Beginners Improv Guide

Here’s a super quick guide to improvising for people who have just started a beginners improv course with us.

If you’re doing our beginners course and want to do some more after the course the next step is our Level 2 Performance Improv Course which starts next month. They are designed to follow on directly so aren’t a massive leap.

Have fun

Improv is for fun. It’s all about playing games, making up scenes and stories, being other people and playing with each other. Hopefully some of these things below help remove some fears and help you to play on stage and have some fun.

Don’t worry about making mistakes

You don’t get punished for mistakes in improv. There is no report card afterwards or grading system or detentions. Mistakes can often lead to a whole new thing in a story and can become the best bit.

Your scene partner says you are a Cat Burglar. You don’t know what that is so you say “Miaoowww” and steal milk from the fridge. The rest of the show supports you by being The Dog Police who turn up barking in their pedigree chum powered van.

So don’t worry about getting it wrong, as a mistake can be a gift.

Play

There is no set way to do improv. Play with games and exercises and find out how to make them fun for you. Improv is a constantly evolving art form so your own sense of play is what makes it special. You can play improv games your own way and discover something new about them, rather than trying too hard to get them “right”.

You’re not in competition with each other

Your scene partner is in collaboration with you not competition. You’re not trying to out wit each other, you’re playing together to discover new worlds and characters. It’s ok to loose a tug of war on the improv stage, the rope is imaginary after all.

You don’t have to be clever, funny or entertaining and you don’t have to make up jokes

Trying too hard to be clever or funny can sometimes make people freeze up instead. Doing the opposite and being obvious allows us to relax and be in the present moment and discover things line by line moment by moment.

Don’t worry about what other people think of you. I remember going to class thinking people would think I wasn’t well versed in things, good enough at accents, didn’t stand up straight enough, good enough in general…The list goes on. First of all, you’re awesome for just showing up! Second of all, everyone else will be so preoccupied with themselves that they probably won’t notice any of the stuff you’ll be worrying about – real or imagined!

Listen

Be kind and open and listen. Listen to what people say in scenes. Not just a bit, but right to the end of their sentences. That’s often where the gold is.

Be as present as possible. Don’t plan what you’re going to say or try and second guess the game or what your teammate might say. You won’t be able to. And that’s part of the joy. It’s one of the few times in your life you’re actively asked to be underprepared. Celebrate that freedom!

Put your attention on the other person. If you’re freaking out about the audience and feeling self conscious put your attention on the other actor instead. In fact do that even if you’re not freaking out. Eye contact, listening, touch, movement all help to stay connected to your scene partner instead of feeling self-conscious. It also helps to pick up what improvisers call “offers” which you can build on to discover a scene together.

Yes, And

Agree with the reality your scene partner presents you and add something that explores that moment.

For instance if your scene partner starts with:

“Captain, welcome to the ship”

You could respond with:

“Thank you Lieutenant, and a great job you and the men have done with cleaning”
Or
“Thank Captain Zarg, it’s wonderful that humans and aliens can finally meet”
Or
“Ahhhh!!! And it be a great vessel for pirating!”

Or any number of offers.

Each offer agrees with the scene partner and explores the situation. Notice that each line changes the scene in different ways. None of them are right or wrong. We are collaborating together to discover the story moment by moment, line by line. Your scene partner will also agree with what you present, so if you go for spaceship and aliens they will go along with that, and if you go with pirates they will go along with that.

Your characters don’t always have to be in agreement, just the improvisers playing the characters. For instance:

“Captain, welcome to the ship”
“I don’t feel very welcome”
“Sorry about that, I didn’t mean to sound sarcastic”

Also in general we’re trying to agree with the underlying reality presented by the improviser, instead of block it (saying no). Here’s an example of a block:

“Captain, welcome to the ship”
“I’m not the Captain, and there is no ship”

Although even that is not impossible to get out of, as we treat even mistakes as gifts. It’s only improv anyway and you haven’t broken any laws and won’t go to prison for blocking, so if someone blocks a reality accidentally we can still have fun trying to incorporate it somehow and make the block a gift:

“Captain, welcome to the ship”
“I’m not the Captain, and there is no ship”
“Sorry! I always get you and your identical twin mixed up. Dammit! That means the Captain has stolen it in the dead of night, I knew we shouldn’t have trusted him.”

Make the Other Person Look Good

Make the other person look good. Give people gifts. If your teammate loves sci-fi maybe drop some into a scene. If they love doing accents maybe endow them with one and watch them light up with joy. Make them look epic and you’ll look epic in the process. Use your intuition and try to avoid deliberately wrong-footing people or endowing them with something you know they’ll hate. For example, I can’t think of a single female improviser who is glad to be endowed with being a prostitute. Just so y’know. Maybe don’t go there.

Commit

Say the first thing that comes to you, as long as it is coming from a place of support for your scene partner.

Your impulses are great. Trust them and let them out, as long as they are coming from a place of love and support from your scene partner. If something odd blurts out don’t worry it’s only improv and you’re not at work, and we can make it part of the scene.

Watch some improv

If you haven’t seen improv it’s worth watching some while doing a course, as it stops improv becoming too academic when you see it live on stage. We have improv shows every week at our venue in London Bridge and also have a list of improv videos.


If you’re doing our beginners course and want to do some more after the course the next step is our Level 2 Performance Improv Course which starts next month. They are designed to follow on directly so aren’t a massive leap.

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