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Crash Course - 5 Tips for Improv Theater

Updated on March 2, 2015
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What is Improv Theater?

Improv theater entails more than just saying “funny things” without the aid of a script; it is a type of acting that depends on mutual trust, imagination and a lively, involved audience to create spontaneous performance. Unlike other forms of theater, Improv almost exclusively relies on facilitating conditions for interaction and mutual creativity during the process of performance. Because of its distinct traits, Improv comprises a style of theater that doesn’t necessarily rely on traditional types of acting for success. This doesn't mean that “good actors” can’t become successful Improv artists; it does mean that those who don’t exhibit inclinations towards traditional theater can still enjoy success with Improv.

Rather than a set of acting skills—mime, dialogue, singing, stage combat, dance—Improv uses all of these talents and others to create new sequences. Good Improv performers exhibit creativity, courage, trust and a willingness to take risks in order to create well-received performances.

Below, you’ll find some of the “cardinal” guidelines for performing Improv on stage with other actors; each of these guidelines will help actors with one of the games featured in this week’s competition. In fact, the last page of this handout will preview the games that will be showcased during this year’s contest, preparing even novice performers for success with Improv theater.

Honesty is the Best Policy

Improv performance is not the same as stand—up comedy; Improv does not require learning “jokes.” The essential quality of Improv performance is a willingness to tell the truth. This may seem a strange observation but following this guideline is the best insurance for success. Consider the times you’ve laughed the hardest in life. Odds are it wasn’t at a “funny line” from a movie or a joke you heard at school; it most likely occurred when you were “palling around” with friends. So, don’t force jokes into your performances; check the impressions of Kim Kardashian at the door. The world is full of this type of humor—it lacks you and your own perspective. Whenever you’re faced with a challenging situation or daunting scene, be honest; listen to that “little voice” inside your head and trust your instincts. It is likely that impulse will lead you to more interesting and entertaining ideas than settling for a few punch lines.

$5 Burgers - Awesome Improv

Always Say "Yes"

Success in Improv never derives from any single person; it comes from the energy created by the cooperation of every performer on stage. Based on this idea, it’s always more interesting to agree then contribute to anything said by one of your scene partners. If your partner claims to “come from the moon” you may get a brief titter from your audience by saying they’re crazy. However, it would prove a much more exciting sequence had you asked them about the “home world” or tried to kidnap your partner and perform a dissection at Area 51. Either of these choices or any other “yes” action could provide minutes, even hours, of scene mileage. A joke at the expense of your partner will likely only upset your team mates. By agreeing to “always say yes” performers can slowly build a scene, moment by moment, in a painless and creative way. This idea encourages trust between performers because they can rest assured their contributions will be validated and embraced by those they most rely on for success. The second part of this guideline entails contributing to the sequence yourself every time a partner provides the scene with new information. Don’t continuously lean on a single member of your team to produce new ideas; contribute them yourself to insure mutual creativity and support. To this one could add that the more dramatic your contribution, the better the overall scene.

Example Scene:

Player One: So, I see this is your first ski lesson.

Player Two: Who said that? I can’t see anything. I’m blind!

Player One: Is that why you brought the dog along with you today?

There are a few lessons to extract from this simple three line scene. Notice that even though the players ask one another questions, they are really providing each other with new information. Further, they not only agree with one another, they progress the scene with “facts” that could easily develop into a complicated chain of events. .

Do Something with Someone

It’s one thing telling a performer to “contribute” in a sequence and another to equip them with the understanding for accomplishing said task. By far, the easiest, concrete way to provide the foundation for a scene—any scene—is to establish who the performers will be portraying and what activity they are in the midst of at the beginning of the performance. This process can be distilled into two questions: Who am I? What am I doing? Performers should answer these questions with their words and their movements whenever possible to bring the scene to life. For instance, saying you’re on a “first date” with your partner offers potential; snuggling up beside your partner tells the audience what sort of suitor you’ll be portraying on said date and how to progress the scene. Alongside the “main action” of the scene—watching a movie, washing a car, preparing Thanksgiving dinner — will be any number of lesser or ancillary activities. As a performer, you should exploit these to enhance your performance and discover new outlets or “paths” for your sequence. Doing so will insure you always foster contingencies should your sequence begin to drag or lose interest. Reaching “further afield” gives your partners more choices to build upon during the performance, providing more avenues for enriching and complicating the scene. Choose specific objects. Why read the paper when you can read about your stocks hitting rock bottom? Why work a construction site when you can operate a jackhammer? The more specific and imaginative your “props” the more memorable your scene.

