What Improv is and Why it Matters — Introduction

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Lifehacker recently featured a post titled “How To Use Improv to Change your Life”; the post made me think how improv (improvisational theatre) had changed my life.

Way back in high school I took a summer theatre class from a teacher who’d worked on Broadway. We did lots of fun activities that summer, but my favorite were the improv games. I ended up learning life skills about communication that have stayed with me for the last forty-five years! Almost thirty years later I took a one day workshop with the Players Workshop of the Second City. I learned even more from them and the exhausting and exciting day was well worth the cost.

What is improv?

Wikipedia says improv is,

“is a form of theater where most or all of what is performed is created at the moment it is performed. In its purest form, the dialogue, action, story, and characters are created collaboratively by the players as the improvisation unfolds in present time, without the use of an already prepared, written script.”

Most improv games, as they are called in theatre, are scenes performed by two to five actors. They tend to last only a few minutes and use only a few – if any – props. There is often a host who generally does not participate in the game and selects the game, the performers (from a group), and may have input to how the game is played. The host also decides when to end the game.

Improv differs from traditional theatre because it is not scripted at all. It requires thinking on one’s feet. More importantly, it requires working with the other actors in the scene — each player must be able to respond to and lead the others with lines and actions that enhance the scene and make it entertaining for the audience.

Whose Line Is It Anyway is/was a television program featuring a host and four performers playing improv games. It is one of my favorite shows, and I even enjoy the reruns. Each game involves a theatre scene of one form, or another acted out by two or more of the performers. Some involved musicians, props, star performers, a green screen, or other additions to the cast.

A Few Improv Games

While there are probably thousands of different improv games, a few popular ones are:

  • Scenes From a Hat This is likely the most-performed of the improv games. In this game, performers act out a scene chosen from audience suggestions from a “hat” which could be a bowl or beer stein or something else.One benefit of scenes is that actors need to be ready for anything. The actors don’t know the scenes in advance, and part of the entertainment is seeing how they interpret the challenge of the scene.
  • Switch or Change of Cast In this game the performers begin a scene. After a minute or so the host asks players to switch roles or replaces one actor with another. This requires the actors in the scene, as well as those not currently performing in the scene, to keep alert and directly follow the action and dialog.
  • Alphabet In this game the performers must begin each line with the letter following the one the previous actor began hers. So the first actor says a line beginning with A, the second begins with B, and so on.
  • Yes, And This is a simple game to describe and deceptively difficult to perform well. After the first line of the scene, each line must begin with “Yes, and…”. A somewhat distant variation is “Questions” where each line must be a question. These game are each generally played with two players. In Whose Line if a player forgets “Yes, and” or forgets to ask a question he or she is replaced with another actor.

If you are interested in looking at other games, the Improv Encyclopedia has an extensive list. Viola Spolin’s books also have a plethora of games, techniques, and other activities. Her books are often used to teach improv.

Application at Work

Before ending this already lengthy post, I want to share one simple application of improvisational theatre: it is a great team-building activity.

It is essential for teams to work together. In many cases, they need to be able to do at least part of each others’ jobs, and they need to be able to trust each other. The work required learning improv, especially the performing and shared enjoyment, help with these tasks. Improv can be hilariously fun, and the actors often need to struggle when performing the games. (They are called games for a reason, after all!)

The biggest win in my book is the trust required of the other members of the team when performing Scenes or Switch for example. Each person needs to support the others and rely on them for support. The camaraderie built through improv tends to carry on back to the workplace.

In my next post, I’ll talk about more applications in the workplace, along with some things I’ve learned personally.

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