Is Improvisation Important for a Voice-over Actor?

Hi, I’m Rebecca Haugh (LoveThatRebecca) and I’ve worked full time as a VO actor since 2009. Improv helps me stretch and expand my performance muscles. I’ve even read in some scientific articles how improv seems to help neurons fire in the brain and nerve synapses form new patterns, which is all very important for brain function and development. I haven’t taken any brain wave tests but I’m always energized by improv because: it’s fun! 

However, I didn’t always feel this way. In fact, when I first studied voice-over, I was always being told to “be you” and “speak conversationally” and sometimes “do 3 in a row” or “a/b/c it”… at the time, I was a bit intimidated. Guess what: improvisation skills support you to do all of the above, and more.

Did you know that improv training has long been an important element in formulating most actors skill sets? Fun fact: the first known use of improv was in the fourth century B.C.! 

Jumping to the present day, nearly all stage and screen actors with formalized training have had at least some experience with improv. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are two celebrity actresses who are Hollywood examples of the value of improv in acting.  

More names? Steve Carell, Seth Meyers, Jordan Peele.

For voice-over, I can name Pat Fraley and Dee Bradley Baker to start. Not just celebrities, though- many talented VO artists have been using improv in their work consistently.


Have fun building performance skills

So the question “Is improvisation important for a VO Actor?” is easily answered with a “Yes, and…” (the improv mantra). Here’s a brief summary how:


Commercial and Narration Work

Regular improv practice will have you pull ideas of location, ambiance, and relationships of who you’re within scene after scene. You take that skill, apply it to a script, and create a 3D world from it, almost like pulling it from the air. Initially, it won’t feel that easy, like when you start anything new. Apply a little determination to get started and keep practicing. 

Every script I’ve worked on has the opportunity to imagine a visual scene in your head, so you can point to it as the narrator, or be in it as a character. The more vivid that scene is in your head, fitted well with the words on the script, the more naturally the words will come out of your mouth.


Character Work in Games or Audiobooks 

‘Character’ work is when you are given a character description and you create an imaginary persona that is born from that. You can also create your own originals. Improv gives you the freedom to play around with these imaginary personas to develop them further or create new ones. This exploration allows us to have them ready and fleshed out before we use them for auditions; that playfulness increases our versatility too. 

I have a character I created when I was in a play called “Ida”. This Ida persona keeps developing, and I have stories she can tell, she can audition for VO gigs, or she can even entertain my clients while in session. Point being,  improvisation helps to develop our current ‘characters’ while giving us the playtime to develop new ones. 


Directed Sessions

A directed session is when you are live in the booth with your client (and perhaps their team) directing you while recording their script. It’s collaboration. 

Improv helps you practice receiving a variety of directions and responding immediately, which is also collaboration. Keep in mind that performing in a live session brings on the nerves in the beginning. There’s time pressure. Improv helps because you’ve been immediately responding, continuously, with time pressure, in all of your improv sessions. More often than not, a director/client will have you perform the script several times until they hear what they want. A VO who has solid improv training brings strong collaboration experience to their sessions. Plus, throw in a funny character in the right moment to entertain them!


Overall Performance Confidence

Improv’s biggest gift is the confidence we grow, which can really be heard through the mic. Improvisation is a skill you have to develop, and it’s one of the most fun skills to learn. You’ll trust your point of view, performance choices, and creative ideas by taking risks in a safe, supportive improv training environment. Getting in tune with your creative and innovative side makes you a better performer by bringing your knowledge, experience, point of view and tastes — who you are — into your performance. You’ll ‘be you’ in a conscious way.

A lot of beginners have an idea of ‘being perfect.’ In an improv workout, you’re practicing, collaborating, and experimenting. Improv frees my mind to be creative and confident for auditions and gigs, no longer searching for ‘perfect’ but just ‘being me’ because I’ve practiced this in a supportive group. The best part about improv is that even when you’re not doing it right and “failing”, you’re still winning because you’re exploring in the creative sandbox with a group of professional friends doing the same things! 


Improv makes you a better voice actor

As I approach auditions and gigs now, I’m having more fun than ever before. It only takes maybe seven minutes to cut a few takes to send off, but in reality, each audition represents hundreds of hours that I’ve spent studying and practicing everything, including improv. And the improv experience really helps release my creativity in the moment while giving the best possible takes each time. 

If you’re already experienced with improv, then you already know what I’m talking about. 



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