Dr Duncan James > Storytelling > Improv

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"I've been doing a lot of abstract painting lately, extremely abstract. No brush, no paint, no canvas, I just think about it."

Steven Wright

Improv has Probably Always Existed

When I first started I realised that with certain friends we had already been doing improv-type games when being playful on long car journeys or just down the pub. I'm sure many people find the same and also conclude that improv is a very natural thing that fits the playful and creative side of human nature.

Based on suggestions (either from the rest of your group, randomly selected bits of paper or from an audience) improvisers improvise scenes. The nature of improv is that it is fairly easy to have fun with and the scene is dominated by positivity. If you are a beginner it is amazing how you can feel at home straight away. For many improv groups it is enough to have fun and enjoy the great moments that appear at practice sessions. If you are more into performing then it is amazing how a little bit of advice from an experienced improviser can quickly help you generate consistently good scenes good enough to perform at a local venue.

Improv Activities/Games

I'll be adding to this at some point.

Bring Your Own Improv have a good list of games on their website. If you know of any more lists of improv activities/games let me know and I'll add a link.

When to Interfere and When to Leave Well Alone

When running an improv session it can be tricky deciding when to let a scene continue and when to nudge it with a suggestion or even pause it completely to adjust what is happening.

Arguments for interfering:- It can fix a problem with the scene before it becomes a problem and allow the participants to experience how things can work better. For example, if someone has just had a fantastic chance to have a stronge emotional reaction to something and develop their character in an interesting way you might suggest they rewind a few seconds and react more strongly. It also gives participants the chance to learn the alternative approach straight away and can be argued to improve the learning and retention.

Arguments for saving comments for afterwards:- Perhaps you have misunderstood something? They might be aware it is normally the wrong thing to do but have some clever explanation or reason. (I have myself been stopped more than once and told what I did wrong; and I have then explained why I did it; and then had the group leader apologise and tell me to carry on! But by then the momentum of the scene is lost and this is a shame.) Also, I have seen many less confident people not return again after being stopped a couple of times. They do not say anything at the time but are annoyed/embarrassed to have been "told off" in front of others and you have lost someone from the club (and possibly the wonderful world of improv) for ever!

Theory of Comedy

I mention this briefly because it is something that interests me and is related to improv. Joke-telling skills are often considered "bad form" at improv. A punchline often relies on undermining or contradicting part of the setup and/or resolving some of the drama. A scene generally does not want internal contradictions and if the drama is resolved then the scene is often effectively over. However, if you are doing "short-form" then this can be OK as you can simply end the scene and move onto the next one.

Here is an example of what Andy Parsons said for on Mock the Week in response to the topic Unlikely Things to Hear at a Wedding: *Andy walks up to the mike and we are ready for a short joke or scene on this topic.* Apologies for the fact that my clothes are crumpled and I smell of sick... I got really drunk yesterday evening and spent the night in a skip. Anyway. *Andy pauses, stands slightly taller, opens arms and smiles.* Dearly beloved we are gathered here today... *Andy allows his voice to taper off.*

Why is this funny? Because it is a surprising ending. Classic source of humour. How did he think of it? We obviously don't know, however there is a reliable way of coming up with jokes like this. You think of an extreme character from a particular "scene" (in this case it is implied that it its the best man). You then say something he might say but leave it open enough that it could still be someone else. Then pick another extreme character from the "scene" but one who is an opposite (in this case the vicar). Andy got a really strong laugh for this probably because his punchline made it obvious it was the vicar but he didn't actually say so... there is a satisfaction in laughing at something you feel you have worked out for yourself and have not had to be spoon-fed.

I like this example because I feel that in a single example it covers most of the key points of how to make a great joke.

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