Are you trying to form an improv group or looking to add more talent to your existing group? Or do you run an improv theater? If so, you might assume that your first order of business is to hold auditions.
However, holding auditions isn’t always the best way to discover the best talent.
That’s because many improvisers are at their best when they are comfortable, calm, and thinking clearly. You know, things that have never happened during an improv audition. So, often, holding formal auditions only highlights improvisers who are both lucky and potentially capable of performing under extreme pressure.
While delivering in primetime is certainly a valuable skill, there are so many more skills that often don’t get shown unless someone is level headed, which they likely aren’t during an audition.
Unless you’re an equity theater like The Second City and are legally required to hold annual auditions, there are far more effective ways to discover talent. Here are four alternative approaches you can use to cast your shows.
For improv groups:
- Host a Jam
You’re a team of five that you want to turn into a team of six, and there are a bunch of performers on your radar. Throw a jam and invite all of them to come play. This doesn’t even need to be on a stage in a theater; even a house or backyard jam will do. This will allow your existing ensemble to get a ton of reps with all prospects in a low-stakes environment. If someone really stands out, ask them if they’d like to start practicing or playing with you. Nobody will ever know it was an audition.
- Invite someone to practice
Scout your community and highlight a player you think could really benefit your team. Invite that person to sit in on a practice. Make the environment as welcoming as possible and give them a solid one to two hours of play with your group so they can be comfortable and get a feel for your team’s vibe. This way, every member of your ensemble will have the chance to play with them, allowing everyone the opportunity to thoroughly analyze if this is someone you want to join your team.
- Ask someone to sit in on a show
“Hey, ______ dropped out tonight, do you want to sit in with us?” Even if it’s totally manufactured, this is often a very low-pressure way to see if someone can deliver with your team in front of a live audience. Since they’re dropping in last minute, they can’t be expected to full-on crush the show, but you can see how they handle a live audience and play with your team. If it goes well, you can naturally invite them to join you more often, and then permanently. If they tank, everyone can thank them for stepping up to fill a hole that night and move on, without that person knowing they were auditioning in the first place.
For improv theaters:
- Pull up performers from your classes
This should absolutely be your method if you run an institution that offers a training program. At the end of your training program, offer an indefinite opportunity for students to perform during an off night or less-valuable slot. Several ComedySportz cities call this “minor league,” while many other theaters call them “house teams.” By giving these actors the opportunity to perform a version of your show every week, you can easily track their progress and continue training them to fit your philosophy. This also removes the folks who don’t really have their heart in it, such as people who come out of nowhere and nail an audition, only to quit six months later. When a player seems to be ready for your main ensemble, or you have the need for more bodies, pull up the players who are delivering week in and week out.
Sam Bowers is the director of Improv Nerd and the co-producer of the 24-Hour Sketch Comedy Festival.