How VCA acting students embraced the 'Mike Leigh Improvisation Method'

Third year BFA (Acting) students Raiya and Sam perform via Zoom. Image Supplied.
Third year BFA (Acting) students Raiya and Sam perform via Zoom. Image Supplied.

Improvisation is a core skill built into the curriculum of our emerging actors. Budi Miller, Head of Acting at the VCA, talks us through the Mike Leigh Improvisation Method, and how COVID-19 is changing the way our Bachelor of Fine Arts (Acting) students are learning to devise work.

By Mireille Stahle

When COVID-19 hit, Budi Miller, Head of Acting at the Victorian College of the Arts, had his work cut out for him. Miller forged a new direction for his graduating class of 2020 – a pivot toward screen acting.

"During the COVID shut down, we had to change all of our curriculum to be delivered online," reflects Miller. "We found a great opportunity for the third-year acting students to go even more deeply into their screen acting training using a process that I developed taking inspiration from Mike Leigh, a British director who uses improvisation for creating character and writing scripts."

Students were asked to observe people they knew or found interesting in the vicinity. "They had to write down details of the character, almost as if they were filling out a chart in a doctor's office" says Miller. "It removes emotionality from the character and lists behaviour simply as it is observed. This can be something like, what kind of gestures does a character use to hide how they're feeling". Developing a list of characteristics defeats the impulse to imitate someone from memory.

In the Mike Leigh method, actors go away and research their character, before doing solo improvisations for the director. These form the basis of the character's stasis – a neither high nor low point in their life. They are then introduced to a different environment or situation, but still one that it is normal for them to occupy.

Miller describes the joy of watching the students find their way in this new style of improvisation: "I would observe them living the life of this person over Zoom. It was fascinating."

"Students typically think that this is an impersonation exercise, but then quickly they realise that it's an embodiment exercise. We quickly start to remove the relationship with the person that they're observing to how their body is translating the behaviour. And we kept working in this way, getting really specific on different details that they need work on to develop each character."

Having such a tight grip on the creative control of their characters gave students a reassuring feeling of control in an otherwise uncertain time. "Because of this lockdown scenario,  the students were able to really begin to create the world around them and sink into it and fall into a sense of heightened sensitivity, control of what they have within their reach, their interacting with another person and their research in their universe. And they all had so much control over their choices and so much sense of play and complicité with their improvisations.”

Once individual characters start becoming fully formed, they are introduced to each other, to form another layer of improvisation.

"What is beautiful about Zoom," continues Miller, "is the students are able to find a real sense of privacy that wouldn't necessarily happen when they're in class.  As my colleague Colin Budds says, ‘The camera, doesn't have a heart.’ It doesn't have organs. You have to let the lens come and catch you, like a voyeur in your world."

The success of the exercise has meant that Miller will consider making a permanent part of curriculum.

"The Mike Leigh improvisations have become this huge, beautiful event for us. I hope the students will take it and run with it because they're creating amazing Australian stories. I've already told them that they need to turn it into a web series."

Most importantly, everyone is having fun in an otherwise challenging time. "I have fun with these guys. The VCA students are some of the most exciting people in Australia," says Miller. "They're artists, they've got skills, but more importantly, they're just really exceptional human beings. They make our work as teachers a dream."