Beginners Improv Exercises
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Setting the Environment
We have an atmosphere of safety, trust and support.
You are not by yourself, we’re playing together as a team and supporting each other.
You are allowed to make mistakes, they often lead to the best bit in improv.
You can say the first thing that comes to you, you don’t have to edit yourself, as long as you are coming from a place of fun, love and respect for your fellow improviser.
You don’t have to be clever or funny or make up jokes, the humour comes naturally from the situation.
1 Minute Life Stories
In pairs. One person says their life story in one minute. The other person listens and doesn’t interupt. At the end of the minute the listener repeats back as much as they remember. Used to get to know each other and also show active listening.
Everyone runs around the room, they run up to each other and jump up in the air simultaneously and shout “YIPEE!”. Next step, they either both jump, or both not jump. Next step, if they both jump they stick together and form a unit until eventually everyone is in one big group shouting YIPEE and jumping in the air simultaneously. Learnt from Kevin Tomlinson. Used to get everyone moving and having fun.
Everyone stood in a circle. At first they pass around “YE-HAH” by shouting YE-HAH in a Western Accent and swining their arm to the person next to them. Then if someone puts themselves into a shape of a barn and shouts “HIGH-BARN” the ye-hahs bounce back in the other direction. Shouting “BANDITS” means everyone runs and swaps places in the circle while being bandits. There are loads of other rules but ideally the teacher makes them up, and the students make up new rules over the course. Used to get everyone playing, breaking the ice, and to get everyone paying attention to the present moment.
Similar to Wild West above, but with Eastenders themed shout outs. With this sort of games I think it’s best when the teacher and group make them up, so I won’t write out all the rules here as it will take ages there are so many. If you do want our rules please buy me a pint at The Miller and I’ll tell you!
Everyone walking around the room. The director shouts out something and counts to 5 and everyone has to physically form that thing with each other before the director gets to 5. For instance “Volcano, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5! Microwave over, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5!”. Used to get everyone moving around and having fun and also accepting and building on each other’s ideas. Learnt from Marc Rowland at Montreal Improv.
Meet & Greet Walkabout
Everyone walks around meeting and greeting each other in different ways. For instance best friends, super heroes, suspicious neighbours, old school buddies, ex boyfriends, parents. Breaks the ice and gets people used to trying out different characters without thinking about it too much.
Fun clapping game I learnt from Chris Mead. I can’t explain it with words so stop me when you see me and I’ll show you it. I might make a video of it too if I get around to it.
Creatures of the Deep
I invented this one! It’s my proudest achievement. Everyone stood in the circle. The director does an impression of a creature of the deep to the person next to him. They copy what they see to the person next to them. Everyone copies what they just saw, not the original, so they gradually change like chinese whispers. The director sends out loads of creatures (squid, octopus, shark, star fish and more) into the circle and they keep going around until they change and merge and underwater fun is had.
An old children’s game that we use to get people playing together. One person is Grandmother or Grandfather, stood with their back to the class. Everyone else has to sneak up and try and touch them on the shoulder. The Grandparent can turn around whenever they want and if they catch anyone moving that person goes back to the beginning and starts sneaking up again. The first person to touch Grandmother is the winner. We repeat with variations where the people sneaking up are pirates, zombies or cheeky 1950s cockneys, to encourage more fun in a game.
1,2,3: Surpisingly fun game for something so simple. Two people face each other. They count to three, changing who starts the count each time. For instance:
Brian – 1
Sarah – 2
Brian – 3
Sarah – 1
Brian – 2
Sarah – 3
We then repeat where instead of saying 2 they clap their hands, and then also adding in instead of saying 3 they jump in the air:
Brian – 1
Sarah – Clap
Brian – Jumps
Sarah – 1
Brian – Clap
Sarah – Jumps
I orginally got this from Mick Barnfather I think, and it seems to be used by loads of people. Everyone in the room thinks of two other people, but doesn’t tell them. When the director shouts go everyone tries to stay in an equilateral triangle with their two people, so the whole group is moving around and maybe even finds equilibrium.
