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By Marci Liroff

I was casting a TV pilot a few years ago and one of the roles was described as an “Old-World Hollywood agent. He even wears a pocket square in his suit jacket.” All of the lovely actors who came in were dressed to the nines.

I brought in an actor from Canada who I didn’t know personally, but had seen his demo reel and was impressed. It was enough to convince me to bring him straight to the producers without a pre-read because I was pressed for time. He had a great comedy background and was a fresh face out here so I thought it would be an interesting audition at the very least.

When you work on a television show the writers are often the creators and producers of the show. I had a full house that day with the director for the pilot, the star/creator/writer/producer and his writing/producing partner as well.

Mr. Canada showed up wearing a grungy leather jacket, ripped up jeans (not the designer kind!), and a wrinkled t-shirt. I thought to myself, “Wow, this guy must be really good to be so carefree about how he’s dressed for his audition!” He sat down, didn’t say much, put on his “readers” (half-glasses), and began to read the scene off of the page. Our creator/star read with all the actors. The actor continued to read, face down in his sides. He’d look up briefly to see that we were all still there, but basically just read off the page. I felt the energy in the room shift. I saw steam start to come out of the producer’s ears. My face got all hot. Then it happened. As if things weren’t bad enough, Mr. Canada decided to try his hand at a joke and change the dialogue. He was sitting in the presence of one of the hottest veteran comedians for the last 30 years who had a long-running hit TV show and he thought he’d show them how funny he was by changing their dialogue. The line read, “Boy! Somebody’s got a bee in his bonnet today!” referring to how our star was being cranky. He changed the line to, “Boy! Somebody’s got a bee in his yalmulke today!” – he was referring to what a Jewish man wears on his head in Temple. He tried to make a Jewish joke to the Jews in the room. At that point, one of the producer’s head exploded. The other producer was so furious he literally turned his entire body around on the couch to face the back of the room, away from Mr. Funny. I felt myself sinking into a pool of hot molasses.

He finished his scene. We all just sat there staring at him. You could hear a pin drop. I said “thank you” and he slunk out of the room. Then everybody turned to look at me with a giant “what the f*ck was that?!” look on their collective faces. I had no answer. I threw myself on the sword. I took responsibility for this guy being not prepared, not caring about how he dressed, and the ultimate sin – changing dialogue.

You have to remember that by the time you finally get the script it has been through months of revisions and rewrites, and notes from the studio and network. The writers want to hear their words. They get very attached to them.

I’ve worked with some directors who openly say, “I’m not attached to the material – it’s ok if you riff with it a bit”. That’s the time to improvise. Otherwise, stick to the material you’ve been given, put your own unique spin on it from your well-thought out character choices, then let it fly….as written.

Please share your experiences when you improvised and it didn’t work…or it worked beautifully! There are exceptions to every rule. I want to hear your stories!

Glad you’re here!





  1. Such good (and important) advice — you never know if the writer, or someone who helped the writer make some final adjustments, is sitting in the room! All I would add is that if you do screw up, it’s a moment to remember one of the most important things actors have to do, in general: Hold On Tightly, Let Go Lightly. I do my best to just know my sides, know my sides, know my sides. But when I do slip up (*crrrringe!*), I try to keep to the rhythm of the language as I course-correct. I’m thinking right now of half-hour sitcom dialogue, which relies so much on both pace and rhythm to make the jokes land. What you can’t do is curl up in a ball or pop out of the scene if you make a mistake on a word or two. What you can do is keep your “original” contribution to a minimum, stay in rhythm, and get back on track as soon as possible. I don’t like to admit that I’ve messed up in the past, but it did make me feel slightly better in the hallway to know that I did my best to honor the soul of the writing, even as I fell short. I hope this helps other actors to think about.

  2. Geez do I need to hear this kind of thing. I’m fairly green to film acting. I’ve always been a theatre performer. I spent a few weeks with a book called “Audition” and came away with the idea that I really needed to make a splash in my audition. So, I damned the torpedoes and went all out. I probably used most of the room for my staging at one point or another. From rage to crying, from fear to joy. I was ALL OVER THE PLACE with the thought that if I made an impression of how much range I had, this would surely be enough. When i was done I looked up and the director kind of threw the sides down on the table that he wanted me to read with the verbal note: “this character is a bit more together. maybe tone it down”. Ooops. Wrong kind of impression. “Nuance” is permanently a part of my auditions now. Thanks for this!

