Improvising with Marcus Sams

by Dominica Malcolm

Over the past year, I’ve heard a lot about how important it is for actors to have improv skills, both in auditions and on film sets, especially in the Bay Area these days. That’s why it’s great that the next Bay Area Film Mixer workshop will be taught by actor and improvisor, Marcus Sams. It’s happening on Saturday July 23, 12pm-3pm at Ninth St Independent Film Center, and tickets are available now on Eventbrite.

Since April 2015, I’ve been training with Marcus Sams on an ongoing basis in his Two Play class, so I can vouch for how great a teacher he is. Marcus has kindly answered some questions for me, so you can find out more about the workshop, and some of the benefits of improv training.

DM: Tell us about some of the benefits actors can get out of improv training? 

MS: Honestly, anyone that gets good at improv is giving themselves a human software upgrade. Ha! But seriously. The skills that it takes to be good at improv are the same ones it take to be a good human and artist. You need to be able to listen, have empathy, be present, trust, teamwork, and the list goes on.

Let’s do a quick deep dive into the first item in that list. Listening. Listening is one of our senses and yet many of us have never been taught how to do it. We have taken all sorts of classes but not that one. Why? Because we take it for granted. And not just listening to the words someone says, but to all the information being given. The way someone says something, the words they choose to use, the location of the inflection. In improv all of these things matter. I like to say that “Anything is Everything” in improv. As adults, we are worse than teenagers. We have it all figured out. Because of our wealth of life experience we often assume we know what’s up and are oftentimes compelled to jump to the end of whatever “it” is so that we can get onto the next thing. Perpetually looking for the shortcuts, and bypassing the details.

Now to tie this into the question… Art is in the details. As an actor you MUST dive into the details of EVERY moment. How many times have we heard of actors playing the end of the scene? Every moment is important to an actor because without them, we would never see the end of the scene, play, or film. By examining this one thing, listening, and then honestly reacting to what we hear, see, feel, and experience, leads you to the truth of the moment. At its core improv teaches you to be present and in the moment. It teaches you the immediacy of NOW.

One more very important thing that improv teaches you about is yourself. This couldn’t be more important for an actor or a human. If you think about it, we cannot nor should not ever divorce the character that we are playing from ourselves. No matter what character an actor is playing, we need to see their humanity. If you are just playing a character to play a character then it will most likely come across as a caricature and you are faking it. The audience, no matter what the medium is, needs to be able to connect with the character on a human level. Think about this for a moment. If you do a lot of improv and you play 20 different scenes in a months’ time, you have played 20 different characters in different situations.  Let’s define a character as an individual in a situation that has a particular point of view on a situation and that is in pursuit of a goal. By that definition every single one of us in real life could be considered a character. If you are playing your characters from a place of honest emotional truth and you are staying connected to the character on that level, then you yourself have been in 20 different scenarios in which there was a part of you that was reacting to the given circumstances. Getting good at knowing who you are and how you would react to situations improves your level of confidence when trusting your own acting instincts.

Above I only dove into two things I think improv is good for and how it relates to an actor. There are so many other reasons of why improv is good that I could write a book. Maybe that is why I am… But for now, I will give a short list of some of the other the benefits.

  • Allows you to find character quickly
  • Improves confidence
  • Increases your level of imagination
  • Visualize and create the room or place you are in so you have more to work with onset or in auditions.
  • Makes you more flexible when directors ask for something different
  • Increases the level of connection that you have with other actors
  • Helps you have more fun and be less stressed
  • Minimizes the fear of the unknown
  • & many many more…


DM: How might other types of film professions benefit from improv, even though they don’t have to act? Directors, writers, etc?

MS: As mentioned above improv helps with so many aspects. I also teach corporate improv workshops. On my website I say that improv can help in the following areas:

  • Teamwork & collaboration
  • Listening & observation skills
  • Idea generation without judgment
  • Improves public speaking
  • Increase creative & innovative thinking
  • Create a positive work environment
  • Consideration and support of ideas
  • Adapting and adopting to change quickly
  • Presence & mindfulness to reduce stress

And with a list like that, you can see why improv might be good for anyone. But in answering your question about why it is good for writers, it helps you visualize the situation better and helps you learn to speak from your characters voice. Improvisers that are good are the writer, director, actor, and editor all in real-time. If you can learn to do this, the words just flow.


DM: How have your improv skills personally helped you in your professional acting career?

