What’s all this talk about improv? It’s the buzz nowadays in the acting community. It’s a must-have for auditions and something every casting director is looking for on your resume. Just listen to what Cynthia Szigeti (Improv Guru) says: “It’s crucial now. More and more shows are using improv as content. It’s essential in commercials, not just for auditions, but also on set. It frees you to take the constant challenge of creation. Once you become comfortable improvising, nothing throws you. It’s very liberating…”
Cynthia believes that improv is an imperative training tool that you need to carry in your actor’s toolbox. It is looked for more and more on a consistent basis at auditions. When casting directors see hundreds and hundreds of actors auditioning for the same commercial, you can only imagine how boring this can become. You would be surprised to see how many people come in and do it the same way as everyone else. The casting director is looking for someone who sticks out – who makes them wake up, and shows, “Hey look at me! I am good and I am different! I am what you are looking for!” They want someone (and something) new and unique. If you come in with something special, something just a little different, that makes you stand out from the rest, especially by making them laugh, then your chances are a lot higher of getting booked for that job. Cynthia confirms that she always uses improv at her auditions. “It’s not just about the words, it’s about the moments, and, as an improviser, you are always open to letting those unplanned miracles happen. I love the mistakes, ‘cause in my world, we consider them opportunities!”
There are many lessons from the world of improvisation that can help you find focus and inspiration in your auditions. Cynthia always encourages her students to, “Amuse yourself! This way, at least one person is guaranteed to have a good time!” She says it is simple. Cynthia encourages you to use a process, called AIM:
A – Agree to agree. Denial can come in many forms: not agreeing with what someone says; not noticing a physical or verbal offer; and contradicting an idea. These are all forms of denial and will STOP the forward movement of the scene. Start by practicing to saying, “YES!” If your partner starts the scene by stating that you are in a home improvement store looking at a stove, don’t contradict by saying it’s a refrigerator. Example: “YES, it’s a stove, AND??????” (Here is the fun part, where you can add information such as the brand, the color, the price, etc.)
I – Imagine. What do you SEE? Where are you? Visualize the details of the location of the scene: – What is right in front of you? – What is in the distance? – What are you wearing? – What is your partner wearing? – What do you have in your pockets? Now that you have agreed to agree, feel free to make assumptions about the details of the scene. Focus on answering the following questions: 1- Who are you? 2- Who are you in relation to the other person? 3- Where are you? 4- What are you doing?
M – Make it happen. It is always important to LISTEN to your scene partners, to listen to any instructions you are given before the audition, and, most importantly, listen to yourself. If you can’t repeat verbatim the last sentence said, you are not listening. Listen and respond…the best place to go is where it is going. But you are always responsible for making things happen. Everything you say is “the best thing anyone has ever said!” Trust your vision, your voice, your talent, your instincts, and your imagination. That is why you are in the room in the first place.
— So, open your eyes, open your heart, and take AIM—It’s fun!! – Cynthia Szigeti
Now, for the inside scoop on this quick-thinking, funny lady:
Cynthia got her first real dose of improv after graduating from UCLA with her MFA in acting. She had to find a job to pay the bills (as so many of us do while pursuing our careers) and was hired as a waitress at a club called, “The Pitchell Players.” Cynthia tells us that “ the Pitchells were a fabulous improv troupe directed by the incredible Ann Bowen. Other sketch and improv greats from Second City (Severn Darden and John Brent), as well as from The Credibilty Gap (Harry Scherer, Michael McKean and David Lander), and Franken & Davis also performed there.” She says that Ann, the director, wanted her (still a waitress) to “go up.” She was terrified at that point, even though she was a highly trained actress. She still “…wondered in awe night after night, standing in the darkened room with her beer-soaked drink tray.” That’s when she learned of L.A.’s now-famous comedy troupe, The Groundlings, through a friend, Stan Roth.
Back then, they had improv classes for just $45 a month! Wow, what a deal…! Cynthia said she had the most fun she ever had at the theatre, when she attended one of their scene nights. That is when they would, “show material and try new stuff out.” She was hooked!! So she began immersing herself in improv. After auditioning and getting accepted into The Groundlings, she trained four nights a week at the school. On the nights she didn’t have class, she would sit on the balcony and watch the others train. She was fortunate to have worked with many, “…brilliant and creative instructors, Gary Austin, Phyliss Katz, Tracy Newman, and Tom Maxwell”. “The talent there in the 70’s – WOW! – you knew you had arrived when you could get a laugh out of that room.”
She continued her improv journey, later, when she left to work at The Comedy Store with Robin Williams, Taylor Negron and Marty Short as part of The Comedy Store Players. She had quite a different experience, working there: “At the Groundlings it was all about wigs, rehearsals, and costumes. At The Store, it was immediate, topical, and edgy.”
In the 80’s, she did get to return to The Groundlings, but this time she came back to run the school. She directed and trained the teachers there. Afterwards, she started the school at The Acme Comedy Theatre in L.A.. She confesses, “ I know this might sound silly in today’s world, but back then, the world of improv was the one place where they didn’t run from the scary, smart girls!”
Cynthia is currently teaching improv classes at Talent to Go and she occasionally teaches students from around the world in Master Classes for Bernard Hiller. She had the chance to teach many well known actors including, Lisa Kudrow (friends), Conan O’ Brien (The Tonight Show), Adam Carolla, Joel McHale (The Soup), Will Forte, Cheri Oteri, Julia Sweeney (SNL), Alex Borstein (MadTV), Leslie Grossman (What I Like About You), Mike Hitchhock (Waiting for Guffmann, Best in Show) and many well known writers and producers on Friends, The Simpsons, MAdtv and other television shows and features. Cynthia’s students were also on many ads this year for the Super Bowl, which she exclaims, “was a lot of fun to see!”
She also has some warnings for future improv stars: “I am opposed to teachers who just throw people up without concentrating on the basics first. It’s like giving someone who doesn’t know how to drive the car keys and telling them to go to San Diego! So beware of the scams and make sure you do your research, before signing up for an improv class.
“Good luck with your search, and enjoy your journey on your road to success, my fellow actors!”