About the Improv at the Un-Scripted Theater Company
The improv we do here at Un-Scripted has a tendency to be a bit different than the improv that many have learned at other improv schools or with other performance groups.
Thinking about improvisational style is a cornerstone of the way the Un-Scripted Theater Company looks at improv. We try to ask ourselves, what is the “style” of improv that is being performed on stage? For example, if you looked just like Wayne Brady and had to fill in for him at the very last second on Whose Line Is It Anyway and nobody could know that you weren’t him, the way you improvised would be seriously different than if you were in the same situation with Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm. In both situations, you would be making stuff up on the spot, but the kinds of offers you would make would be totally different depending on who you were pretending to be. If you’ve seen a lot of different groups or performed with several troupes, you’ve probably seen differences in Style. A group called Krazy Poo Monkeys is probably going to make different choices with the audience suggestion “Western” than, say, a group called The Royal Academy of Improvisation. As an improvisor yourself, could you do a good Western scene in both Krazy Poo Monkeys and The Royal Academy of Improvisation? That is Style Matching: Your ability to adapt your improv choices to the improvisational Style being performed at the moment. At the Un-Scripted Theater Company, our improv Style changes from show to show, and when we’re doing shortform, it can change from scene to scene. When casting improvisors for our shows, the ability to Style Match one’s fellow actors and the ability to change one’s style to meet the needs of the director of a show is usually the deciding factor in who could be cast in a show and who is not even considered.
The term “longform” is a very general one, which is often used to mean any type of improv scene or scenes that last longer than 5 minutes. However, the Un-Scripted Theater Company (as in much of the rest of San Francisco) defines Longform more specifically as a two-hour single-story show. Harolds, Triptychs, and other related forms, in our opinion, are really "Mediumform". Staying in the same story in a single world with just a few main characters for a full two hours definitely uses different skills than those skills used in Mediumform shows. If your Longform experience in the past hasn’t included single story work, here are a few things we look for in potential cast members for Un-Scripted style Longform shows…
Who is the story about? Who does the audience care about? Who is going to play the lead? So far, no Un-Scripted show has ever decided ahead of time who is going to play the leads and who is going to play the support characters in any given show. That means if you get cast in one of our shows, you will need to be able to tell, in the first few scenes of a show, who the audience cares about and who is going to be helping, or hindering, that main person or persons. Many people by nature either excel at playing the protagonist or at playing off the protagonist. What we need are actors who can do both: become the protagonist when you’re needed, and avoid becoming the protagonist when you’re not. If you are unsure how well you succeed at being a protagonist, ask yourself these few questions: Can you act just slightly more realistically than the other actors on stage? Can you let the world hurt you in such a way that the audience cares about you? Can you like things and dream for things as a character, even though the world you’re living in isn’t easy? Can you do it while still being honestly affected and changed by stuff?
Being affected and changed.
If you have ever performed improv in a pub or a bar, being affected was probably not a skill you needed for that show. Being vulnerable on stage is not useful when facing a crowd of drunken hecklers. However, if you are going to play a protagonist in a single-story longform, knowing how to honestly be affected and changed by stuff that gets thrown at you is a must. Unfortunately this can be quite counter-intuitive if you’ve performed for a lot of audiences who like to yell “proctologist” whenever you ask for a suggestion. With difficult audiences you have to have the skill to make anything work and be able to change who you are playing at the drop of a hat, all while still remaining in control of the stage. But staying in control can sink you, if you are trying to play a longform protagonist. We want the audience to see that the stuff that happens on stage can change you. We want to see your character surprised by the new information in the story. We want to see that the action on stage means something to you in a way the audience can relate to. Honesty, truth, and actual acting skill all come together in the protagonist to create a lead character that the audience wants to see win. If there was a second cornerstone at the Un-Scripted Theater Company, being able to be affected and changed by stuff would be it.
Play to the story, not to the character.
In intermediate improv, many improvisors learn how to BE a character. It’s a skill very similar to method acting. You learn how it feels to be inside another character’s skin and how to use your own instincts to make the characters you play more believable. While this is a must-have skill for any seasoned improvisor, it can also be the culprit in a derailed storyline. Un-Scripted is always looking for people who can play realistic characters, but who are also able to keep their characters serving the overall story. For example, real-life cheerleaders in a horror story would be very hard to kill. They are athletic, nimble, and quick. They’re probably the most likely people to survive some big half-retarded guy wearing a hard-to-see-out-of hockey mask, wielding a 60-pound axe. But in a staged horror story, we don’t want to see the designated meat jumping out of the way and running off stage, even if that’s what your character’s motivation would be. You need to know what the role your character is supposed to play in the story as a whole. Stories need heroes and villains, extras who don’t say anything, crazy neighbors, and cheerleaders who die when they’re supposed to. We’re looking for people who can play to the needs of the story, not just to the needs of their character. We’re looking for actors who can fill any role in a story when called upon, and once there, do with their character exactly what the story needs them to do.
