Performing tips from some of the finest improvisers around.

Performing tips from some of the finest improvisers around.

We asked some of the best improvisers around what they did building up to, just before and during a big show.

All their words are unedited by me, it’s exactly as answered direct from various facebook or email conversations. None of them knew who else was going to be answering questions and were unable to view each other’s answers, so any similarities are purely coincidence. Some have very similar approaches, some the exact opposite.

They were all asked the same questions:

1) What do you tend to do/think during the day in the build up to a show?
2) What do you do/focus on in the hour before a show?
3) What do you do/focus on just before going on the stage?
4) What do you consciously focus on during the show?

The people we asked are below, I’m going to ask another bunch of people the same stuff later:

Cariad Lloyd (Austentatious)

What do you tend to do/think during the day in the build up to a show?

In the day I’ll think about the show, and worry a bit depending on the gig (i.e. if it’s big pressured impro gig or lovely friends type gig). I’ll get a bit nervous in the pit of my stomach but mainly I’ll just think what time do I need to be there etc. nothing very exciting!

What do you do/focus on in the hour before a show?

The hour before I’ll try and relax, stretch do physical warm ups, get into costume if it’s Austentatious, so that’s quite faffy and you have
to do hair and make up, and sometimes I do the other girls hair, and generally try to chat and hang out with the people I’m going to perform with. It’s good to talk about your days, get all the niggles out of the way, the moans, and then just make each other laugh for a bit. Do some impro warm ups, I love a bit of word ball, infinity box, 3 line scenes, trying to warm up your brain and get into a group mind and a sense of agreement.

What do you do/focus on just before going on the stage?

Just before going on stage, I’ll try and do last minute vocal warm ups or stretches, clear my mind, become present, sense the audience,
are they loud? Quiet? What energy would it be helpful to come on with for the room? Sense my fellow performers energy are they nervous? Do they need reassurance or energising? Do you need to talk quickly about a real world thing because you can see it’s bugging them or do you need to distract them from panicking about the show. Just try and make sure everyone is ok, in the right place, wearing the right costumes! That’s quite a common one for Austentatious, checking the boys shirts and ties are straight and everyone knows what they’re
doing, generally a slowing down and a focusing of all the nervous energy occurs.

What do you consciously focus on during the show?

During the show, I try to stay present, but I’m always looking at story, or trying to. What needs to come next? What type of scene?
What character needs to be the focus? What plot loop have we missed? What does the story need to happen? I try and think about it briefly and then just go for whatever I thought and try not to push it if the other players have another idea. But also not worry, sometimes I’ll think at the side of the stage, oh I should come in and tell them this, and a voice will say, ooh no maybe not, and I try to check if that voice is self-doubt or good story telling. If it’s doubt I leap in and if it’s good story judgement I hang back.

Dylan Emery, (The Showstoppers, GTI and The School of Night)

What do you tend to do/think during the day in the build up to a show?

Depends on the show. If it’s Showstopper, then I remind myself of new musicals or styles that we have been looking at, especially if we’ve not used them before so they are far harder to remember. For instance, we’ve been working on Matilda recently, but it’s never been called so I must be very clear what the styles of the songs are and when they would work well in the story.
The School of Night is a whole other thing. My preparations the night before (much better to have a night’s sleep to allow the memories to embed) and also on the day is to read some Shakespeare, Chaucer and one or two of the authors I’m working on at the moment.
For Grand Theft Impro, again I will generally read the paper in case something crops up from that day’s news, as it often does.

What do you do/focus on in the hour before a show?

For Showstopper, we do a 10-15 minute vocal warm-up, a 10 minute impro warm up – simple storytelling stuff at high speed. It’s about getting flow and reminding everyone that this is fun. Then there is a sound check usually up to the start.
For The School of Night We I’m usually muttering bits of soliloquy to get into the iambic. Another favourite is The Legend of Sam McGee by Robert Service – it’s not iambic but it is a strong rhyming structure and a great poem, so it’s good to get your bardic tap opened.
For Grand Theft, it’s very practical: we make sure we are happy with how the room is set up and then select the games we are going to play in the first half – so we think about balance and variety.

What do you do/focus on just before going on the stage?

For Showstopper I look at the audience, see as many faces as possible and to try to get a feel for how they are feeling. What kind of show do they want tonight? What’s in the air?
For School of Night I’m just trying to stay calm and focused on what is about to happen – it’s the show that makes me most nervous.
For GTI I’m usually thinking about the music and the introduction – how will start the show with an energetic bang?

What do you consciously focus on during the show?

The full answer to that would be very long! Here’s part of an answer: In Stopper, the writer character focuses a lot on balancing the unique
three-way relationship of writer to audience, writer to cast, and cast to audience that you get in the show.

In recent School of Night shows, we are ‘co-goaded’. In other words, any one of the cast can step out and move the story on, introduce some bit of esoteric information, or give an instruction to one of the other cast members (previously we had a separate goader to act as MC). So you have to give full attention to the task at handed while at the same time being able to step out and goad – and vice versa. In a recent show I was introducing the Shakespearean sonnet, keeping an eye on where we were within the sonnet, playing guitar over the sonnet and then also having to do various lines of the sonnet we were improvising. I simply forgot the rhyme scheme. Horrible experience but fortunately in the School of Night way of doing things, we are often trying to do quite difficult things and have ways of dealing with failure.

