Improvisation for Actors

How to eat French fries without getting fat

By Rob Adler | Posted Nov. 9, 2015, 3 p.m.

When I was young, I’d often stay up late and watch a movie on TV. In the wee hours past my bedtime, I watched “Jaws,” “Superman II,” “Star Wars,” and everything I could find on cable TV after my parents had gone to bed. I found out there was a reason some movies were “not for little kids,” and I loved it. But I did get scared. Whenever I was most afraid, I’d look to the edges of the screen to remind myself the movie was pretend and I was safe at home. I’d look away long enough for my heart rate to drop and then I’d get right back into it.

Movies have the power to transport us. Have you ever noticed that when you’re watching a movie, the world around you seems to disappear? Have you also noticed this with Facebook? Despite the artistry of the great cinematic storytellers, it appears that the screen itself is mighty. Screens seem to have a magical ability to narrow our perception to a frame and box us in. Today, more and more, our planet is surfaced with screens that confine us, like General Zod, to a two-dimensional world. It seems that less and less often people are making direct present tense contact with the physical world, and effectively dulling their senses.

The need for a rich sensory life is a practical matter for professional actors. If a character in a film is drinking boiling tea, it is very likely that the water the actor is drinking is cold. In commercials for razors, there is often no blade and lard or mashed potatoes are used instead of ice cream. In your favorite fantasy film, the dungeon walls around the actors are actually green screens. We must make our audience recall the heavenly experience of a close shave though, or the blistering of the roof of one’s mouth while drinking scalding tea, or the sweat on our palms during love at first sight.

We experience the world physically through our senses and use our art form to share that experience with our audience. It is only by using our own sensory equipment in the present tense that this is possible. Try this: Feel your feet in your socks. Feel your socks on your feet. Now, feel your chest in your shirt. Feel your shirt on your chest. Take a moment to really do it. Just now, you became better actor. You heightened your senses, organically experiencing the environment around you. Distractions momentarily disappeared and you were in the present moment.

You can further expand your sensory life by playing Viola Spolin’s “Conversation With Involvement” game. The rules to the game are simple: agree on a topic of discussion and eat and drink a large meal made of space objects while keeping up a continuous conversation. Pass the salt, swallow your food, drink your wine.

Use space objects, not to mime, but to practice physicalizing the reality of sensory life. Using your senses and imagining using them are similar, but not the same. Hearing music activates an area of the brain known as the auditory cortex. Amazingly, imagining a song activates that same auditory cortex in the brain, but to a lower magnitude of neural activity. Using space objects to practice sensing trains the body so that during a take, the whole instrument is actively involved with the sensory life of a scene in the moment.

In a recent interview, Billy Bob Thornton said, “We need to slow down, take the good parts of the old days, leave the bad parts behind, and start to live moment to moment again. Look up. Look around.”

As the world zones out into their screens, actors are in a unique position to remind people of the phenomenal experience of being present for life.