Top 5 improv games for first time performers

Hoopla Teacher Liam Brennan shares his favourite games for first time performers and why they are good to play. 

  1. Story Director

Story Director is a good shout for first-time performers as they can focus on the pure act of improvising. The performers simply have to listen to the ongoing story and take over when it’s their turn.

First off, you need the title of your story. I like getting an animal and a word from the audience and combining that into one title, such classics include ‘The Cat’s Pyjamas’ and ‘Giraffes and Ladders’.

Once you have your title, the performers stand in a horseshoe shape while one of them kneels in front of the others as the Story Director. When the Story Director points at a performer they tell the story and as soon as the Story Director points to another performer, they take over the telling of the story from where the last person left off.

At the end of each chapter, the Story Director swaps roles with one of the Story Tellers. At this stage, I like to get a suggestion from the audience as to what to add to the story in this chapter (genre, famous fictional character, an object) but do whatever feels most fun.

Tips for fun:

  • As Story Director, play around with how much you swap the story between players.
  • Sound effects are always welcome.
  • This story is unlikely to be published, having fun is considerably more important than having a ‘good’ story. However, if it does get published, send me the Amazon link and I will buy 10 copies.
  1. Columns

I’ve loved playing this game ever since I learned improv was a thing as I always had so much fun playing it. It’s a great chance to work with playing with the big offers presented by the columns who join the performers on stage.

Have two performers in the middle of the stage (or rehearsal room, living room, park, shopping centre, foyer of the Barbican or anything else, hereinafter called “the stage). Have two extra performers playing the columns, one on each side of the stage. Get a suggestion from your audience to inspire a scene for the two performers and you’re ready to play.

As the two performers play the scene, at any point they can tap either one of the columns who will give them a word or two to fill in a blank left in their sentence.

Ted: Gee Maude, I sure hope that you like my… (taps column)

Column 1: Face!

Ted: Face. I’ve been to the plastic surgeon recently.

Maude: I noticed Ted, I really like what they added a… (taps column)

Column 2: Rhino Horn!

Maude: Rhino Horn to your face. It makes you look a lot tougher.

Ted and Maude did a great job here incorporating the columns’ suggestions and the columns’ did a great job just saying the first thing that popped into their minds. Go team! I think these guys are going to be just fine.

Tips for fun:

  • Columns can feel free to be as random or as obvious as they like. Everyone on stage will support and appreciate what they bring to the scene.
  • The performers can feel free to use either column at any time, it’ll also help you not get penned in by the improv obelisks.
  • Play around with different scene styles to see how it will impact the game. Try a mixture of high octane action and humdrum home scenes.
  1. Complaint Letter

I’ve only recently learned this game and it’s so fun I wish I could go back in time and tell my younger self to play it at improv gigs (and while I’m there, I’d also tell my younger self to learn Mandarin so I could get a head start in communicating professionally in the largest market in the world). It’s similar to Story Director in that the performers only need to focus in on listening but it also adds in some fun additional elements.

Have two pairs of performers on stage. One pair will be writing a complaint letter and the other pair will be playing the complaints department of a real-life company (Google, Anne Summers, McDonald’s, etc) which you will get from the audience.

The complaining pair will then write a complaint letter between the two of them, each player only being able to say one word before the other player also says one word. They alternate between each other saying one word each until they finish the letter.

After the complaining pair has finished, the complaints department will reply in the same way. Have the correspondence go back and forth a number of times.

Tips for fun:

  • Keeping the letters relatively short you can get to the exchange between the complainers and the complainees, which for some people is the best bit of the game.
  • If you’re the complainer, try playing ridiculously angry and see what happens.
  • If you’re the complainee, use the company you get as a suggestion to inspire a character. What might someone who works at Google, Anne Summers or McDonalds sound and act like?
  1. Pan Left

Similarly to Columns, this is a game I’ve loved since I first started improvising. It’s a great game for first timer performers as they get to lots of short and fun scenes.

Four performers get into a square formation, two at the front and two at the back, all four facing towards the audience. A fifth player acts as the host and every so often will ask the players to “Pan Left”. When this happens, the players will take the position of the performer that is anti-clockwise to them, so everyone ends up in a different position. There will be four different pairings of front performers and all four pairings will get a different suggestion.

The front pair of players will perform their scene until told to “Pan Left” and then the next pairing will take over by performing their scene and this will continue until the end of the game.

When a scene returns, the performers keep the same characters but can feel free to take these characters to anywhere they want! It’s also fine to just continue the scene where they left off, it depends on what the performers will find most enjoyable.

Tips for fun:

  • As the host, feel free to play around with the length of the scenes. You may choose to let some scenes run for a while and others to run on only for a line.
  • As a performer, making big physical choices can be brilliant fun for when you return to a scene or if the scenes really short. For example: seeing two performers lie down for a beach scene to be immediately Pan Lefted can be amazingly funny.
  • Occasionally people end up in the wrong scene but mistakes don’t ruin the game they make them more fun! There’s no need to apologise if this happens and it might be more playful to stay in the scene and see what happens.
  1. Freeze Tag

This game is particularly great for big groups of first time performers. It encourages spontaneity and just doing what feels fun in the moment. It has been scientifically proven that this game encourages more yoga scenes than any other improv game in history.

Two performers get on stage and strike a pose based on an audience suggestion. This could be trying to recreate a number with your body or a household chore but really it could be anything that inspires a pose. These two players then use their physicality to inspire a scene.

At any point, any of the offstage performers can yell “Freeze!” When this happens, the two performers onstage freeze on the spot holding their physicality in place. The person who yelled freeze then taps one of the performers on the shoulder and takes their place. The performer who was tapped on the shoulder goes offstage and then a new scene starts inspired by the performers’ physicalities.

Tips for fun:

  • Look for interesting and inspiring physicality when you shout freeze as it’s easier than trying to think of what a ‘good’ next scene might be. Then just use the other performers’ interesting physicality to inspire a scene.
  • Lots of big physicality will not only make the scenes more fun and silly but will also inspire the offstage players.
  • Because there will probably be loads of players, feel free to do lots of multi-person scenes! If the number of players on stage is getting massive, when you yell “Freeze” feel free to tap a bunch of people on the shoulder, so that they leave the stage and you return to just two performers again for a while.

Remember, you can’t get any of these games wrong! If you change any of the rules you haven’t broken the game, you’ve actually invented a new one and you’re actually an improv super genius!

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Liam teaches the Beginners, Performance and Long Form courses at Hoopla. Next courses starting in September.  He also performs on the Hoopla stage as part of improv troupes The Science of Living Things and Fright Club.  www.hooplaimpro.com

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