Dee Bradley Baker's "All to Know About Going Pro in V.O."

Improv Training

Strong improv skills are particularly important to a good voice actor, or any actor, really. If you are targeting animation, video games or even A.D.R. voice acting, the ability to invent and add material on the fly, to recover from flubs as well as the ability to make others laugh are essential skills.

Improv training teaches cooperative creativity and can be an excellent start in learning how to be an actor and how to hold your own on a stage or in a studio. Improv is also great for reinforcing basic story telling structure and freeing up the imagination. It also teaches skills that can later be parlayed into other types of paid acting work, for instance, corporate shows, theme parks, children’s theater, etc.

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Try taking a good improv class and get stage time:

Theater acting is all scripted. Stand up comedy is mostly scripted. Improv has no script at all.

Improv is harrowing, exhilarating, even terrifying and fun! It’s not about obeying a script or forcing an idea, it’s about freedom and openness and listening and moving the story along in a spontaneous and cooperative way. Good improv is an amazing thing to be a part of and even more amazing to witness. It can also be an excellent place to learn fundamental acting skills.

If you are a beginner looking for some sort of acting instruction, I’d rather you take a good improv class than a “voice acting” class. Please don’t just sign up for a four year acting school because you think you might want to be a voice actor. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves!

There are various improv schools in cities around the country from local troupes to well-known franchises (Second City, Groundlings, Theater Sports, Comedy Sports, etc.). When considering an improv school or program, make sure it’s not just an endless “comedy mill” money-pit or a mediocre program.

How do you judge the quality of their program? Check their results: Ask around, audit classes and see their shows. You want to be in a program with good energy with talent you can learn from and opportunity for stage time in front of a live audience. Their shows will be a good indicator of what they ultimately have to offer.

Joining an improv company can feel like you’re signing up with some kind of a cult, run by a guru or “circle of chosen” who have established a power hierarchy with various gate keepers who must be convinced to allow you to pass in order to get stage time in front of an audience.

There is typically a leader/owner or a tight-knit clique that calls the shots creatively and financially and then lower-status associates, some who are allowed to teach and perform (and may be essentially “paid” with stage time). Some just help with the day-to-day mundanities of running the place in hopes of someday earning their way onto the stage, or just for the fun of “being in the mix.” Even if you have talent, working your way in and up will probably take time and money. 

An improv company is a business and must make money. Just understand that the money will not be going into your pocket. The varsity level shows may sometimes include well-known alumni that help them draw substantial crowds. A company with a sub-par talent pool may in fact just be a business that enables the owners and close friends to finance their own stage time by getting others to pay them to “teach” improv. 

Check out their varsity team’s shows to see how high the comedy bar is set by their program. If their shows are killer it’s a good sign. At best, what you see is as good as they have to teach. Some well-reputed improv programs may not be so great, though. Class time with them may look good on a resume’, but that’s about it. 

Remember that comedic ability is not just a matter of learned skill, but also of talent. And they can’t teach that. Some beginner students don’t realize this until after a few years of shoveling out a lot of money hoping for a spotlight that never shines. In any case, find out how much stage time is promised from their various classes (not all levels will lead to real stage time).

This kind of theater is a business but unlike a comedy club, they usually aren’t permitted to make money off alcohol sales– it’s all about door admission (and perhaps concessions), so they gotta fill those seats to pay for the space and keep the lights on. If a class culminates in an actual show, you will probably be required to bring (drag?) your own paying audience of friends and supporters to your performance to feed the comapany’s (owner’s) bottom line. 

There is often a progression of classes within an improv company that you will need to work your way up through to get into bigger shows or showcases. Realize your progress up the “stage-time ladder” is not guaranteed just because you have been paying for classes or helping tear tickets. If the owners don’t judge you ready (or if the right people in the organization don’t like you or find you funny) you may not make it into the varsity company or into the major shows that agents, producers and friends are excited about seeing (or at least, they are willing to see if you beg them). You could languish paying for classes indefinitely, in which case, it’s probably time to move on. 

Talk with current students and any graduates of the program as well as instructors to make sure your potential investment in this program offers people you want to work with and leads where you want to go. Try and get a feel for what kind of a “pack” this company is and if that feels right to you.

The subject of a particular improv or acting class probably isn’t as important as who is teaching it. Just because someone is a great performer, it doesn’t mean they are a good teacher. A brilliant talent can be a crappy teacher– it’s a different skill set. Conversely, an average performer might actually be a fantastic teacher. In any case, audit a class if you can before committing your precious time and money to a particular program or teacher.

Any “superstar” touted in the school’s promotional literature as a graduate of their program may or may not actually feel the school helped them. It might well be that a super talent rises to stardom despite a mediocre school or teacher set up. Really, anyone a famous person has ever met can claim a positive influence, right? Also, a hotshot teacher who really made the place great once upon a time may have moved on.

There is a chance that getting in with a good company might also lead to actual paid acting or writing work. This could be corporate events, theme parks, or seasonal shows the company puts on. Many improv wizards become good writers or form writing partnerships. Improv and comedic chops are marketable skills that can lead in many directions. 

To sum up: Check out the shows, teachers and general vibe before buying in to an improv troupe.

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Foundational improv concepts/skills include:

Do’s:

Listen

“Yes and” another’s offer: When someone offers an idea you affirm it and run with it.

Second support: Always support, add to or strengthen another’s idea or offer. It’s not about self-showcasing, or forcing your own ideas. It’s about collaboration.

Move the story forward: Keep it all moving forward, don’t make offers that block forward story momentum or stagnate progress.

Make fearless offers: Don’t be afraid to offer up fresh ideas. Feel free to avoid obvious choices.

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Don’ts:

Don’t block: Don’t shut down, block or deflect another’s idea or offer. Also don’t attack or undermine a fellow performer just to get audience approval. Don’t undercut established offers.

Don’t grand stand: Don’t take over the show/story by shutting others out or grabbing spot light.

Don’t bail: Don’t walk off or abandon the story or another’s offer. 

Avoid making random offers that derail or completely alter or undermine the established story with problems or obstacles that come out of nowhere or appear arbitrary or non sequitur.

Don’t cling to doing only what has always worked. Jump off a diving board (figuratively).

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Some good source books on the art of improv include Keith Jonstone’s “Impro: Improvisation and the Theater” and books by Viola Spolin. But ultimately, you can’t learn improv from a book- you gotta DO IT!

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© Dee Bradley Baker 2016
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