What’s on your stupid T-shirt
I love this warm up because it’s so daft and so simple. There’s a chant of ‘what’s on your stupid T-shirt,’ then in a circle, players endow someone next to them by describing what’s on their imaginary T-shirt. The player who owns that T-shirt then has to caption it. Simple as! Puns are fun, but the best ones are the bonkers ones that make no sense at all.
Taking a small character quirk and line of dialogue and passing it across the circle, each time cranking up the affectations by 1%. By the end, when you’ve got 4 or 5 going, it looks like an absolute nonsense mess and is extremely funny.
I love words and this is a simple game where you say a word at the same time as someone else. Then all the players have to do is try and find a word in the middle of those two words, that encompasses both and say it at the same time as another player. Mind Meld
Yes And Exercises
Good for physical Yes Anding. Half the class on stage stoood along the back wall. The director gets suggestions for machines (tractor, typewriter, combine harvester etc) and the improvisers make those machines with their bodies as one team, without talking about it. Gets improvisers used to looking at other people’s offers and adding to them (yes and) in a collaborative way. Learnt from Charna Halpern with IO and John Cremer at The Maydays.
Good for verbal Yes And. One person is telling a story. When the director claps their hands and shouts swap the other person takes over telling the story exactly where they left off, and then they continue swapping throughout the story. Trains improvisers to listen, yes and, and not plan too far ahead.
Team of five improviser stood in an arc, and one improviser in front of them (Story Conductor). Whoever the Story Conductor points to starts telling the story and when they point to someone else the other person takes over. Trains improvisers to listen, yes and, and play as a team. This seems to get played by everyone but I think was invented by IO, I could be wrong about that though.
Yeah Yeah Yeah
One person starts telling a story. The other says “Yeah yeah yeah” while nodding enthusiastically with their whole body and takes over telling the story, and then they keep swapping over as it goes, saying “yeah yeah yeah” each time. There’s also a fun variation where it starts with one saying “do you remember that time….” and then they are two friends remembering a shared time. I got this from Maria Peters so thank you Maria.
Captain Welcome to Ship Chat
I have an example scene that I talk through with examples of the difference between accepting and blocking. It’s a bit long to write up at the moment but I will get to it one day!
Yes Based Conversations
People in pairs have simple conversations where they use the word yes lots and say yes to statements that pop up, and try to give each offers the other person would like to do. Originally learnt from Heather at The Maydays. For instance:
Gunther: Hey, let’s go to the theme park on Saturday.
Heidi: Yes, let’s make a picnic to go with us.
Gunther: Yes great idea, let’s take a picnic and eat it on the roller coaster.
Heidi: Yes I love extreme eating.
You can also repeat it where anything the other person says they then make it happen there and then, for instance snapping to theme park mentioned above. Also a variation is to physical act out anything that gets mentioned.
Play a scene or conversation where every line starts with the words Yes And.
Two people improvise a scene with no words, physical only, while they are underscored by a film movie soundtrack. They are directed to physically yes and, being in agreement about the physical envrionment and activity and adding to it. First learnt this from Charna Halpern at IO.
Action and Justify
One improviser does any physical action, their partner justifies what they are doing, they both agree with the established reality. For instance:
Igor: Waves arms around head wildly.
Maria: Gosh the flies out here in the wilderness are deadly.
Igor: I agree, we need to get to a bug spray shop immediately.
Talking about a shared holiday in pairs and starting every new sentence with ‘Yes And’. This really gets the players on the same page in a fun and inventive low-pressure way. I find it a good bonding exercise too and often my students have big smiles on their faces conjuring up these false memories.
Word at a Time Stories
Two improvisers tell a story a word at a time, with a different improviser saying each word. Very moment by moment and forces improvisers to stay present. As a variation improvisers can shout “Again” whenever they want to re-start with a new story, which stops people getting stuck and keeps them in the flow of it. I think this was originally invented by Keith Johnstone but now is widely used everywhere.
Wise Wise Wise
The same as above but with a large group stood in a circle trying to make up wise sayings and proverbs a word at a time. When they think one has got to the end of a saying the group says “wise wise wise” and bows.
