Improv is the best teacher!
Learning good improv instincts may be the most useful training you’ll ever get. Improv is a skill that fuels the honesty and collaborative inventiveness that is at the core of voice acting and being directed.
What follows is a rundown of what improv is, how it works and some ideas for starting an improv company of your own.
Borrowed & Stolen by Dee Bradley Baker
What is “improv?”
Improv is collaborative, spontaneous, unscripted team storytelling. It is not a competition or about making jokes or doing funny characters per se or even getting laughs. Those things can happen naturally but are not what drives good improv.
You’re not trying to be funny. You’re trying to help your team tell a good story.
Improv is a skill. It is about being open and responsive to what is happening now, listening and supporting other players by making helpful “offers” to move the story along. It is about collaboration and being present and helpful. It is about not forcing an idea, making use of what is available and having fun together.
Improv is not about “self,” it is about “group.” It’s not about safety, it’s about vulnerable honesty. It’s not about getting attention or glory.
Good improv teaches a broad range of life skills. The experience of it can be both scary and exhilarating. It may be the most fun you will ever have on stage!
IMPROV GUIDEPOST TERMS:
“Yes, and…” Accept and build on your partner’s ideas.
“Second support:” Support and add to your scene partner’s offers. Make your scene partner look good. You are working together and for each other.
Don’t try and be funny- It makes a scene feel contrived. Be present and responsive to what is playing out.
Follow the fear- Don’t be afraid to take risks or follow where your instincts lead.
Don’t rush a scene or hurry towards resolution.
Be courageous and make bold offers that build and help fellow performers.
Embrace mistakes and use them to your advantage. Don’t dwell on them or let them derail your scene.
Move the story forward.
Listen- even when you’re talking.
Stay in the moment- don’t plan or anticipate too much
Don’t dumb down the story.
Establish the who, what and where early in scene.
Blocking or rejecting your partner’s ideas or established storyline
Being too “self-focused”
Humor at your partner’s expense
Grand standing or showing off
Whatever feels safe, easy or stereotyped
Repetition of old ideas/bits
Don’t force your idea, let the story lead the way!
Avoid weak or timid offers that don’t move the story.
Avoid questions that don’t move the story (e.g., “What should we do now?”) Questions generally kill story momentum & energy.
Avoid random or non-sequitur offers that stall or undercut the story.
Avoid over-thinking or planning
Don’t “bail” on a scene or your partner!
“Gets” (audience suggestions) are seeds to set up and start a scene or game and can be anything, really. Something mundane or unremarkable is often fine.
The improver addresses the audience saying, “Can I have a ___.” or “I need a ____.” Sometimes you ask for a combination, e.g., “A location and an occupation,” or “An important life event and an everyday household object.”
Pro tip: a get can be used to start a scene or can be held suspended to eventually be worked into the story later. A get may even begin as its opposite in performance.
Here are some typically useful gets:
Everyday household object
A historical period
A movie genre
Well-known/famous author or director
Type of relationship
An odd secret
A wish or goal
An important life event
A mundane activity
An unusual obsession or hang up
In improv, an “offer” is an idea or story element a player adds to help build the story being told. An offer helps your fellow players by giving them something useful. This can be verbal or physical, a gesture, a sound or pantomimed scenery or prop.
The most important aspect of an “offer” is that it gives the other performer something to work with and respond to. For example, if one performer says “Hey, nice hat!” to another, that is an offer. The other performer can then choose to respond in a way that builds on that offer, such as by saying “Thanks, I got it at a thrift store.” This response continues the scene and expands on the initial offer.
An offer is not designed to make you appear funny or even look good.
A good offer brings active possibilities for your scene partner. It typically involves your fellow player. It is best when active/action-based, not passive or merely descriptive.
Pre-show warm ups:
One-Word Story: Players stand in a circle, and each person says one word to create a story. The game continues until the story is complete.
In this game, one player starts a scene, and the other player must agree with what has been said (the “yes” part) and then add something new to the scene (the “and” part).
Word Association: One player says a word, and the next player must say a word that is associated with it. The game continues until someone is stumped or can’t think of a related word.
Count to Twenty: Players stand in a circle and count to 20. Each player can only say one number at a time, and if two players speak at the same time, the group must start over.
Gibberish Conversations: Players pair up and have a conversation in complete gibberish. The goal is to use tone, expression, and body language to convey meaning to the other person.
Each of two performers must start their sentence with alternately “fortunately” or unfortunately,” building off of what was just said.
Good, Bad, and Ugly
Players are given a topic (e.g. “things that happened on the first day of school”) and must take turns coming up with a good, bad, and ugly thing that happened related to the topic. ________________________________
One word story
All players stand in a line and tell a story from a suggestion one word at a time.
First letter, last letter
Each of two players must start their sentence with the letter of the last word spoken by their scene partner.
Each player is assigned a number between 1 and 10 and must speak only in sentences with that number of words.
Variation: First players gets one word, next speaker uses two words, next speaker gets three up to ten then it resets to one word.
A scene with questions only.
