Dr Duncan James > 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 is so great. I love it! I barely ever get to do it at the moment but that is just because it is so dependent on finding a group of like-minded people and that can be awkward, particularly if I am enjoying one of my main hobbies of exploring the wilderness looking for wildlife!

Improv has Probably Always Existed

When I first started doing improv 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. (And sometimes no suggestions are used at all.) The nature of improv (as I have experienced it with many teachers and groups) 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

From quick warmups to extended storytelling.

Here are sets of activities/games. Each set is designed in an order that I think could work if used with a relatively inexperienced group. A common technique is to get a larger group to split into pairs (or triples or whatever) so everyone gets more chances to try. I have often seen each exercise demonstrated by an experienced pair of improvisers, then done by pairs (or other size groups) and then finally done as a whole group. (You might keep changing the smaller groups for each exercise to keep it fresh and in case one group does not get on very well.)

Warm Ups (Words and Names)

A good thing to do at the start of an improv session.

Object-Character Loop Person 1 names an object. Person 2 names a characteristic of that object. Person 3 names a different object with the same characteristic. Person 4 names a different characteristic of the object. And so on. This immediately starts getting you used to listening and responding to the previous person and not planning ahead. In real life you typically listen to others and if you join in a conversation without listening to what the previous person said it is often considered socially strange: I find that similarly good improv needs good listening all the time and responding in the moment.

5 Things Stand in a circle and point at one person in turn and give them something to say 5 of such as modes of transport, things not to say to a first date, ice cream flavours, etc. With an experienced group you might increase it from 5. The answers can be very simple and if you are the pointer you might tailor the challenges to the ability of the person.

Naturally Named It is useful to be able to come up with a name quickly and easily in improv. In this game, someone calls out a job and we all think of names of people who could do the job. This basically just means think of a name. Have a first and a last name. You should generally try not to reuse names. Bonus points for a sentence about them: Sarah Johnson can replace a clutch in your car in just 45 minutes. Bonus points if it is a pun: Vicar Drall, full name Kath E Drall; She runs the local sewing shop Mrs Curtain, Annette Curtain.

Warm Ups (Full Sentences)

For beginners just playing around with these activities and allowing them to extend naturally can even be enough to finish an hour-long session. Otherwise it is an extension of the warm ups into more complex things.

Inside the Scene We think of a scene and then think of as many words, plot ideas, characters, objects, plot devices, decisions, emotions, relationships and anything else to do with that scene. This can work as a group, perhaps going round in a circle or my preferred method is to go round the circle once or twice and then make it a free-for-all. This is a good example of an exercise where beginners can usually still think of simple answers and also benefit from hearing the more advanced ideas from experienced improvisers. (Obviously this could be referred back to later in a session by then doing a full scene which might benefit from some of the ideas we had.)

Storytelling Challenge One person starts a story and then it keeps getting passed on to the next person to continue the story. This might be done in a circle or a director might keep pointing at different people to continue. This develops skills in being in the moment and working with others in constructive way. After a while you might start getting people to sit down if they repeat, hesitate or are ungrammatical. I would also recommend getting people to sit down if they fail to follow on exactly from the previous person or if they have an inexplicable story inconsistency. Another good rule is to not introduce anything new after a certain length of time (as it is a standard storytelling technique to avoid suddenly introducing new characters or skills late in the story).

Improv Games

Some improvisers like games and some prefer to just go straight into doing scenes. Here are some games that I like because I think they lack the extreme rules other games have which I find can actually make them more difficult for beginners. Many other improvisers have also shared their favourite games such as on the Bring Your Own Improv and Encyclopedia of Improv websites.

Scene Tag (Often known as Freeze Tag.) This can be done lots of different ways. You might start with a pair of people doing a scene. The scene can be as simple as you want. Then someone claps (or says "freeze") and jumps in to replace someone in the scene and start something new: their inspiration might be the way they were standing or a word that was used or if it was in a school maybe they will start another scene somewhere else in the same school. (One option is to have a leader who does the interrupting, decides whether to have the same people in the scene or different people or a mixture, and says something like "new scene but keep the desert location" or "same scene but this time the phone rings" or "new scene but keep the inappropriate way to treat your elders".)

