What’s that you’re saying?

Have you ever ad libbed in a show? Or seen a perform ad lib during a performance? Tell us here!

Ever get the feeling that the talented actors you’re watching in a play are so realistic, they’re making up the words as they go along?

Actors mostly don’t do that—their job is to stick to the script even as they make the words seem extemporaneous (an exception: when they are doing improv). Good dialogue can often sound invented on the spot, even if it is carefully scripted. But sometimes an ad lib adds an additional touch of spontaneity to a theatrical event, or solves an unexpected problem on stage.

To ad lib is to speak in character, but outside of the specific words set down in the script. The phrase is short for ad libitum, Latin for “at one’s pleasure,” which is a way of saying the performer is at liberty to make up dialogue.

Ad libbing can be useful in a crowd scene, for example. Rather than scripting every line, a playwright or director might ask the actors to fill in minor dialogue on their own. Making an entrance at a cocktail party, a character might be greeted with phrases like, “Hi, how do you do, hello there, nice to meet you,” and so on from various members of the ensemble—whether scripted or ad libbed. In Act III of Julius Caesar, Mark Antony sways popular opinion in Rome with his famous “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech. Shakespeare wrote out responses for four individual Roman Citizens—hardly a throng. If a director wanted to add voices to the crowd, she might have them murmur a round of nonsense syllables – see “peas and carrots.” Another choice would be for the chorus to ad lib phrases such as “Hear, hear!” “Hail Mark Antony,” and the like.

Here are some other times ad libbing comes in handy:

• To cover a missed cue. “Was that the doorbell? I could swear I heard the doorbell. [Ring] Ah, there it is. I’ll get it!”

• When the script calls for a performer to interact with an audience member—think Dame Edna or One Man, Two Guv’nors—in which case ad libbing is pretty much inevitable.

• If a piece is includes plucked-from-the-headlines topical references that change daily.

Can you think of other times when ad-libbing is just the thing?

— Ben Pesner

This video was created by TDF and New York Neo-Futurists.

  • Written by New York Neo-Futurists
  • Directed by Mark Blankenship
  • Shot and edited by Nicholas Guldner
  • Starring Flor de Liz Perez and Michael Puckett