Terry Berlandby Casting Director, Terry Berland

To Improv or Not To Improv, that is the question.  If so how much?

Improv dates back to the 15th century in Europe where street performers improv-ed with people passing by.  Being good at improv-ing eliminates second guessing and self doubting oneself, resulting in loose, creative choices.

Even the names of improv groups are creative such as “God’s Been Drinking”, “The Steak and Blow Job Show, “Name Change ending” “Oui Be Negros”, “Three Hole Punch, “Lincoln’s bedroom and “Mission IMPROVable”, just to name a few.

As a commercial Casting Director for commercials, one of the things we look for on a resume is improv, as you always have to expect the unexpected. Being good at improv means you are good at thinking fast on your feet, and not feel self-conscious with whatever you are asked to do.

There are two kinds of improv for commercials.  One being the scenario where there are no lines in the final spot.  In auditions for non-verbal spots, we set up an improv audition revolving around the situation of the spot to see some personality, movement and ease of relationship.  Some examples might be: you are with a bunch of friends sitting around a restaurant table, you are with friends at a casino, in a car showroom or with someone in a store buying a new TV.

The second type of improv are the spots that have copy and we are looking for talent with humor.  Obviously, the more you add to the copy the more the spot becomes unique to you.  In an article I’ve written in the past, I talk about the fact that you need to bring yourself to the copy, as the creatives are looking for a personality, not someone just saying words.  They are using you as a vehicle for their sell and you have to use what they give you as a vehicle to let out who you are and how you feel.

The question many times is asked of me, “how much can I improv to change the script?” My answer is “it depends.” Let’s start with the actor wanting to improv to make the script more his own.  If the spot is not humorous at all, don’t change any of the copy just to be creative.  Let your personality (your chosen attitude) do the work.  Commercial scripts have been legally approved and have quick transitions.  The transitions are usually written well to move it from a beginning, middle and end.  You might just throw a word or a phrase in that interrupts the flow, and the transition does not work as well.  You also might change something that was put in there to satisfy legal specifications.

The funnier the script, the more room there is to improv.  As casting directors, we have to adhere to SAG improv rules and be cautious that we don’t cross over the union guidelines.  The SAG guidelines state “An ‘ad Lib’ or ‘Creative Session Call’ is a work call involving ad lib or improvisational performances where no script is provided, or when a principal performer is required to deviate substantially from a prepared script in a manner created or conceived by the principal performer or to invent situations which he/she performs.  The principal performer shall be paid for such services”.  This rule came into effect many years ago stemming from the complaint of some actors that something they “created” in an audition ended up in the final spot on air.

The conundrum arises, how do we as casting directions give you the best chance of showing how creative and funny you are reading someone else’s words.  The answer is: When the script is high comedy, in order to really let out who you uniquely are, you want to make it your own and you can do that by changing  more of the copy.  We can’t come out and tell you to improv, but we can invite you to add your own unique comments to the copy to make it more of your own distinct performance. It is then your choice.  Obviously the more you make it your own the more you are showing who you are.

When you know the situation is broad humor and we are looking for someone who is great at improv, my advice is to go for your best audition and not worry about someone stealing your material.  Ad agency writers are hired by the ad agencies because they are good at what they do.  They have big egos and as a rule. they are not looking for anyone else, such as yourself, to write their material.

As I write in many of my articles, be true to your performance and what is best for your audition.  Know your technique and with that knowledge, don’t limit yourself with worries, concerns and what if’s.  Be in the moment of auditioning the best you know how.


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Terry Berland is an award-winning casting director for on-camera, television, voice-over, and hosting. Her casting awards include Clio, The Houston International Film Festival, Art Director’s Club, Addy, and the International Film and Television Festival. Her former casting staff position for Madison Avenue giant BBDO/NY has lent to her deep understanding and involvement in the advertising industry. She is known throughout the country for her talent development and is the co-author of the how-to industry book,”Breaking Into Commercials.”

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