Expert Hands One person stands in front. A second person stands behind and puts their hands through the arms of the front person. The person in front acts as an expert on something that can realistically be demonstrated using hands. The person behind does not speak and simply plays the part of the hands. The front person speaker might sometimes say "now watch what I do with this balloon/tarantula/umbrella" to give the other person a chance to shine. The front person must stay aware of what hands are doing. The audience can prompt by asking questions, including asking for things to be shown/demonstrated.

Secret Hiding Place Start a random scene. There is something hidden somewhere. The audience can give suggestions for the scene and the hiding place but not the hidden thing. The challenge is to reveal the hidden thing at some point, and it can be particularly amusing if one character does not want it to be revealed and the other character keeps saying things like "perhaps the cups are in the cupboard" or similar. (I've seen this work very well but also inexperienced improvisers can struggle with the pressure to think of something that was hidden.)

Red Shirts A scene is started based on suggestions. Everytime a bell is sounded, someone has to point to a minor character (an imagined character and not one of the improvisers) and narrate their death. The scene can become any kind of thing you like. But, miraculously the main characters never die. Obviously there is a good chance this might become a parody of one of the standard Hollywood or TV genres where this kind of thing happens.

Three-Line Scenes

A typical final stepping-stone before doing full improvised scenes/stories.

Three-Line Scene Simply as a pair person A says the first line, person B says the second line and person A says the third line. The challenge is to develop the skill of setting-up characters, a situation, a relationship and a problem in just the three lines. You can say absolutely whatever you want. As you get better you might try to do all the set-up in lines one and two and save the third line for a punchline/payoff to finish the scene. (Strong "offers" and "responses" are good. Questions or other substance-weak lines are generally bad.)

Let Some Scenes Continue An effective technique I have seen is to sometimes let the three-line scenes continue. This is very safe for beginners as there is always the choice of not continuing but if it feels right (to the leader of the group or the pair doing it or whatever) the scenes can sometimes be longer.

Taking Suggestions You can then start to do three-line scenes (or extended scenes) based on audience suggestions. You can initiate it with suggestions of words, a suggested genre, a suggested position (perhaps manually created by one or two audience members), a single word or anything else. Some people (me included) find it easier to improvise if they've been given a couple of suggestions to start from whereas others seem to find this harder.

Checklist It is good to know some simple principles of setting up a good sketch. Good improvisers often achieve these things very fast within only a few seconds of the scene starting. Here is a way to think about setting up a good scene. Have the following questions been answered? 1. Who are they? 2. Where are they? 3. What are they doing? 4. How do they feel about it?

Is the scene going nowhere? One options is for a "director" (typically someone in the group not involved in the scene) to come in part way through a scene and ask the audience for extra suggestions for things that might happen. This can then give the scene new momentum. If you are just practising you might also just stop the scene and start a new one: Perhaps if you are more experienced you could take a moment to analyse what happened and try to learn.

Rhyming Improv (From Practice Words to Whole Songs)

I think this is a very personal thing both for improvisers and audiences. I really love it.

Word Association Stand in a circle (or however you like) and pass a word to the left. The next person free-associates with it and says another word. Optionally sing the word you come up with. This can be difficult! If you can't think of anything new, you can simply repeat the previous word. An advanced option is to clap, for example at a rate of one clap every second, and every other clap has a word said/sung in time with it.

Rhyming Practice This is exactly the same as "word association" but the next person thinks of a word that rhymes. Advanced improvisers can challenge themselves to always come up with new words. Others are allowed to repeat words. A less-advanced option is to have anyone call out a word when they think of one. An advanced option is for someone to say a sentence... the same exercise but say a whole sentence with the last syllable rhyming the last syllable of the original sentence. Bonus points if the whole sentence has the same rhythm... and extra bonus points if somehow related!