Everyone stood in a circle. Two people next to each other turn and face and clap at the same time. One turns to the next person, and they also clap at the same time. This continues around the circle. If people clap twice it changes the direction, and people can also clap across the circle to someone. Gets everyone listening and in the present moment. I’ve seen Edgar make a group play this for 40 minutes before. There is something in it. It’s so simple and yet over thinking makes it at first difficult. Ommmm.
Being Obvious Exercises
Piece of Cheese
Everyone in a circle. One person hops out and says “I’m a piece of cheese” and becomes that piece of cheese. One by one other improvisers come out and become obvious things to go with that offer, until one overall united picture is formed. Then it’s repeated with different starting objects. For instance “I’m a wheel”, “I’m a unicycle frame”, “I’m a unicyclist”, “I’m the circus they are in”.
Five actors sat in a row. They are all the same character type, for instance they all went to school together or they all were in a space station together. Director asks them questions which they answer, and they all agree with the first answer rather than distract from it. Coach them to say honest, real, obvious answers rather than attempting to make jokes that destroy the reality of the characters.
Someone jumps into the middle of the circle. They are given a category of things to say 8 of. They say 8 things in that category as quickly as they can, with everyone shouting encouragement for each one and a round of applause at the end. It’s important that everyone enthusiastically supports every suggestion, this helps the group trust each other that ever offer will be supported. They are encouraged to say the first things that come to them, the game isn’t called 8 Right Things afterall! For instance:
Brian – Hi everyone I’m Brian
Everyone – Hi Brian!
Director – 8 types of holiday
Brian – Skiing!
Everyone – ONE!
Brian – Beach!
Everyone – TWO!
Brian – Safari!
Everyone – THREE!
Brian – Naked skinny dippinng holiday!
Everyone – FOUR!
Brian – Cheese museum holiday!
Everyone – FIVE!
Brian – Weston super mare!
Everyone – SIX!
Brian – Staycation!
Everyone – SEVEN!
Brian – Mountain climbing!
Everyone – EIGHT! Those were 8 things! (dance and applause).
Is there anymore?
We originally were taught this by Kevin Tomlinson. Here’s an example of it:
Brian – does small sound and action
Sarah – That’s great!
Brian – Thank you
Sarah – Is there anymore?
Brian – Yes! Escalates his original sound and action.
Sarah – That’s great!
And it continues repeating that dialogue with the sound and action escalating.
Group Mind Exercises
Stop, Shuffle, Walk, Drop
Everyone walking around the room. If the director says stop they stop, drop they touch the floor, walk they walk, and shuffle they shuffle along. Then the director stops saying anything and the group can shout it out when they want. Then there are no shout outs at all and the group just does magically the same thing, adjusting from walk to shuffle as they go by everyone sensing what the group wants. Teaches everyone to be connected to the group and sense what the group needs. I got this one from Sophie Pumphrey so thank you Sophie.
Three Line Scenes
A nice way to get into doing scenes for the first time. People go pair by pair and improvise scenes with three lines in total. Either actor says the first line, then there is a reponse, then a response to that. Whatever is said is then wildly applauded, to help people get used to improvising in front of an audience.
Later in the course we can add in variations to three line scenes:
– establishing where you are
– establishing character
– establishing relationship
– bringing in emotion and reactions
But we tend to work on one thing at a time.
Just for Fun
Late for Work
One person leaves the room. While they are out the audience suggests why they were late for work, how they got here, and what their job is. When the person comes back they are apologising to their boss for being late while trying to guess why they were late, how they got there, and what their job is. They are helped out by four improvisers playing their friendly colleagues who are miming actions behind the boss. I like this game early in our beginners courses as it gets people on stage in front of an audience having fun, and also gets people physically yes anding each other.
A fun game of swapping channels on an imaginary TV set. Two or three actors on back line, two others stood in front, all facing the audience. The two closest to the audience are the TV channel we are watching. If we say Pan Left they all move around one place so that we have a new TV channel at the front.