MS: In my personal career, it has made me a fearless actor. I don’t get nervous on set, in front of the camera. It’s easy for me to talk to everyone from the director all the way to an extra. Improv has given me the ability to commit 183% to any choice that I make as an actor. Another thing that it has done for me is made auditioning a whole lot easier. Back when I started acting, my dyslexia would really kick in when I had a script in my hands. The words would become harder to read and then my hand would start to shake. After that, the audition was pretty much over. Improv taught me the importance of dealing with the world of the script and it gave me little bits that I could do. By putting my focus in the other person or the imaginary world I had created in my mind’s eye, it took a heap of pressure off. I was even able to then find interesting ways to mask the word soup on the page by taking action in the scene. Now I am so confident with improv that you can throw just about anything at me and I will be fine. Because of that, now the dyslexia affects me far less often.


DM: What types of common mistakes do you see people making that you seek to address with your Effortless Improv workshop?

MS: I have a Love/Hate relationship with Whose Line is it Anyway? Whose Line is short from improv and it is all about big characters and laughs. Don’t get me wrong, I love funny improv, produce funny improv, and perform funny improv. But I am never directly going for the joke. I am going for connection, realism, and honesty. There is nothing more funnier than honest humor. The reason is because the audience can relate to it. The biggest mistake that I see is that people come to improv because they have seen funny improv or Whose Line, and they want to be funny. As a result, they waste quite a bit of time trying to be funny. They will play big characters that don’t have any truth to them, which then turns into a caricature. A caricature will only take you so far. You need to go deeper with the character. Learn who they are, what they want, and what is at stake. You know, all the acting stuff they teach you in acting school. If you can learn to do this and keep your characters grounded, then you can play that character for a long time and the audience will be able to relate to them. It is even better if the audience cares about them.

Another common mistake that I see is people just trying too hard. The fact is, all you need is what is right in front of you. If you are connected to your scene partner and you look them in the eyes, you can tell if they are Happy, Mad, Sad, or Glad in an instant. This is valuable information. Pair this with what has already happened and you will have an opinion about the situation. You then just need to react how you would naturally react. That is improv at its base. Yes, we can attach bigger than life characters and add voices, and play with comedic bits, but those are layers placed on top of the foundation. You know, that is actually a great metaphor for what I see people doing. Many people want to throw a comedic house party when a foundation has not even been built.

In my Effortless Improv workshop, we play a bunch of games and do exercises that helps you shed the need to try so hard. We work on being present and getting out of the way of the improv. If we are present, and in touch with our emotions the improv will just flow. The heart is our strongest muscle in this art form. If we listen, the heart knows what it wants. It is our brain that will mess us up every time.


DM: You have a pretty full schedule teaching improv in the Bay Area. Tell us about some of the other classes people could take with you, if they’re unable to attend the Bay Area Film Mixer workshop.

O0h, this is where I plug? =) I am very excited to say that I just recently built my new website. From there you can see all the offerings that I have. I have a really great duo class that has been in existence for two years. Many of my students in that class have become national/internationally performing improv duos. In the class I not only teach the craft of improv but I also teach the business side of the craft and help set you up for success. Being that I have performed in over 47 national improv festival shows, I might know a thing or two about that. =)  I also have 4 hour improv intensives that are deep dives into different areas in improv that I teach every 3rd Sunday of the month and that is called Improv Sunday School. I also do private coaching for groups. One thing I am very excited about is what is in store this winter. I am planning on launching an improv for actors training program that has 54 hours of curriculum that I have custom written.

If anyone is curious to know what this style of improv looks like, check out two of my nationally touring duos, Liss n’ Sams and Shades of Grey. Also be sure to check out

Does Marcus sound like a teacher you’d like to learn from? Sign up for his Effortless Improv workshop hosted by the Bay Area Film Mixer on Eventbrite. Happening Saturday July 23, 12pm-3pm at Ninth St Independent Film Center.

Marcus SamsMarcus Sams is a full-time improv teacher and professionally working actor in San Francisco. He has taught for CSU Chico, Pictoclik Film Festival, Endgames, and currently teaches for Leela, and at improv festivals and schools across the country. He has a degree in Theatre Arts, is a professionally working actor, and his improv has been forged by the teachings of David Razowsky, Susan Messing, Joe Bill and Mark Sutton, as well as many nationally known teachers. His teaching style combines theatrical craft, systematic approaches, empathy training, and leading with the heart. This combination yields truthful, grounded scene work that is fraught with honest hilarity and, from a theatrical standpoint, technically polished performances.

Sams has performed in over 45 shows in national improv festivals and in 2016 had the honor of opening for Joe Bill and Mark Sutton’s BassProv at the Chicago Improv Festival’s Secret Show. He has taught for Gainesville Improv Festival 2011, California Improv Festival in 2014 & 2016, Improvaganza: Hawaii Festival of Improv 2015San Diego Improv Festival 2016OC Improv Festival 2016, and San Jose Improv Festival 2016.

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