“I got your back.”
This phrase has been repeated for years before scenes begin, curtains rise, and audiences hush. It’s a reminder that no matter what happens, even if there’s jitters or someone forgets a line, others will do their best to help keep the story on track.
That’s the power of thinking on your feet or improvisation.
To many actors, this is a powerful creative tool. A way to add personal elements to a story that would otherwise be unseen. Elements that simply cannot be communicated in a script in every detail. In other words, it adds a more imperfect, human touch.
This is why improvisation is so vital to a performance, or to any piece of art. Mistakes will no doubt be made, but if you have a good actor or team, they can literally think their way out of it in real time. They can save the show.
The secret is not to move forward, but backward.
Instead of trying to decide all these details in your head and create a whole world around yourself, start small. Who are you, and who is she? Where are we? What are we trying to accomplish? By asking little questions and playing off of the responses to these questions, actors can create worlds they never knew existed.
In fact, you may be surprised how many famous scenes in movies were actually improvised. Take a look at the sword vs. gun scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Initially, that scene was supposed to be an elaborate sword and whip fight, but due to Harrison Ford getting food poisoning, he quickly pulled his revolver on the villain instead. Some believe this made Indy even more of a rebel than he was before and benefited the scene.
Or the classic line “You talkin’ to me?,” found in Robert De Niro’s performance in Taxi Driver. So memorable and iconic, and very much improvised.
That’s not to say that it’s without effort. While a majority of acting requires the memorization of lines to tell a story, improvisation requires something different: adaptability, creativity, and steady nerves. This is the case whether the actor is working on a blockbuster movie scene with endless retakes or a stage play in front of a crowd of people. This is because directors don’t always stick to the script.
“There are certain times when a whole scene could get added,” says RJ Cyler who co-stars in White Boy Rick alongside Matthew McConaughey. “You need to know it in 30 minutes as if you’ve been rehearsing it for 2 years.”
If this sounds like a challenge, you’d be right.
It goes beyond that though, it’s a war. A battle to meet together and perform a clear vision of the story, true to its original form and spirit. All are fighting to bring their art to life.
This is because, as with any piece of art, the beauty lies in the imperfections.
Logan Sekulow is a successful producer and director. He is known for relaunching the popular studio known as Laugh-O-Gram studios.