  3. Michelle Levy says

    As I read this I was transported back into that room, standing behind the camera, looking around at everyone’s mouths hanging open after the actor left. I think one of the producer’s (the one who turned his back) actually had steam coming out of his ears. And the creator, as he turned to you with the WTF? expression? I mean wow! But, you know, at least our creative team was filled with amazing people. People who quickly turned a very uncomfortable situation into a running joke, as comedy writers tend to do when faced with uncomfortable situations. The thing is, I don’t even remember who that actor was, nor do I care.

    I was actually just talking about actors taking liberties with the writing today with the writer/producer of the pilot I’m currently casting. An actor came in and decided to change the words so that they were unrecognizable (not for the better). After he left, I asked the writer how he felt about it. He wasn’t as turned off by the re-writing as I thought he’d be. I told him that I’ve worked with writer/producers who are completely outraged when their words are changed and some who don’t really care. More times than not, it’s the former. But best not to try your hand at a potentially offensive joke either way. That’s just common sense, right? Or maybe not.

  4. Yikes. Someone did not do their homework. Where is great news for those of us who do. 🙂

    Thanks for sharing stories like this, Marci. Love your blog. Keep up the great work!

    – Jason

  5. Very good post Marci, GREAT advice!

  6. It’s so easy to exit an audition feeling you made a fool of yourself…without having done so, but this fella really seems to have done so. Oh well, everyone makes mistakes, maybe he learned from it. Here’s hoping.

    I had an audition as a detective, so I suited up to look the part. The scene called for me to hold a phone up to camera, like I was handing it to my colleague. A legendary actor, the shows lead, was supposedly on the other end of the line. So here’s my improvisation. I did some graphic work on the actors photo, I made it look exactly like he was calling me on my iPhone, his name was there too and the little red ‘end’ button. I loaded the image in to my phone as a photo, when I did the scene I held it up briefly to camera as required, it looked like he was calling.

    I got the part, who knows why. But I don’t think it hurt my chances that when the director first saw me he saw something more like a cop than an actor auditioning….maybe.
    stewart moore recently posted…The Day a Comet Came to Tea. (Science Fiction for little ones!)

  7. You were right about one thing though, he does have good comedy sense, wether he knows it or not. He shocked everyone in the room, clearly has great timing and is now a talking point….

    Perhaps he’s a cutting edge alternative comedian dining out on this story even now…’You should have seen their faces, dude, it was hilarious’…which is more than can be said for so much that passes for ‘comedy’ writing on TV.

  8. I’m fairly new to acting so I’m constantly searching for information from all aspects of the audition process. I had an audition for a very dramatic lead, and I spent a lot of time rehearsing with a fellow actor (who also happens to have a psych degree) . We delved heavily into character analysis, etc. even beyond what I had expected. On the audition notice, the director did specify what he was looking for (as far as “look”) and mentioned what he did NOT want. The audition room was packed with women and I would have to say that over half of them came in exactly how he did NOT want them to be. What? It seemed so black and white – give them what they are looking for! That part was obvious! When I walked in (I’ve worked with this director before), he said “Finally, someone who looks perfect for this! You definitely got the look down!” (btw, he is also the writer) What wasn’t so obvious was when the audition started (and it was a very dramatic scene), my reader threw me a MAJOR curveball and went into a completely *different* direction, and then went off script. While this has happened to me before, this was a little more challenging. I actually seem to book the auditions where improv has played a major part, so it wasn’t the improv that threw me. It was his choice of character – and I didn’t miss a beat. I was already completely in her “mode of thinking” so *reacting to him in character* came natural. I knew the dialogue verbatim, but did miss a few words but quickly recovered in the next sentence. Had I not done my homework *diligently* & knew the dialogue, I am sure that “looking down repeatedly” would have definitely blown my audition, especially because this was such an intense scene. We ended up completely improv-ing most of the scene anyways, but the basic premise was still there. Some actors are afraid to “overthink” things, but I think in this case, it worked for me. By the way, I did get a callback and am now in the final selection process. *fingers crossed* 🙂

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