Improv Glossary

A

Accepting

Saying “yes” to the reality presented by other performers. Doesn’t mean always literally saying “yes”, saying “no” can be a way of accepting an offer and advancing a scene.

Advancing

Moving the scene forwards into the action and future of the characters. Used in balance with expanding where the scene stays in the present moment and explores the details that are already there. When is it right to expand and when is it right to move on and advance? That’s up to you, your personal taste and your show. There isn’t a right or wrong.

Agreement

Accepting offers made by improvisers to create a reality, without knowing their full plan. Especially the agreement about location, relationship, character or activity. Opposite of this is denial.

Ask-for/Audience Suggestion

Question asked of the audience to get some ideas for the scene. For instance “Can we have  a genre?”, “Film Noir!”, “Can we have a word?”, “Pineapple!”, “Can we have a household object?”, “Spatula!”. You don’t always have to take the first suggestion. You can say “Can I get a bunch of suggestions of unusual objects” and pick one that will inspire the team.

B

Backline

When improvisers line along the back of the stage at the opening or when not in scene. Tends to popular with fast paced long-form as it gives quick access to stage for tag outs and edits. Less popular in improvised musicals and narrative as the stage looks cleaner and more theatrical with only active characters on stage, so in those forms off-stage is usually in the wings or crouched down near the front out of view. People on the backline love rolling up the sleeves of their hoodies.

Backstory

Details about a character that happened away from the present moment but are mentioned in a scene to give a character greater depth. Used in narrative long-form and improvised musicals.

Beat

A unit of action in a scene or item in a series of connected scenes. For instance a Harold is generally composed of 3 beats. Also helpful for learning Game of the Scene as the game can escalate through various beats. Originates from Stanislavski splitting plays into “bits” but everyone misunderstanding his accent and hearing “beats” instead. 

Blackout

When all the lights are turned off. Often used to indicate the end of a scene, end of show, or when the group has run out of time. Also happens when someone’s pint knocks the dimmer switch, thus causing an accidental ending to the whole show. Also popular is the Blue Out between scenes, where all lights go out except of the blues between long-form or narrative scenes so the end of scene is defined but actors can still see enough to set up something cool for the next scene.

Blocking (offers)

Rejecting offers and the reality presented by other players. The opposite of yes and, agreement and accepting. Can destroy the reality of the scene. For instance:

“Captain welcome to the ship.”

“I’m not the Captain and there is no ship.”

“Oh.”

Blocking (staging)

Theatre term for the the actual physical blocking of action (movement on stage) and working out staging and movements for a play. Comes from back when lighting was actually planned with mini mock-ups of the stage and the actors represented by blocks of wood moved around to check audience sight lines, lighting and shadows. Fun fact.

Breaking the Routine

Interrupting the action with another one to advance the scene. Based on Keith Johnstone’s work in Impro for Storytellers and Impro. For instance actor goes on stage and starts eating a dinner of shepherd’s pie (establishing a routine). Actor finds something in the pie (breaking the routine). Actor cleans the pie off the thing (routine). Actor finishes cleaning it and discovers it is a ring (breaking the routine). Actor paces around trying to remember who had a ring like that (routine). For more of that story buy me a pint after a Hoopla show.

Bridging

From Keith Johnstone’s Impro for Storytellers. Building up to a thing for too long instead of just doing it sooner so you’re back in the unknown and in the exciting present moment.

Bulldozing

Not paying any attention to the other players’ offers, and just sticking to your ideas because you think you have the answer to everything and your story ideas are the best. Oh gosh that’s me. Stop labeling me!

C

Cancelling

Destroying the action/reality that has already happened/been established. For instance:

“Oh my gosh we’ve accidentally killed the King’s dog and the King is on his way, we’ll be in so much trouble, we’re going to get beheaded for sure. He loved that dog more than his own son!”

“Woof”.

Commedia dell’Arte

A form of improvised street theatre popular in the 16th – 18th centuries across Europe, originating in Italy. It used a variety of half-Mask and stock characters. They would improvise around set scenarios.

Many of the stock characters still pop up in modern sitcoms, and Rik Mayall based many of his characters on Commedia. Commedia also influenced a lot of Shakespeare’s plots and characters.

