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An actor may hear at an audition, “Just wing it,” but what does that really mean? The term “to wing” can be traced back to the late 1800s and the London theater, when actors played a role without fully knowing the text. They learned the best they could in the wings and then were given assistance when they were on stage by a special prompter who was screened by a piece of scenery or a wing of the stage.

To “wing it” is now an idiom that means to do something without preparation, to improvise. However, even great improvisers never “just wing it.” People don’t improvise in a void. They prepare. People can and do prepare to improvise.

Just Wing It
By Bill Applebaum

First, one learns the guide-lines for what helps make successful improvisations. We all have heard “don’t deny,” “yes and,” “show us, don’t tell us.” But more importantly, one needs to know in what context are you improvising? Improvising on stage is different than improvising for film/ television or for commercials. Know what, if any, limitations there are when you are improvising. For example, it’s unlikely in the U.S. market one would ever swear while improvising at a commercial audition. However, that likely wouldn’t hold true for a theatrical audition. Knowing that context is important, which would then allow the actor to improvise creatively within that audition.


Improvisation began as a way to help actors develop characters, examine possibilities and explore the creative process. Actors need to remember creativity is a process, not an event. Entering a creative state takes practice. Practicing helps suppress the need to be perfect and, when one ceases trying to be perfect, one becomes free to improvise creatively. That’s what classes are all about: to practice, to learn what it feels like to be inspired and play in the moment.

Don’t worry about trying to be funny when improvising. That’s not what improvisation is about. Improvisers aren’t trying to think of funny things to say. They are listening to what their partner is saying, staying in the moment and discovering what is happening together. Improvisers share the experience in true ensemble fashion, playing the truth in what is happening, while trying to make their partner look good. If an actor does that, then the funny will come. The funny comes from playing the truth.

Casting directors want actors to be able to improvise to free up their imaginations, not to be clever but to be creative. That affords each individual to bring their unique take on whatever role they happen to be auditioning for. So prepare yourself. Take an improv class. Take many. Don’t worry if you don’t think you’re funny or if the idea of improvising terrifies you. Know that improvisation is just about learning to trust one’s creative impulses. Once an actor understands that, they’ll be able to “just wing it” anytime.

Article originally published in the SAG-AFTRA Conservatory Newsletter, Spring 2017.

AIS's Bill Applebaum was in great company at the SAG-AFTRA Conservatory panel on April 4, 2017 held at the American Film Institute. The Q&A discussion focused on "Why all actors need some improv in their diet!" These teachers, alumni, and administrators from state-of-the-art improv schools and companies in Los Angeles covered the value of improv training when auditioning, in addition to how improv has informed the careers of so many theatrical actors.

Pictured L to R: Bill Applebaum (Actors Improv LA, Second City), David Jahn (The Groundlings), Carrie-Ann Pishnak (Second City), Moderator & Actress Lee Garlington, Johnny Meeks (UCB), Zach Huddleston (iOWest)

That’s the actor’s job. But actors often lose sight of this, particularly when it comes to auditioning. An actors gives up their power when auditioning if the actor is trying to figure out, “what are they looking for.” “They” aren’t looking for anything. What a “buyer” wants to see is what the individual actor brings to the audition. What makes their interpretation unique. That’s what makes a good and interesting audition. A good actor doesn’t try to figure out what “they” want. A good actor shows “them” what they get if they hire this actor. An actor does this by being true to oneself and sharing their unique quality when auditioning.

To Interpret
By Bill Applebaum

That’s done by showing how you interpret the role. I’ve been on the “buying” side of auditions and one truth that actors should know is, there’s any number of reasons why an actor does not book a job, and most of those reasons have nothing to do with their talent. It’s important to remember no actor books every job they audition for. So bring your individuality to the audition. You may not book this time, but you will be remembered, and you will be satisfied you did your job, which is to interpret the role. Part of what helps actors with their ability to interpret is improv training. We all hear about improvising, though some people aren’t sure what that means. Many people think improvising is about being funny. I still hear people say, “The thought of improvising terrifies me!” People improvise every day, but they don't label it as such. In life, no one knows what is going to happen moment to moment, yet people manage to respond, moment to moment. That’s what improvising is about, responding moment to moment.

The truth is improvisation gives one the freedom to trust one’s instincts and act in the moment, on those choices. Those choices are unique to the individual, and that’s being creative. Improvising helps people make their “interpretations” when auditioning unique, strong, interesting and truthful.


The more one trusts the internal creative voice which says, “Do this, try that, say this,” the more one’s creative voice will speak to us when we want it to. As stated before no actor books every job, so what the actor should aim for is having a strong, creative, unique and satisfying audition. Improvising is a great tool helping give actors the freedom to interpret creatively.