Rhyming Couplets Think of a theme and take turns saying/singing rhyming couplets on that theme. (As usual, you can also simply say/sing out loud when you think of them rather than take turns.)

The sentence ending is crucial. If two sentences are to rhyme then the second sentence is the punchline. So, in a lot of improvisers heads they do this: (1) Think of the end of the second line; (2) Think of the end of the first line; (3) Then think of the rest of the words to make it make sense (returning to step 1 or 2 if it doesn't work very well which I often have to do).

For example, if the theme is cars. (1) I think of "carburettor". (2) I think of "better". (3) Then I come up with: "I always find a car runs better, if I put back in the carburettor."

Advanced Rhyming Challenge This is very difficult! Person one says a topic. Person two says a first line with finish word that is easy to rhyme with. Person three says a second line that rhymes.

I have used this skill to jump in and keep finishing a fellow improviser's rhymes but it has also gone horribly wrong and is very risky. But I think it is a good practice exercise as long as you are experienced enough to deal with failing to think of something (during group practice you could open it up to everyone if you fail to think of a second line).

Four Line Poems This is exactly like rhyming couplets but: As when you made a couplet, think of a pair of lines for the second and fourth lines of a set of 4. Then add the first and third lines as well. I find this actually easier after a bit of a warm up as I can use the extra lines to help build convoluted ways to link the rhyming words. However, when I first learnt this I found it more difficult.

For example, lets extend the car example: To improve your car, to make it run better. Check under the bonnet, is there still a carburettor? I think this is much better and the four-line structure really helps!

Other Rhyming Structures There are obviously many other structures for rhyming poems. For example, limerick improv can be done with 5 people where the first and third person needs to be generous and give good rhyming words. Alternatively one person might make up a complete lymerick. Personally I prefer to stick with four-line structures as I think they work well and it seems better to really hone the one skill so I can enjoy it more.

Whole Songs Want to try a whole song? This is a good way to produce it as a group: (and obviously it could be varied)

chorus (someone makes up a four-line chorus)

chorus (repeated by everyone to buy time for thinking and relaxing at start)

verse (someone will step forward and make up a four-line verse)

chorus (repeated from before)

verse (someone will step forward and make up a four-line verse)


Top tip: If you are using this in a longer scene (perhaps trying to make a musical) then all you have to do is to describe what is going on. That is enough to make a song and often all they are doing in musicals if you really listen!

Top tip: it is nice to have someone in the song that is offering a counterpoint to the main message of the song (either chipping in the odd verse or simply singing "no" or "I'm too tired to walk" or whatever in the odd gap). So, if everyone is singing about going for a walk perhaps one person does not really want to go for a walk. (This is obviously very story-dependent.)

Long-Form Improv

I love the way improv can stretch into long session to tell complete stories.

The Narrator Many improv groups will use a narrator: it is my personal preference to have one if I am doing long-form. A narrator is typically an experienced improviser and their role is to be there if the story starts going out of control. An experienced narrator usually helps in simple ways because although they have the power to help they can also ruin a good story with only a few badly chosen words. (Some groups do not use a narrator and I have heard some improvisers have strong opinions that you should not have one.)

Starting Suggestions may be taken from the audience before starting. This is something the narrator is likely to do in order to get the audience used to the idea of the narrator's role compared to the rest of the improv troupe. The improvisers have now heard the suggestions and the narrator may have edited the suggestions down so the audience knows what to expect (I have often then as an improviser ignored this advice and used other suggestions anyway). The narrator might then say something like: "In a disused factory the story begins." (And this may not yet be referencing any of the suggestions.) Then the story starts as the improvisers begin to improvise. The improvisers simply use all the skills already discussed and get going. As it is long-form familiarity with storytelling techniques and conventions can be useful. For example, I think the principle that you introduce new things at the start and then only work with what you have got after a while is important.