The improv word “scene” actually comes from “scenario”. Scenario means “on the scenery” as the Commedia actors would write down the story beats to hit on the back of the scenery to have a quick check before they get on stage. Even though the characters are from 16th century they are still very relevant and funny today.

Hoopla Steve does a Commedia character every time he does Music Box, but doesn’t tell anyone.

Crazy Town

When everything in the scene has gone too weird too quickly and there is nobody reacting realistically to anything. Still more fun than boring grey sit around don’t do anything town, so balance and variety is best.

D

Denial

Like blocking and cancelling, stating that something is untrue.

“I’m so happy you made it to the wedding!”

“What are you talking about? We’re at the pub and we’re both single.”

E

Edit

A way to interrupt or end a scene. Either done by the director or host, or by the players in Long Form.

Examples:

Sweep Edit (improviser runs across front of stage to clear stage)

Lights Edit (lights go out to end scene)

Swarm Edit (improvisers turn into a sound and movement thingy inspired by something in scene to transfer to other scene)

Tag Out (tap on shoulder removes the character)

Voice-over Edit (improvisers off stage shout “cut to…”)

Embodying

When a performer physically portrays something that isn’t human, for example an object or animal.

Endowing

Giving an offer to another performer’s character that gives them specific attributes. Helps the other performer establish their character.

Escalating

Increasing the emotions and behaviours of what’s already happening on stage. A great thing to do if stuck in your head, as instead of having to think up each line you can escalate what’s already happening and see where it goes together. Nice one!

F

Flash Forward

Opposite of flashbacks. A scene jumping forward in time, showing events happening in the future.

Flashbacks

Opposite of flash forward. A scene that takes the story back in time. Often used when recounting events and filling in backstory.

Focus

The focus of the scene is where the audience’s attention is. If there are many things going on at once, this can divide the audience’s attention. This is called split-focus.

Freezing

Stopping moving and talking. Used in games like Freeze Tag.

G

Gagging

Making jokes at the expense of the reality of the scene and possibly the future of the story and improv itself. For instance:

Nigel: “Let’s go into this bar”

Tim: “Ouch! Who put that bar there! It hit my head! Ha ha ha ha ha”

Deathly silence. Tim deleted from the group’s Whatsapp group.

Game of the Scene

This is a term especially used by UCB. At Hoopla and IO we tend to instead talk about patterns and themes in scenes. There are lots of different ways to define game of the scene. At the start of a scene there are many “games of the scene”, because just by having two people on stage there are many different things going on. So there is no right or wrong game of the scene, the improvisers and cast pick up on something from the many possibilities and play with it. It’s not the Game of the Scene it’s a Game of the Scene.

Our favourite definition of Game of the Scene is a fun pattern of behaviour between the characters on stage with escalating emotion. This patterns often develops from one key moment in the scene, often known as The First Unusual Thing (from UCB), the Tilt (from Keith Johnstone) or The Fun Thing.

Game of the Scene feels very similar to spotting what the scene is about, the theme of the scene, and what’s happening between the people on stage.

When playing the Game of the Scene the improvisers escalate things that support that game rather than distract from it. For instance if two teachers are in the staff room of school cowering under the desk because the kids are so scary then coming in as a scary kid demanding to know why they only got a B on their exam instead of an A would be supporting that game/pattern/theme. However coming in as Tea Lady saying it’s time for a break and some biscuits would not be supporting the game and might distract from the game of “teachers are scared of kids”, unless the teachers reacted by shouting at her to take cover because class 2H were on their way.

Good news is that when improvisers are having a good time and being playful they tend to create Games of the Scene very naturally, as games come from play. Clowns tend to also find Game of the Scenes but not by thinking.

Game of the Scene comes from listening and being playful and escalating behaviour and emotions, it doesn’t have to be an intellectual thing that gets you stuck in your head.

Gibberish

A nonsense language of various sounds, used in many improv games to help improvisers express themselves physically and emotionally by not having to worry about the actual words.

Gossiping

From Keith Johnstone’s Impro for Storytellers. Talking about things/actions instead of doing things.

H

Heightening

Same as Escalating. Adding information or emotions to the scene, based on what’s already happening on stage. Can increase emotions and build characters, and raise the stakes.

