What’s Improv Got To Do… Got To Do With It?

When I tell people, including many voice actors, that I teach a drop-in improv class for voice over, I get a lot of strange looks. Usually, those come right before the question, “Why?!” And to be fair, before I took Sally Clawson’s “Spontaneity” workshop at Voice One, I probably couldn’t have answered that.

Over the last twenty years, I have taught improv in both the theatrical and the business arenas. People immediately see why improv is important for actors on stage. A little less so for those in front of the camera, but all you have to say is “Spinal Tap” and they nod fervently.  And when you talk about how improv skills promote collaboration, understanding, and actual teamwork in the workplace, they seem to get that, too. But Voice Acting? When you’re standing in a little box all day with a microphone in your face and a bunch of people staring at you through a tiny window, unless you’re a Robin Williams caliber improvisor, you best stick to the script, buddy!

Unless you are specifically asked to improvise around a topic, the script is your bible. Every extra minute you’re in the booth is a minute longer that the director and audio engineer have to spend, and countless other people downstream have to wait to do their part in completing the project.

But that does not mean that the things we learn through improv don’t apply to voice actors.

One of the most important skills improv teaches us is how to trust other people. More importantly, it teaches us how to trust ourselves, which is one of the hardest things not only to learn, but to continue to do, even for seasoned improvisors.  There is always that little voice in the back of our heads editing us and judging us and making us second guess ourselves. Improv can help us quiet that little voice, even if only for a little while.

I was sitting in Elaine Clark’s office working through my commercial demo copy, finding the read for each script that made both of us triumphantly shout “NAILED IT!” and pump our fists towards the ceiling.  Yet, the moment the booth door closed and I was looking at the microphone, that little editor kicked in and made me second guess everything that I’d just prepared, to the point where 20 years of improv training went sailing right out the door.  It was painful for both of us. I know I am not alone in this. I tell this story to other voice actors and their eyes go wide with fear as they nod and express sympathy and understanding.

So, why do we have that little voice in the back of our head? What good does it do us?

Well, first, the little voice isn’t actually in the back of our heads. It’s in the front. It lives in the pre-frontal (aka cerebral) cortex of the brain, the area present in all mammals and responsible for creativity, mood, empathy, motivation, and self-expression.

However, there’s a smaller part of the cerebral cortex unique to primates called the lateral pre-frontal cortex, and that’s where your inner editor lives.  It is responsible for working memory, reasoning, planning, and active forms of imagination (such as imagining all of the things that might go wrong). When we are nervous, it’s the lateral pre-frontal cortex that subdues our instincts and makes us analyze (or overanalyze) a scary situation to search for the best way out.  It’s that part of our brain that muffles our instincts and turns our perfectly rehearsed performance into a train wreck of self-doubt.

Okay, sure, that was a lot of sciencey big words there, but what does this have to do with improv?

It turns out that consistently working in a non-threatening, supportive environment - such as an improv class - lets us experience a public state of creativity without triggering our nerves. In other words, improv allows us to get to a point where we don’t worry about what other people are going to think of our performance. We begin to trust them, and eventually, we figure out that we can trust ourselves, too. At some point we accept that we have the skills to complete the task at hand, and we stop giving our lateral pre-frontal cortex the bandwidth to shut us down!

Once you’ve experienced this state of self-trust enough, you’ll start to realize that it applies to other aspects of your life as well: getting over stage fright, speaking in public, presenting on a topic that you are an expert in, or even standing in the recording booth, doing a job you were hired to do because you were the best person for the job.

Improv reaffirms that if you weren’t good enough to be there, you would not be there. And since you are there, you are good enough to be there. Don’t let that internal editor tell you otherwise. Just do the job you were meant to do and enjoy it.

Find those moments of self-trust. Improv happens to be a great place to do that because not only do we become part of an ensemble we trust to keep us safe, we get our own moments to shine as well. Those are the moments where we learn to trust ourselves.

So, get out there and shine, and don’t let that internal editor even start to convince you that you can’t.



Clay Robeson, August 2020

(You can find out more about Clay by visiting his website)

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