Changing Scenes As the narrator you are unlikely to do anything for a while. The scene might end of its own accord. Or you might end it after a while if you want to jump in. Whether the scene ends naturally or the narrator ends it, this is now typically time for the narrator to say something. The narrator might remind the audience of the character names and relationships to reinforce it: "So, we have met Yohann and his daughter Bryony. Will they repair their car or buy a new one?" The narrator might simply say: "And onto the next scene." Sometimes there is very little for a narrator to do. The narrator can, however, do valuable work developing drama by doing things like highlighting how one character might react strongly: "Graham has been known to react strongly to a challenge. I wonder what he will do this time?" Or the narrator might summarise the plot and point out to the actors that we need an explanation: "The party is going well but we still don't know what was added to the cocktail and what it might do. We find out more in the next scene." Or they might save the story by highlighting a contradiction so it can be fixed or perhaps used to show how someone is being manipulative: "Stacy told Gareth that she still loved him but then she didn't even seem to care when he went missing. It is time for the story to tell us what Stacy is really thinking. Did she know Gareth was going to disappear? Are they planning something? Or is she just too scared to tell him she doesn't love him any more?"

Having a narrator is controversial in improv. Some people think it is such a powerful technique it is almost obligatory and others think it is the opposite of what improv should be about. I think a narrator is a powerful technique to fix problems only the audience might see and also as a way to empower a strong storyteller within the improv troupe to guide the story much more than they could as an improviser. The narrator can actually jump into a scene to fix things straight away: "and at this point in the story everyone is wondering why Brian is being called Bob by his best friend. Now lets hear about where his nickname Bob came from." To have some fun you might very occasionally say: "can we see that in replay"? But I am not sure this is a good idea as it can get in the way of a good momentum and disrupt skilled improvisers.

Narrator Feedback I recommend an agreement that at the end the improvisers give feedback to the narrator. Did the narrator seem to jump in too much or too little? If they jumped in to end a scene, did they seem to end a scene too soon or too late? These will be different for different groups and a good narrator will get a feeling for what a particular group likes.

Association-Type Long-Form Improv A traditional way to do (or at least learn) long-form improv is to split into groups of 2 or 3 people. One group starts improvising. If you are in another group you wait to be inspired by a word or idea that was just said and then you can jump in and your group takes over. It is a type of "free-association" improv. I don't personally like this and prefer a more story-driven approach as I described above.

Top Tips for Improv

I think that improv can be over-analysed! Here are some suggestions but ultimately what works for me is to practice and focus on a few key skills/approaches/techniques rather than getting bogged down in too much analysis. These are tips I find particularly resonate for me.

A Summary of all my Overall Improv Technique

Begin a scene by saying yes!

Begin with who, what and where?

Relationships between characters can be good.

Avoid asking other actors questions. (As it will always be slightly closed and limit the options.)

Make strong choices if possible. Have a strong emotional reaction to something if possible within bounds of what has already happened. For example, if something happens and it makes sense for your character to object/conflict with it then do so... and do so very strongly.

As the scene develops the primary rule becomes "commit to your character" above all else (because by now your character has developed). You can now start breaking the other rules to stay more true to your character. (If the scene is short then often a good improviser will create an extreme character for rapid story payoff.)

There's a problem? Always be on the look out for ways to make it worse!

Never resolve a problem (until the end of the scene/story, and maybe not even then).

Anatomy of a Problem At the beginning of the scene a problem (in which the characters have a vested interest) is introduced. The middle of the scene will then be the group working as a team to resolve the problem. The end of the scene will either be the problem being resolved or the problem sort-of winning as the characters clearly fail.

Developing a Character on the Fly First think: "What would my character do that is consistent with what has happened/been revealed so far?". Then mentally edit the possibilities and only choose something that does not either block another person's character nor asks another character a question nor blocks something else in the scene. As the scene develops find ways to develop: your relationship with others in the scene; your relationship with the environment around you; a vested interest in something that is happening (if this has not already been established) and; a contribution to the slow progression towards resolution of the problem.

