs around the room and jumps is somebody full of energy, and brings an air of levity to the scene. By contrast, a sulking. closed off person with no blocking can send a tone of stagnation and perhaps defeat or sorrow.

The third basic rule of acting is pantomiming. Pantomiming is simply the specific action an actor is doing, without using any props. If one pantomimes sweeping, one would pretend to hold a broom and push it across the stage (the type of broom would be determined by exactly how you are sweeping). In improvisational acting, actors virtually never have props to use (nor even chairs), so mastering how to pantomime is essential. When pantomiming something, an actor must always be aware of the object’s space and weight. Pantomiming sweeping with two clenched fists looks silly, because it does a poor job of implying an object is there. The goal of pantomime is to get the audience (and necessarily the other actors) to perceive an object to be there. Pantomiming can also be done with large objects, such as a car or refrigerator, but in such cases it is imperative that every actor on stage is aware of the location of these things. Since they are too big to move, it breaks the cohesion if an actor walks through the car as if it had stopped existing.

With the use of the new website, now is the best time to make some changes to the blog. From now on, Sundays will be reserved for a new category: Improv 101. (This will be the only post on my Weebly site in which this category will be relevant, so instead I’ll simply label it as an “About Me” post.) So, that this new category will entail, aside from the obvious fact that Reviews will now only be reserved for once a week posts, is an explanation and little instruction kit for how to play each game. In the following weeks I’ll be covering specific games, how to play them, and what to watch out for.

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