Two players start a scene, and the first player’s line must begin with the letter A. The second player’s line must begin with the letter B, and so on, until the scene reaches the letter Z.
Two players begin a scene. At any point, another player can yell “Freeze!” and tag out one of the actors to take their exact pose/place and start a new scene. This can also be done with a prop, whose pose or placement is commandeered by the new performer but with a totally different meaning.
Three headed expert
Three arm-in-arm talking heads are introduced as an all-knowing oracle. They answer questions one word at a time solicited by moderator from the audience. After each question is answered, the three headed expert say in unison, “More questions!”
The moderator kneels down front and points randomly to players in the lineup who must begin exactly where the last speaker left off. Story is controlled by the moderator’s pointing. If the reader hesitates, flubs or defies established story, the moderator/audience yell, “die,” and the player acts out a creative demise and steps back before the remaining players continue.
Players act out a scene with other players offstage providing the dialogue for the characters.
Players act out a scene, but at various points, the scene switches to a different genre (e.g. from a romantic comedy to a horror movie).
Two players provide the sound effects for two other players’ scene.
Players are given a random object and have to come up with creative ways to use it in a scene. The prop can be anything but what it actually is. Can be modified as a “freeze” game, where the new player takes over the same prop but gives it a new meaning.
First line, last line
Players are given a first line and a last line of dialogue, and must improvise a scene that connects the two lines.
Moderator solicits a ridiculous world predicament and a new super hero from audience. The super hero then fails, a new ridiculous superhero is solicited by moderator.
Sit, stand, kneel, lie down
A scene where only one player may stand, kneel, sit or lie down. If one player switches position, the others must as well, while justifying the move in the story playing out
“The boss is gonna freak!”
One player is isolated, oblivious to the “get.” An odd reason for office job tardiness is solicited then acted out by work colleagues behind boss’s back. Any of the cuing co-workers are fired if seen by boss.
Players take turns coming up with the “world’s worst” example of a given profession, activity, or object (e.g. “world’s worst dentist” or “world’s worst rollercoaster”).
One player hosts a party and each guest is assigned a specific quirk or personality trait. The host has to guess each guest’s quirk based on their behavior.
One player is in the “hot spot” and must improvise a monologue based on a random topic (e.g. “things you shouldn’t say to your teacher”). As the monologue progresses, other players can “tag in” and take over the monologue, continuing the story.
Two players start a scene, and at any point, the moderator or audience can shout “New choice!” The players must then redo their last line with a new choice and the scene continues.
One player is a public figure who has done something newsworthy (real or imagined). The other players are journalists who ask the public figure questions about the event. The public figure must improvise answers on the spot, even if they have no idea what the journalists are talking about.
Players act out a scene, but at various points, they must incorporate a random line of dialogue written on a slip of paper that they have not seen before.
__________________________________How to set up and run an improv show:
After trying numerous games, select a sequence of games your group is familiar with and likes.
Come up with a fun name of your group.
At start of show, have one performer quickly introduce the group and make clear that nothing of the show is scripted or planned, it is all made up in the moment. Then dive right in!
Have one player take charge and moderate each game- to briefly explain the rules to the audience and select the players to start each game.
Each game’s moderator solicits any “get(s) and facilitates the game (if needed).
The moderator ends the game by saying “and scene!” If you have stage lighting you can cue the light board by saying “and blackout.” Sometimes one of the players can finish their own game by saying this when it feels right to end the game.
Staging: For each game, non-scene players can sit on both sides of the performing area, ready to jump in and assist, if appropriate.
Improv isn’t about getting laughs (though there can be plenty). It’s about good storytelling. It’s not about one player getting audience approval, it’s about helping a group tell an interesting, honest and fulfilling story.
“Blue” refers to material that is sexually explicit. Blue “gets” or offers or storylines usually feel too easy/obvious and are best avoided. They usually lead to generic story-killing story paths.
Re: guns- Some offers can literally “kill” a scene- e.g., If you aim a gun, you usually must fire it. Guns or threat of violence typically force the players to kill the story prematurely. Best avoided.
Don’t just play the improv games you’re good at. Try ones that you’re afraid of!
Don’t repeat what has worked before! Characters that once got a great response, gags or motifs that you’ve already done are too easy. Repetition renders a story performance stale. It’s also rather lazy and safe- which is anti-improv.
Stumbles or wipeouts are not a problem. Acknowledge and move on! Or build the story from it or around it! Nothing entertains like a vulnerable performer honestly twisting in the wind!
If doing a musical, an opening song often works best when it establishes the setting and the idea or problem (e.g., a town and its predicament).
You are free to start with the opposite of the “get” and work towards it, or let the suggestion appear indirectly.
Relationship drives story and humor, not being clever.
An improv may be free-wheeling but it is a show. Whoever MC’s the show or a game is charged with making the rules clear for the audience and moving the process along (and maybe ending the scene when it finds a good ending or is hopelessly wandering). Like a good story, MC’ing must be energized and keep things moving. Take charge of the stage and set up- don’t let the energy or momentum drop!