Article originally published in the SAG-AFTRA Conservatory Newsletter.

“This is like a family reunion,” said Tino Insana, ’73, who does the voice for a pig character on a Nickelodeon show. “You might hear a story about Bill Murray. Let me tell you: they’re all true.”

Carrying hardbound Second City yearbooks for signing, the passengers filed onto the plane. Three young comedians in Row 15 mined the Sky Mall catalogue for gags. Their first bit: devise captions for generic photographs, like one of a man and a young girl pointing at a map of the world. “This is where Daddy’s moving,” Ithamar Enriquez, ’06, suggested.

The cabin doors were about to close. “We made a bet that Hagerty’s the last guy on the plane,” Richard Kind, ’83 (“A Serious Man”), said. “You’ll recognize him. But you won’t know from where.” At 9:47 A.M., Mike Hagerty, ’83, a familiar-looking, heavyset actor with a mustache, bounded down the aisle. “I feel like Rosa Parks,” said Hagerty (his credits run from “Brewster’s Millions” to “Entourage”), as he and his wife plopped into empty seats at the back of the plane. Minutes after takeoff, the little airplane bottles of alcohol started flowing.

“Planes are fun places to set bits,” Matt Craig, ’05, said, somewhere over Death Valley. He did a short improv with his comedy partner, Frank Caeti, ’04.

CRAIG: Lights up. Two guys. We’re over a drop zone.

CAETI: I don’t want to jump.

CRAIG: You have to jump.

CAETI: But I’m scared.

CRAIG: This is when I push him out of the plane and say, “Thank you for flying Southwest.”

After the “blackout” (the Second City term for a short setup followed by a punch line), Caeti returned to what he called “having sex with pictures”: rubbing photos from the in-flight magazine against the front of his pants. Three hours to go.

Around eleven-thirty, Frances Callier, ’86, who, with Angela Shelton, ’93, is part of the comedy duo Frangela, announced that she would do a sketch called “Crazy Zombie Grandma Bitch.” She was interrupted by Matt Dwyer, ’94, who inserted a half-eaten ham sandwich between her clothed breasts.

“It’s going to be a panini in a few minutes,” Callier quickly improv’d. “There you go, lightly grilled.” She added, “There’s no such thing as harassment in Second City.”

As the plane cruised at thirty-five thousand feet over Lincoln, Nebraska, Nia Vardalos, ’91 (she wrote and starred in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”), and her friend Jenna Jolovitz, ’95, discussed the bond between Second City alums. “You never really stop thinking about them,” Vardalos said. “We know the real each other. We’ve failed onstage together.”

“We say ‘fuck’ a lot. And ‘asshole,’ “ Jolovitz said. “We’re dirty and bawdy. But not in front of our kids.”

At 12:55 P.M., a passenger seized the P.A. system and asked everyone to close the window shades and press the call buttons. The plane went dark, except for four rows of orange lights—like candles on a cake. Then everyone sang “Happy Birthday” to Isabella Hofmann, ’83, as a flight attendant named Doreen placed a crown made of honey-roasted-peanut packets and swizzlesticks on her head. Hofmann, clearly moved, blew out the figurative candles.

“The swizzlesticks are poking my head,” she said. “But I feel like Jesus.”

Another flight attendant announced that someone had lost a pair of glasses.

“I lost my hundred-dollar bill!” Bill Appelbaum, ’83, shouted.

At 3:21 P.M. Central Time, the plane landed in Chicago, to applause. A flight attendant named Kevin explained that the jet would be towed to a hangar, where, once the passengers made it down a freezing rolling staircase, they would be greeted by champagne, news crews, and the governor of Illinois (he cancelled). “One little reminder: in the age of YouTube, watch your step!” Kevin said. “And a heartfelt thank you to all of you. You give America the gift of laughter.”

“Oh, fuck you!” yelled Appelbaum.

Here To There Dept. January 4, 2010 Issue

Airplane 3

By Marshall Heyman

A hundred and eight comedians flew in from L.A. the other day, and, boy, are their arms tired. They landed in Chicago, to attend the fiftieth-birthday reunion of the comedy troupe Second City, and, actually, they flew on a Boeing 737 that was donated by Southwest Airlines. The passengers, who included comedy writers, actors, and assorted behind-the-scenes alums, gathered at LAX, dressed for the cold in unfamiliar big coats and a startling variety of berets. (Steve Carell, Harold Ramis, Eugene Levy, Stephen Colbert, Martin Short, and Catherine O’Hara, among others, would meet them in Chicago.) Brandy King, a spokesperson for Southwest, explained the airline’s largesse: “Humor is a big part of our company.”

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