James Witt shares his favourite exercises from his beginners improv course and how they help his students.
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.
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.
I get my students to line up in Rolodex formation and do short scenes with varying restrictions.
First of all, we play “Who, Where, What” three line scenes. If the players fail to name both characters in the scene then the other players in the Rolodex sing “Say My Name Say My Name”.
This is to drill the importance of giving each other names early in every scene. But played with a sense of fun.
In the next round, we play “No Questions” whenever the awaiting players hear a question in a scene they sing “Question” in the style of the lyric in the Destiny’s Child song “Independent Women”. Once three Questions have been asked the scene is over. The Rolodex then sing “Let us see your Halo, Halo” or if the players make it through a three-minute scene without asking more than two questions the Rolodex sings “You’re a Survivor”. I feel it’s important to drill no questions really early on in a beginners course because once players start making statements and not asking questions then their scenes really take off. I find it also means that fewer scenes become confrontational and more flow more naturally. I find that often when asking lots of questions in a scene its because we are looking to our scene partner to guide the scene when it should be a collaborative journey. It also applies a lot of pressure on your scene partner.
The final rounds of Beyoncé feature “no negative words” such as No, Don’t, Can’t, Won’t, Not, Shouldn’t and Couldn’t. When we hear any of these we sing the debut Destiny’s Child song “No, No, No, No, No” and the final rule is no “Meh Words” this includes any non commital words such as “But, Maybe, Perhaps, Possibly etc..” and we sing the “uh oh oh uh oh oh oh” bit from “All the Single Ladies” if we hear any of these non-committal words. Three in a scene and the players move to the back of the Rolodex. These type of “meh” words are often defence mechanisms from the players scared to latch onto certain themes and story arcs in case they’re “not good enough”, but I try and drill that every idea should be embraced.
We then impose all of these rules on the final round of scenes. Which turns into a mini Beyoncé concert.
In most of my courses, I will get my students to observe a person in the wild. I ask them to observe a random stranger, who is significantly different to them. Can be age / gender / physical build. I ask them to imagine a backstory for that person. I then guide them in a meditative type visualisation exercise. They close their eyes and imagine they are the person they studied at home looking in the mirror. I ask them to get ready for work, make breakfast and walk to work in character. I get them to focus on both the inner and outer life on the character. Their physicality and voice. I then hot seat them by asking a range of questions about their hopes, dreams, fears, family, friends, hobbies, relationships etc.. I feel this Stanislavskian approach to initial character development helps bring depth across all future ones too.
The first thing I do before working on Genre with my students is to get them into small groups and visualise a cauldron in front of them. I then call out a genre of play / tv / film and they imagine they’re throwing tropes from that style into a giant cauldron.
For example if I say “Horror Movie” they could throw into the cauldron ‘Jump scares, high school jock, Phone disconnected / no coverage, red herring suspects, abandoned place, revenge, shadows, lights cutting out, tension music, blood and gore etc…’. This really gets their neural pathways working in the right way for genre-based games such as Storyteller Die, Pan Left, Film Show and Genre Rollercoaster. This also helps people who are more unfamiliar with certain styles and gets them thinking about the cliches of certain genres which is where much of the comedy comes from in those games.