Host

The person who addresses the audience and introduces the performers. Can be a member of the group, or someone hosting the whole performance.

I

Ignoring

Ignoring offers made by other players, either as a result of not listening to them, not thinking their offers are good enough or subconscious bias to support some players but not others. The opposite of accepting and yes and. For instance:

Nigel: Let’s go to the cinema tonight, I really want to see The Dark Knight Rises they’ve got it on at Prince Charles Cinema with a big fancy dress party happening.

Tim: Hey good to see you man, it’s been ages.

Impro and Improv

Impro is pretty much the same as Improv. The word impro was initially more commonly used in the UK as it was the title of Keith Johnstone’s first book and Keith Johnstone was originally more influential on the UK scene. The last 15 years though the US improv scene has been just as influential on the UK scene so now people in UK use both interchangeably.

The term impro tends to suggest someone has a more Keith Johnstone background. The term improv tends to suggest someone has a more Chicago/New York background.

Improv tends to get said with an American accent, even if the person saying it isn’t American.

The word Impro gets used by Hoopla because we set up our website way back when only impro was used in London, and even though things have changed since then we’re not changing our website for nobody. Also hooplaimpro looks nicer than hooplaimprov because the v seems out of place as most of the other letters have a roundness to them instead of a sharpness.

Back in 2008 there was a fight between impro and improv in the wastelands of the Canadian Arctic. Only two people turned up though and actually they got on really well and realised that most improvisation around the world is basically the same thing but with different words describing the same concepts. The two of them got married and had a baby, and that baby will grow up to save the planet by combining humanity in perfect harmony.

Short for improvisation and improvised.

Instant Trouble

Keith Johnstone term. Starting the scene with immediate conflict. Much more interesting to introduce conflict after characters have been established, or not have conflict at all.

In Your Head

Thinking too much on stage and being too self-conscious on every line. To get out of your head put yourself somewhere else instead – emotions, character, relationship, physical play. Also having trust between performers help them to get out of their head as they are more confident in saying the first thing that comes to them.

J

Justifying

Finding a reason for an offer introduced in the scene or justifying a mistake so it becomes a lovely part of the scene instead of a wart. Good practice is in games like Freeze Tag, get into the position and then justify it.

Mistakes in impro are treated like gifts and opportunities, and justifying mistakes into the scene helps this.

K

L

Listening

One of the most important parts of improv. Listening to other players and picking up on offers. There are different types of listening for instance listening to what’s said (the verbal offer), listening to how it was said (the emotional offer), listening to why it was said (the motivation) and also seeing the physical offers made.

Improvisers listen to everything, not just the deliberate offers but also the mistakes and accidental offers as these can also be used in the scene.

Improvisers aim to replace overly thinking and planning with listening in order to stay in the present moment with their scene partner.

Long-Form

A large category of improv, with many different formats. Generally a longer piece of improv based on just one or no suggestions at the start, as opposed to short games with multiple suggestions.

M

Monologue

A solo speech, often given directly to the audience. Can be true stories (a common way to open long form sets), or done in character.

N

Narrative

The story being told in the scene. Also a whole style of improv, Narrative Long-Form, where the show tells one long story of half an hour or more in the style of improvised plays, books, films or musicals. Could use various narrative structures such as Hero’s Jourey, The Story Spine and more.

Notes

Notes can be given after a show or rehearsal, to discuss what went well/what could be improved. There are many different approaches to giving notes. Usually they are given by the director to the group, as actors giving each other notes can cause friction. It’s good to be balanced and supportive when giving notes.

O

Object Work

Miming objects used in the scene.

Obvious

Being as obvious as possible from suggestion and playing within the audience’s circle of expectation instead of being deliberately weird. Sometimes trying too hard to be clever or funny can freeze people up, but being obvious helps people to be more natural on stage.

Offer

Anything (action or dialogue) in the scene. Everything is an offer, even mistakes. Offers should be picked up on and accepted. A strong offer gives a clear suggestion of where the scene will go. Open offers are more ambiguous. Both are welcome and can be friends.

Opening

Sometimes used at the start of a Long Form performance. Gives the theme of the set, and can be word association, a monologue etc. Can also be skipped.