We all know the story of Brer Rabbit, who tricked the Fox into throwing him into the briar patch by begging him not to. Often times in improv, what we want from a good story is for the things the characters in the story don’t want to see happen, happen. However there’s a tendency for improvisors with a strong “yes and” background to respond to what characters on stage say, rather than what their fellow actors mean. This is Invisible Blocking. On stage, we want to see Superman threatened by Kryptonite. We don’t want to see Superman say, “No! Get that Kryptonite away from me!”, and have the Villain say, “Yes, and I’ll take it away right now!” That is blocking, even though you are saying “yes”. Although you’re saying “yes” to what was said on stage, you’re saying “no” to what the actor was really asking you to do for the story. Superman’s actor needs an obstacle (Kryptonite) for his character to overcome; otherwise he has nothing to do. To avoid Invisible Blocking, ask yourself what your fellow improvisors want on stage, and how you can raise the stakes for the scene. Are your fellow actors asking you to do what their characters are saying, or are they asking to be thrown into the briar patch? What’s the best choice for the story?
Accepting offers and staying in genre.
At the beginning of a story, the possibilities of what could happen on stage for the next two hours is pretty wide and open ended. Anything could happen. However, an hour and a half into the show, “anything” can’t happen any longer. We’ve created a world: We know who the characters are, what they can physically do, and what style we’re working in. It is up to you to stay inside that world you have created. If you are the new person in town with fresh ideas about the world in the 1950’s story you are telling, you need to stay in the world you are creating. If, half way through the second half of the show, the uptight Minister of the town calls you the Devil, that doesn’t mean you should change from a bespectacled intellectual hero with modern ideas into a 70-foot fire-breathing demon and start eating cars and stomping City Hall. That isn’t possible in the world you have created, and it destroys all the work you and the rest of the cast has created up to that point. Acccepting the offer of being called the Devil is to be hurt, or changed, or to prove how your ideas make life better, not to actually becoming the Devil. Usually in a 2 hour single-story longform, the genre of the show is set ahead of time by the director so you’ll know if 70-foot fire-breathing demons are on the table or not. It’s up to the cast to help the director of the show obtain his or her vision by staying inside the genre of the show.
For the most part, the Un-Scripted Theater Company plays shortform the same as much of the rest of the world, but there are some major differences.
Playing the genre vs. lampooning.
When we get a genre from the audience to do a scene, our goal is not to make fun of the genre but rather to nail it. We find it much funnier to actually do a good Kabuki scene, rather than play at and make fun of Kabuki. We like to put as much truth in our work as possible, and our audiences have come to expect us to give them a full and rich theater experience. Improv doesn’t need to be dumbed down to be funny. We find that the better we get at playing a genre honestly, the funnier our shows become.
Linear games and scenes.
For the most part, the improv games we play are ones that tell full-length, linear stories: games that allow us to tell stories with a beginning, middle and end (like Alphabet Scene, Genre Switch, or Inner Song-ologue). We generally avoid games that have disjointed time lines or are based on short punch lines (like World’s Worst, Freeze Tag, or Party Quirks).
The Un-Scripted Theater Company loves to sing. If you aren’t an improv singer, that isn’t going to keep you out of our shows, but we hope you would be willing to work at it during the rehearsal process and join us in our shows with this aspect of improv that we all seem to love to do. If you are a professional singer, well, you probably have a better voice than most of us, and that’s something we’re always hopeful to find in the audition process. Un-Scripted also tends toward single-point-of-view improvised songs rather than multiple points of view. Most songs you here on the radio or on Broadway are single point of view songs. In a single point of view song, you are telling a single story or singing from the perspective of a single character for every verse in the song. In a multiple point of view song, each verse tells a new story or is from the perspective of a new character.
We consider all of the skills on this page during our auditions, plus we will be looking at how well you can take direction. We know that many people who audition for us may not have worked on these things before, so we need to see if we can teach it to you by the time the show opens. How well an actor can take direction is a window into how easy it will bring a potential cast member up to speed. The importance of taking direction to the casting decision depends on the rehearsal time for the show, how many guest actors are being cast, and how technically difficult the vision of the show is.
We know this is a lot of stuff to think about, but in the end, just have fun and don’t get in your head. We try and keep our auditions fun, more like a workout or improv jam rather than like a scripted theater audition. If all of this talk about improv scares you, don’t worry about it. Just come and play. The best people to watch on stage are the ones who are having a great time. If you come to our auditions with only one thing in your head, it should be to relax and have a good time. Because really, in the end, isn’t that what improv is all about anyway?