Example Scene:

Player One: (digging)

Player Two: Again with the digging?

Player One: Arrrgh! Me Hearty! I’ll find that gold yet!

Player Two: Not without this map you won’t—ONE LEGGED, ONE EYED, STUTTERING JACK!

Player One: My M –M-M-M-AP! (hopping towards Player Two)

Notice how Player Two’s second dialogue complicates Player One’s activity. Regardless what else happens , the audience should likely be enthralled by a stuttering, half-blind pirate bouncing around the stage

The A Train Improv Performance @ Ignite Sydney.mov

Stir Things Up

Safety and comfort rarely produce provocative or interesting scenes. This holds true for conventional theater and Improv performance. To progress a scene from a series of facts to an intricate chain of events requires the manufacture of problems and potential solutions. As you make choices on your identity and activity, consider how an especially interesting location or task might facilitate a problem or “game” your team will solve during the course of the performance. Like our other guidelines, this observation is easier said than done by many new actors. Below are a few tips on integrating problems or “games” into any Improv performance:

  • Start your scene or dialogue in the middle rather than beginning of an activity. Exposition can prove cumbersome. Action leads to creative choices.
  • Follow extremity. If you’re golfing, why not in a jungle (“watch out for that trap—it’s quicksand!”). If you’re stuck in an elevator suddenly remember your claustrophobia. Make choices that will stretch the boundaries of your chosen activity and roles.
  • Though Improv flexes your cerebral muscles, impregnating your scene with emotion can often provide more potency than a litany of quotable one—liners. To foster dramatic tension, especially consider imbuing your performance with either suspicion or desire to elevate the sequence.

Example Scene:

Player One: (mixing drink)

Player Two: Is the antidote ready yet? We’re running out of time!

Player One: Is this really going to stop you from—

Player Two: Too late! Raaaawr!

Notice how Player Two’s desire for Player Ones activity first fed his fellow performer’s suspicion then facilitated a dynamic choice for the scene.

Embrace Failure

Nobody’s perfect. Even seasoned veterans, well rehearsed and capable of astounding dramatic peaks sometimes fudge a line or make an entrance a little early—and that’s in conventional theater. As you might imagine, Improv theater provides just as many, if not more, chances for coming short of the mark. Luckily, the art of Improv is designed to not only forgive but sometimes welcome these calamities. So don’t throw in the towel should you trip over a few words, forget another character’s name or totally bomb a scene. Instead of denigrating you, the audience is likely to love you for aspiring to such heights and falling back to earth without even an ounce of grace. To this sentiment one may add that doing the “wrong thing” can sometimes be “right” for your overall scene. Sometimes trusting your instincts requires a big leap of faith and seeing yourself through a significant problem can necessitate more than a few stumbles. But, hey, even if there isn’t a light at the end of every tunnel, your audience will still laugh—even if it’s because you’ve provided them with a new definition for “ridiculous.”

Example Scene:

Player One: (driving) Who would’ve thought the Queen of England was gonna turn—

Player Two: Bob?

Player One: -the killer: what?

Player Two: If we’re in England, why is the steering wheel on that side of the car?

Player One: (pause) Because I’m an American. And I drive like an American.

Player Two: But you’re driving on the wrong side of the road!

Player One: HANG ON!

You see how a simple mistake can be salvaged into a hilarious complication so long as the actors embrace its reality?

No Script? No Problem!

Break a leg with your next performance. I sincerely hope these suggestions help the selection and preparation of your improvisational showcase. In the meantime, I look forward to your kind feedback and hope you'll check out my other Hub Pages related to the performing arts and drama.

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