Out of Your Head

Opposite of being “in your head”. Not thinking, just going with the scene. If you are in your head you tend to think too much about what’s going on, and can limit your spontaneity. Out of your head is being in the flow and responding intuitively in the moment.

P

Platform

The who / what / where of a scene, establishing who the characters are and what their relationship is, where they are and what they are doing. The rest of the scene is much easier to play once this is done. It doesn’t have to be done in the first line, but early on in the scene is helpful.

Q

Questions

Depending on the question, can be seen as a wimp choice. If it doesn’t give an offer, it puts all the pressure on your partner. A common one is “what are we going to do?” However, they can also used to advance the scene if they contain a lot of information.

Can also be used in games, e.g. Questions Only.

R

Raising the Stakes

A good way of advancing the scene: make the conflict or events have greater consequences for the characters.

Reincorporation

Also referred to as a call-back, reincorporating is bringing back an idea/offer from earlier in the scene or previous scene. Can be a useful way to tie up a storyline.

S

Shelving

Not the same as ignoring, but acknowledging an offer and intending to use it later. However, often it is not referred back to, so can just be a missed offer.

Short-Form

Style of improv, mostly short and unrelated scenes or games.

Sidecoaching

Done by the director or other members of the group. Giving a player extra information regarding the scene/character as the scene is playing.

Spacework

Like object work, except miming the space/environment of the scene.

Status

Hierarchy of characters in terms of dominant and submissive behaviour. It is behaviour rather than class, for instance a servant can play high status to a King and a student high status to a teacher. Try to play different statuses, and open to allowing your status to be changed. Status transfers (where the lower status character becomes higher status and vice versa) make interesting stories and scenes.

Subtext

The character’s underlying objectives and emotions behind the line they said.

Sweep Edit

A type of edit, when an improviser walks over the scene. The next scene then begins.

T

Tag Out

Tapping a player on the shoulder and replacing them with a different character. The remaining player is then in a new scene with this different character opposite them.

Taking Care of Yourself

From Mick Napier of The Annoyance Theatre. Giving yourself an emotion, physical change and motivation before the scene begins so you can enter playfully.

Tilt

From Keith Johnstone’s impro for storytellers. Something that tips the balance of the established scenes, without negating what has come before. Very similar in feel to the first unusual thing in UCB. From the tilt a new routine can be explored which will grow the story.

For instance couple having breakfast together (routine).

The lady reveals she is pregnant (tilt).

They discuss how happy they are and plans for the child (new routine).

The baby says from inside the womb “I want to go to private school” (tilt).

Time Dash

Showing the characters at different points in time.

Transaction Scene

A scene where the only thing that happens is a transaction like buying something in a shop. Can be boring if it is that simple, so an interesting relationship or subtext can help.

For instance the following scene is a transaction scene:

“Hello how can I help you?”

“I’d like a bottle of coke please”

“That’s 95p please”

“Thank you”

But it can be added by putting a relationship over the top of it:

“Hello how can I help you?”

“I’d like a bottle of coke please”

“Is that all?”

“What do you mean?”

“Aren’t you going to ask me out?”

“errr urrrmm yes yes maybe oh gosh”

“You’re in here every day”

Truthfullness

A useful way of connecting with the audience, as they laugh when things are relatable/recognisable. Some of the best scenes can have unrealistic (or non-human) characters, but playing with truthfulness.

U

V

W

Walk On

Entering a scene, making a strong offer to help the scene by (for instance spotting a pattern, establishing the missing location, raising the stakes) and then leaving. Can be very helpful if done well, but risks being distracting. Also known as a  Christopher Walkon.

Who What Where

The who / what / where of a scene, establishing who the characters are and what their relationship is, where they are and what they are doing. The rest of the scene is much easier to play once this is done. It doesn’t have to be done in the first line, but early on in the scene is helpful.

X

Y

Yes And

One of the fundamentals of improvisation. “Yes” accepts the offer and reality presented by the scene partner, “and” adds and builds on to the offer. It’s not “Yes and here’s something completely different” it’s “Yes and here’s something that supports and expands on what you just did.

Z

 

More coming soon! If you’d like us to add anything to this list please contact us.

 

We also recommend the following sites that also have a great improv glossary:

>> Improv Encyclopaedia

>> Canadian Improv Games

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