Split everyone into groups of 5 or so. They have 5 minutes to find a song they all now, practice singing it, and invent and rehearse a dance routine to go with it. At the end of the 5 minutes each group performs their piece, but also another group then gets up and immediately copies what they just saw. We use to teach optimism in performance, the fact that mistakes will happen and you’re never ready but you can stay optimistic. As Mick Barnfather (who we learnt this from): No problem!
I usually get my Beginners students to play this in the second week of their course. I get them all to write three random quotes from film / tv / historical speech / literature. They then do scenes in pairs and pull these out at random points. I make sure they focus on the meaning and content of each line for at least 30 seconds before moving on. I feel that it’s quite a challenging exercise early on, the curve balls you get given in this game are huge, but it teaches acceptance and super yes-anding. The audience always loves it so it’s very rewarding too.
Oracle involves four people, set behind each other. One at the front sitting on the floor, one behind sat on a chair, the one behind that standing and the last one stood on a chair. That way we can see all their faces. Oracle is a brilliant low stakes word at a time short form game. The director simply takes big life questions from the audience, like ‘Is there a God?’ and ‘Why are we here?’ or ‘Will England win the World Cup’ and then asks the Oracle, who answers it a word at a time (per person). When Oracle is in action everyone’s arms wave to the side. When Oracle is in silent contemplation everyone’s hands are together in a kind of ‘prayer’ pose. It’s funny, simple and daft. And being word at a time you can guess how wise oracle sounds. Sometimes very. Sometimes just plain ridiculous!
Otherwise known as Storyteller Die. You can play this without the ‘die’ part for super beginners (cos let’s face it, an audience yelling die at your first gig isn’t the most positive experience!) About 5 people get up, stand in a line and tell a story between them, only speaking when the director is pointing at them. The title for the made up story is taken from the audience then it’s up to the players to tell the story continuously, so even if someone is in the middle of a word and the director’s finger points elsewhere, that next person should try and finish the half spoken word to make it seamless. Adding in different chapters with extra tasks for the players is also fun, like getting them to do Chapter 2 in a regional accent, or Chapter 3 in rhyming couplets, or Chapter 4 while dancing.
Easy! Two people are up playing a scene, with two audience members either side. The role of the audience members is simply to provide one word when tapped on the shoulder. While in the scene the players will conveniently ‘forget’ their words at intervals and then tap the audience (or the pillar) for a word to finish the sentence. The audience can say helpful words or if the word that pops into their head is weird or left-field that’s part of the fun. The player then has to incorporate and justify this peculiar offer. A real example from some of my talented newbies recently was a scene set on a date. One of the players said, ‘I don’t kiss on a first date I…’ then tapped the player playing the pillar who said, ‘juggle!’ So, I don’t kiss on a first date, I juggle! I just love the new reality that gets created by one random word.
Word at a time expert
Three players stand next to each other shoulder to shoulder to play one entire person (or in this case an expert in something), who speaks one word at at time. Then another player plays the interviewer. All you need from the audience is something for someone to be an expert in (like rollerskating fish, or dancing plants) and you’re away! The interviewer treats the game as if we’ve just zoned in on a TV channel all about that expertise and proceeds to interview our expert, who given that it’s a word at a time answer, often makes sense in the funniest and weirdest of ways. Getting them to read an extract from their imaginary autobiography always goes down well.
Slideshow is perfect for players who just want to find their feet on stage. All it is, is players on the back line creating pictures or tableaus of holiday photos that two players in the front have to justify. Essentially it’s like someone showing you their holiday snaps. Except the ones presenting have no idea what the back line will do. And vice versa. Both have to justify the offers each other make. So there are 3 or 4 players are on the back line and it’s their task to just make tableaus that look like holiday photographs. Then two players at the front of the stage have to make sense of that tableau in relation to their fictional holiday. They can ‘click’ to a new photo by simple coming together on stage and pretending to use a slideshow clicker to move the image to the next one. It’s tons of fun and really good for people who want to get up but not necessarily do much talking. And those presenting get a real fun time making sense of their team mates offers, and then creating scenarios right back at them to create.
We always try to end with a positive chat, celebrating what people enjoyed and trying to minimise people’s inner critics.
Here’s some other resources that are great for improv exercises:
Our next Beginners Improv Courses start next month.
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