Improvisation (also known as Impro or Improv) is the art of spontaneously acting and reacting to the other actor in the moment. It offers a chance to relax and drop your defences in a safe and positive environment, to really be yourself on stage. In the theatre this usually takes the form of actors turning audience suggestions into totally spontaneous and unrehearsed scenes, games, stories and sketches.
The result of improvisation is sometimes serious, but usually comic. It’s important to make clear that actors don’t have to be clever or funny, which seems counter- intuitive when compared to the result. It is more important to be present in the moment and to listen to the other actors, so that the comedy and entertainment almost happens by accident.
Improvisation is the ultimate team game, with actors working together, listening to each other, and building on each other’s ideas to create whole new stories and scenes in the moment.
We improvise all the time in real life; we don’t plan every conversation and interaction that is going to happen to us over the day. Many of the best bits of life are totally spontaneous, and this is what we try to recreate on stage.
There are hundreds of different games, formats, styles and techniques and it’s exciting to explore as many of these as possible.
Foundations of Impro
There are many different techniques in impro but we’ve found it’s best to always bring it back to the following simple points, which we first learnt from John Cremer from The Maydays:
Listen: listening and seeing others on stage instead of listening to your own self-
Say Yes: accepting and building on the ideas and offers of other actors and letting things happen.
Commit: going for it, going for the first idea, the most obvious idea and letting yourself be free and spontaneous.
This all helps to create an environment in which actors can be themselves in the present moment and spontaneously do the first thing that comes to their head.
Together actors can then define a platform of where they are, who they are and what they are doing, create new characters and relationships, and build on each offer line by line to expand a scene, forward the action, and reincorporate details to tell a complete story. Mistakes are justified and woven in as if they belonged there all along. In fact, there are no mistakes because everything is accepted.
It’s a very fun and playful form of acting with lots of laughs!
Additional Improv Skills
In addition to the foundations of improv above it can also be helpful to learn things like Character, Storytelling, Game of the Scene, Emotions, Relationships, Being Obvious, Status, Platforms, Justification and more.
Also things like Clowning, Voice, Movement and general acting skills can be very helpful for impro.
But most of all we try and concentrate on the foundations of impro, as that seems to be where the fun stuff is.
Types of Impro
There are many different types of impro performance, and many actors perform more than one style. So there is a cross-
Short Form: A performance of shorter games and scenes based on multiple audience suggestions, similar in style to the TV show ‘Whose Line is it Anyway?’. Quite a common place to start performing impro and lots of fun.
Scenes: Actors improvising self-
Long Form: Actors improvising multiple scenes from just one suggestion or from a longer opening, sometimes using loose structures like The Harold, Deconstruction, Cat’s Cradle, Armando, Assscat or Montage. The scenes may connect together to form ongoing patterns and themes, but they don’t have to.
Narrative Impro: Improvising multiple scenes that form one ongoing story, sometimes using a narrative structure like The Hero’s Journey or The Story Spine. This style of show results in an improvised play or improvised movie. Sometimes they use a narrator, sometimes not.
TheatreSports: Teams perform scenes in friendly competition.
Musical Impro: Actors improvising an entire musical based on audience suggestions, like narrative impro with singing.
Playback: A director takes truthful, genuine stories from the audience and sometimes interviews them in depth, and the actors perform these stories back to the audience. These shows can sometimes be more serious than other impro and are often used in drama therapy.
Solo: There are a growing number of solo performers improvising, although the shows aren’t necessarily called impro shows. Jinni Lyons, Rob Broderick and Jonathan Kay are good examples.
There are also loads of other formats popping up all the time.
Most of all, improv can be anything. There are no set styles or formats for improvising, it’s a highly experimental and rapidly changing art form.
Improv around the World
Improv is a massive thing in North America and lots of Europe, and Hoopla are trying to raise the profile of improv to a similar level in the UK.
In North America there are large and well established improv theatres and training schools including well known names like Second City, Annoyance, IO, The Groundlings, Upright Citizens Brigade, Loose Moose Theatre and more.
The improv hot spots include Chicago, LA, New York, Toronto, Edmonton and Calgary. A lot of these places came out of the work of Viola Spolin, Del Close, and Keith Johnstone.
The UK used to have a reputation for just doing short-
Hoopla are striving to raise the profile of improv in the UK, making it more professional and mainstream. There are now loads more groups than there used to be, a larger audience, and improv shows appearing at professional theatres across the UK. Hurrah!