In GTI the main thing is maintaining what Alan Marriot called ‘the happy bubble’: the atmosphere of joy bordering on the hysterical that you want to coax the audience into entering. It’s like a smoke machine – it takes quite a bit to get the place smokey but once it’s there it stays for a while. However, sometimes you are in a drafty room and the smoke never builds – just occasional wafts and that’s not the show you want. Seal up the doors and windows. And use a good quality machine that spurts out lots of smoke with little effort, rather than a cheap one that takes loads of puffs to get the same amount of happiness.
This is an analogy that could go on and on…

Maria Peters (Breaking & Entering, The Playground)

What do you tend to do/think during the day in the build up to a show?

I become a bit of a voyeur. On show days I’m usually a bit more attuned to the world around me. I’ll focus on stranger’s conversations and what would be fun to use from them as characters or set ups. I’m always looking out for different scenarios that could be used in scenes.
I have a personal goal for my improv to never being samey or predictable so I try to use other people I come across as inspiration.If I’m particularly nervous before a big musical gig I’ll pick random words as suggestions and rap or sing to myself as I go about my day. I love rap especially because it doesn’t allow you any time to think too much between lines.On my journey to a gig I often go through a variety of first lines of scenes, characters, or voices. I’ll rarely use the ones I come up with for the show that night, I may never use them but I feel like I’m stocking up my cupboard of options.

What do you do/focus on in the hour before a show?

I’m quite into my physical warm ups. I’ll stretch a lot, dance and walk around as much as possible. I know if my body is relaxed I’m a
lot more relaxed in my head.I like to keep connected to my fellow improvisers. If we’re milling around and I can see other players are nervous and looking for distraction we’ll often have conversations in character with them.I like to see and get amongst the audience and chat to them if at all possible. It helps me to break down the ‘us and them’ environment. I can then feel like the performance is just a bit of dicking around in front of friendly people rather than trying to impress a wall of strangers.

What do you do/focus on just before going on the stage?

Again being physically relaxed, I’m always stretching. On top of group warm-ups I also like to have a final check in with my fellow players with a high-five, fist bump, belly rub, back pat, bottom slap, grin or wink. (I’ve only just now realised how gropey I am before a show)If there’s a chance to clap, whoop and holler in the MC’s warm up I’m all about getting involved in that as it helps dissipate my nerves. When I run on stage I focus on having a bright open face and I hold the word “confident” in my head. A tip I was given years ago for the beginning of shows. It really helps.

What do you consciously focus on during the show?

It depends on the show.
If it’s a long form show, offstage I might be thinking about the next beat or the progression of the characters journey onstage and how I can support their objectives, or heighten their problems or just generally help the story.
While I’m on stage I’m focusing on my scene partner and the relationship with them a well as clarifying my own character’s objective.If it’s a short form gamey show I’m all about variety. Focusing on variety of scenes, characters, emotions and physicality.In both styles of show I try to sense what the audience is feeling, to check in if they’re on board with us or not and adapt accordingly.If I get stuck in my head or tense I ‘voice mirror’ what is being said in the scene. I find it’s a fail-proof way of forcing myself to listen.

Pippa Evans (The Showstoppers)

What do you tend to do/think during the day in the build up to a show?

Probably all of the following will go through my mind: The show, my breakfast, what’s on iPlayer, can I justify buying a new pen, put out the washing, write that script, go to the gym, that’s a good idea, do a sing song, have a cup of tea, the show, can I have another biscuit?

What do you do/focus on in the hour before a show?

I tend to just relax with my fellow cast members. Play some games, talk about some new red/black outfit I have bought/seen/liked. We’ll do warm up stuff and also I will probably coat my face with make up to appear fresh and delightful, steal a Vocalzone from Pugsley.

What do you do/focus on just before going on the stage?

I tend to just focus on me fellow players. We might do a penguin dance if it is a cold venue.

What do you consciously focus on during the show?

I focus on the show and my fellow performers and listening. Oh and having a great time. No one wants to see you perform with a concentration face. Smile!

Tom Webster, (The RH Experience)

What do you tend to do/think during the day in the build up to a show?

If I’ve got nothing to do that day then I’ll definitely take a long walk, helps to relax me and free up the mind! I get nervous when I’m
inside! It’s good to meet up with a friend as a welcome distraction from thinking about the show!

What do you do/focus on in the hour before a show?

The hour before the show I tend to think about my body and voice! I don’t want to use up too much energy but I want to move around and be
loud to free myself up. The hour before the show is usually when good ideas for opening offers and scenes appear in my head. I tend to try and get rid of them because I prefer a blank canvas on stage. However, some are always bound to show through as I’ve been thinking about them and my subconscious will push them forward. It’s not a bad thing I suppose!

What do you do/focus on just before going on the stage?

Anything at all not to focus on the audience. I tend to just close my eyes and do rhymes in my head. I want to contain all the nervous
energy within me so I can let it out when it’s most needed!

What do you consciously focus on during the show?

During the show I focus on my group. I like to gauge the energy of the show, so I can respond by maintaining the energy or upping it depending on what’s needed. I do think about the audience a lot. What are they finding funny? Shall I do it more? I also think about my position on the stage;
If I notice that something isn’t going very well, it’s becoming stagnant and I’m drifting towards the back of the stage, I’ll always make for the front. There’s nothing worse for an audience member to see someone nervous and quiet at the back of the stage (unless it’s intended within the story you’re creating ahahah)!
I also think of genres I like to perform and characters I can do (archetypes, accents, emotions). I tend to have them in a pot before I go on.
But lastly and most importantly, I consciously try to enjoy a show. I want to have fun! Perhaps if you’re having fun, the audience will too?


If you want to get performing improv yourself Hoopla have loads of ongoing performance opportunities.
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