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Improv offers voice-actors more than comedy. It offers reality.

Edge Studio

Improvisation training is not essential in developing your voice-acting skills, but can be highly valuable. Just about everyone is familiar with comedy improv, and maybe you’ve even taken a workshop in it. But do you realize that comedy improv is just part of the improv universe? In fact, various types of improv experience are helpful in many other professions besides acting or comedy. The training and exercises can improve your ability to connect with listeners in any presentation, whether it be a voice script, a business proposal, or university lecture.

Here’s a “wavetop level” view of what you can experience in the refreshing, fun, and sometimes scary ocean of improv …

So far, we’ve called it a “universe” and an “ocean.” Rather than continue with those mixed metaphors, what is “improv” anyway? It’s simply two or more people acting without a script, making up the characters, story and dialog as they go. The “acting” can be for an audience, or it can be for each other (as in training or a professional development class). Some improv is done entirely free-form, with maybe just a random seed of an idea (e.g., “at a picnic” or “credit card”). But, especially in training, it can be highly structured, with specific objectives. When there’s an audience, the objective is entertainment, but other times the objective is the improv experience itself.

That experience is what’s so valuable in voice-over. It actually rewires the brain. The process of working with others, learning to read and anticipate their thoughts and responding with yours, is very much like what we do every day in the real world. And in most VO genres, sounding (and being) real is essential in developing your voice-acting skills.

One of the things learned through improv is empathy. The word is heard a lot these days, in various contexts. It means being able to understand and share the feelings of another person. That’s different from “sympathy,” where you understand their need and you feel compassion, but don’t necessarily feel about it as they do.

You might equate this with “Theory of Mind.” That’s when you understand that other people have different thoughts than you do. Duh, it may seem obvious, but it’s totally news to a 4-year-old kid. Until we are 4 or 5 years old, we think everyone sees the world as we do. (You may have met some adults who seemingly don’t understand this either.) In reality, differing experiences contribute to differing mindsets and understanding.

At a base level, at least, we adults use this Theory of Mind insight without even thinking about it. When you realize someone doesn’t think exactly as you do, or might even be lying, it’s important to assess not just their words, but the way they say them, their body language, f****l expression – all the subtle clues that we often unconsciously use to read their mind. We do it all the time, every day.

This is also a technique practiced in improv. By learning to intuitively observe your acting partner’s behavior, you begin to anticipate what they’re going to do and say. It sounds spooky, even unlikely, but it’s true.

Another word you may hear is “mirroring.” That’s one of the exercises. For example, two people face each other, and one makes a move or changes f****l expression. The other person is supposed to match that change, as if they were a mirror. Initially, it’s awkward and slow, and there’s a lag. But eventually it becomes easier to anticipate and imitate what your partner will do.

Mirroring, too, has a neurological foundation, although the nature of mirroring in the human brain is still being sorted out. It may be (as it has found to be the case with monkeys) that when you see someone do something, your own brain fires the same set of neurons that you would use if you were doing it. It’s another way that we subconsciously read fellow actors’ minds.

But the process is bi-directional. If you’re not as skilled at this, there will be lag time. Effective mirroring requires commitment and practice. It also benefits from mutual understanding. If the person initiating the action doesn’t understand how to communicate effectively with the mirroring person – if they don’t understand the other person’s limitations — progress will be slower.

Notice, then, that we’ve shown how improv principles and techniques relate to acting, without ever having mentioned humor. This is why improv skills are taught to corporate workers, scientists (who must explain their ideas to laypeople), and many other non-actors. But in pursuing these improv exercises, especially if they seem mundane or intimidating, it helps to have a sense of humor about yourself, and trust that they are “field tested” to reach a meaningful objective.

Mixing in yet another metaphor, purists will note that this “treetop-level” discussion covers a lot of ground without actually touching any of it. But our point has not been to teach you improv or instill inherent empathy in just these few paragraphs. It’s just to make you aware of important opportunities. Improv experience is not essential to voice-acting, but there is much to be learned and many ways to benefit. By at least understanding that there are things you can pull from your subconscious when you read a script, and what may be in the minds of your listeners or voice-acting partner, you’re several steps ahead.

Do you have a comment or suggestion? Please send to [email protected].