Ideas for a Problem If the set-up is: (1) Primarily character-driven, then perhaps it is a special day today (celebration, wedding, new job, you just moved, etc.); (2) Primarily location- or object-driven then perhaps a context-appropriate disaster has occurred (e.g. escaped lion, train out-of-control, etc.) or; (3) If it is a combination of character, location and/or object then it should be much easier, and perhaps you can think of a problem that marries the whole set-up really cleverly.

Trying Too Hard for Laughs A good approach I have found is: don't try and be funny, don't play to the punch-line, don't force laughs. Occasionally saying something funny doesn't really seem to help in my experience. Skilfully constructed scenes are almot always much funnier to me.

Remember that if doing short game-type scenes then you might go for a quick laugh but that is OK. I'm more thinking don't try too hard for laughs if you are going for longer scenes. I find that if someone delivers a great punchline then with a short game you can maybe do a couple more scene-challenging lines for more easy laughs and then walk away from a scene that no longer has any underlying logic to it and start again... With a longer scene I personally prefer to not go for easy laughs and let a deeper comedy start to evolve instead. Obviously this is very group-dependent and different people mean different things by a "quick laugh". I'm mainly thinking to avoid puns, suddenly undermining another character or solving a problem too soon.

I think one of the key problems with quick humour is that it is so often either a pun or a surprise. A pun will generally take people away from the developing scene, taking energy and momentum away from the overall plot. A surprise is what a good plot gives you later on naturally: My feeling is that a surprise too soon starts messing with the pacing of a story.

In short: I recommend letting the scene produce the jokes and not the characters.

John Cramer Inspired me With Two Particular Top Tips

Be aware of the "Game of the Scene" (easier for audience to see than performers) and go with it. Perhaps one character keeps saying no to every suggestion from another character. This might just be bad improvising. However, the audience will likely notice and if you can have the "big picture" skill to realise what is happening you could play with that expectation to be entertaining. In this example the humour would be to start making it look like you going to agree, perhaps ask for clarification, and then say no anyway. And depending on the scene there could be a really good punchline to be had at the end that plays with this.

"Pinch-Ouch": if a character finds something that annoys another character they should keep doing it, stop for a bit, and then carry on!

Story Fodder I have not seen many improvisers talk about this, but I think it can be useful to have a "writers head" on while acting so that you are planning just a little bit for a good plot. Obviously improvise, but if you are going to let anything happen then why not let it be useful story fodder? If you can get skilled at improvising you might start asking yourself in brief moments when you can "plot in your head": What might you all discover? Who might arrive? What consequence might happen? Which of these things would be good for the story? I often find myself coming up with a couple of good options and immediately binning them as the plot changes. But sometimes I can use an idea as it can really help fix a problematic scene or give more potential to a weaker scene.

It can be funny sometimes to drop other people in it. For example you might say to another character: "perhaps you should tell us that story again... you know the motivational one about the alien and the tiger." Remember that the person it is imposed on can always say: "No, you tell it please as you obviously love the story so much.". I think this can be overused but I've seen it used to great effect between experienced improvisers.

Forget all this advice! Actually, none of these are really rules! If you are in a group that clicks, or simply as you get more experienced, you can start breaking the rules. For example, sometimes asking questions to challenge other good performers, actually playing for laughs sometimes, developing a team consciousness that senses the punch-line and works towards it, having characters that are entertainingly working against one-another in a scene and managing not to get bogged down in negating each other all the time, etc.

Remember remember remember the word-association skills developed in the basic games. Are you improvising a scene about a bus convention in Peru? Buses might be driven by guinea pigs to save on staff costs. The buses might run on potatoes. And so on.

Making a Show It can be fun to do a full improv show. A lot of improv teams will come up with a theme for the evening. The idea is that you do all the usual games but make them all have a bit of a them.

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 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.