When it comes to improv, auditions are a flawed casting methodology. The nature of auditions devalues everything improv is supposed to be about and promotes everything it isn't. Collaboration becomes competition. Support becomes selfishness. Listening becomes laugh-seeking. It can be a frustratingly unreliable method of identifying ability.
In a perfect world, directors would spend most of their time scouting the talent pool and talking to teachers and coaches about up-and-comers - intimately getting to know the strengths and weaknesses of as many performers as possible and casting by invitation. Unfortunately in many places that's a full time job, and most improv directors just don't have the time. So they hope we're capable of accurately representing our skills in the short, high-pressure window we're given. And we hope they're capable of recognizing our skills in a crowded environment.
Auditions are necessary evil. They're far from perfect, but they're what we've got. If we want improv to be a part of our lives, auditions are going to be a part of it too.
So we put ourselves out there.
We show up to the audition full of excitement, fear, and caffeine and we try to represent our skills to the best of our ability. We support our scene partner. We show a range of choices and emotions. We do our best to have fun in spite of our nerves.
Then, almost as soon as it starts, it's over.
So we wait.
And we wait.
And results go out.
And we get rejected.
We go through the audition over and over in our heads. Where did we go wrong? We thought we did pretty well. We felt good about our choices and we did some good scenes. We weren't perfect, certainly, but no one else was either. How could they not recognize the skills we know we have? Why don't they want us in their show? Why don't they want us at their theater?
Here's the bad news:
Improv has never been more popular than it is right now. Getting cast at a major theater is the hardest its ever been. The gap between interested performers and available spots on resident casts has never been larger. There just simply isn't enough room for all of us, and that means a lot of us are going to be rejected.
Here's the good news:
We do not need permission to do improv.
If this is something we love, if this is something we want to do, we do not need approval from any individual or institution to continue to do it.
Of course we want those "official" opportunities. Of course we want the support of an established theater. Of course we want the credibility that comes with being put on a premier stage. All these things are great. None of them are necessities.
A theater is just a big shiny box.
It might have a big stage in a big room and a bar in the lobby. It might have fancy lights and a sound system and cool posters in the window. This is all just packaging - stuff intended to attract audiences and improve their experience. Strip away all the packaging and what's left is a group of people making stuff up. And we can do that anywhere.
Here's more good news:
Because improv is more popular than it has ever been, the indie scene is thriving. There are indie nights happening in apartments, bars, breweries, cafes, hotels, rehearsal spaces, and anywhere else at least twenty people can fit in a room. There is a massive amount of stage time available to us if we are willing to seek it out. These might not be the best opportunities in terms of atmosphere and audience size, but they are chances to hone our skills and continue to do what we love.
Recognize the value of those opportunities. Take advantage of them.
I am no stranger to rejection.
It took me 6 auditions to get a callback at ImprovBoston. I spent a full three years of my life being told I wasn't good enough do to improv and I wasn't even close to making the cut.
Each failed audition crushed me harder than the last. All of my friends got on casts before I did. People with a lot less experience than I had were getting picked over me. It didn't make any sense. I was doing everything right and it still wasn't enough.
Somewhere in the midst of all that rejection I decided I wasn't going to let it beat me. I wasn't going to let people tell me that I couldn't do improv. I wasn't going to let people tell me I couldn't have what I wanted.
I decided that I was going to do whatever it took to become one of the best improvisers in the city. I would outwork, outstudy, and outrep everyone. I would push myself harder than anyone else pushed themselves. I would be tougher on myself than any coach or director possibly could be.
I wanted to become undeniable. I wanted to prove them wrong.
I still approach every day with that mindset. I'm still driven by those goals.
Here's a hard truth about improv and life in general:
Some people have to work harder for the same opportunities.
They will tell us we aren't good enough. They will tell us no one wants to work with us. They will tell us we aren't worth the effort to train.
Become undeniable. Prove them wrong.
Here are some things I did in those three years that directly contributed to my improvement:
- Understand that you are constantly auditioning. You never know who is going to be a future director or producer. Give a full effort every time you perform because they could be in the audience, even if that audience is only 3 people. Be reliable - sometimes all you need to do is show up when you say you will. Be nice to everyone because no one wants to work with assholes.
- Invest in the community. Go to Jams. Stick around at the bar after shows. Talk shop with other performers. Make some new friends. Directors and producers are more likely to take chances on people they know. New shows and teams are constantly being born over burgers and beers.
- Study your heroes. What makes them good at what they do? What about them do audiences respond to (mannerisms, characters, etc)? Steal all of it and add your own spin. Ask your local heroes to coach your team or at least run a workshop.
- Study yourself. Coaches and directors aren't going to give you notes on everything. Their responsibility lies with the development of the group as a whole. Record your shows and analyze your scenes. Try to notice when you're making the same choices frequently and force yourself to mix it up.
- Tell people what you want. Directors want people who are invested and excited. Find ways to let them know you want to work with them. Ask them what you can work on to put yourself in a better position to do that. Listen to them. Do those things.
- Learn from other places. Take classes at other theaters in your city or intensives out of town. Take workshops even if you're not interested in the subject or know who the instructor is. Read. TJ & Dave's book is great. Mick Napier's book is great. Will Hines' book is great. Take an acting class.
- Do stuff without permission. Make a video. Put a practice team together. Write. Create your own show and put it up somewhere. There are tons of ways to get better that don't require anyone's approval. It doesn't have to be for any reason other than your own personal growth. The work that no one will see will be some of the best work you ever do. The opportunities you create for yourself will be the ones you're most proud of.
- Do other things. Improv has a tendency to suck people in and burn them out. Take breaks from time to time. Check out other art forms. Study other subjects that interest you. Travel. Not every show is a can't-miss show. Improv is about reflecting life. When too much of your life is centered on improv, it will start to get stale. Take some time to live. Improv will still be here when you get back.
- Love yourself. When you decide to unconditionally value your own abilities, you become invincible. When you know without a doubt that you are good at this, no amount of rejection can hurt you. It might be frustrating. It might not make sense. You might feel like you don't fit anywhere. You might have to create all your own opportunities. But as long as you honestly value yourself, rejection will never be able to beat you.
I'll finish with this quote from the film The Imitation Game:
"Sometimes it's the very people who no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine."
And this video about someone great who was initially overlooked: