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Improvisational acting, often shortened to “improv”, can be described in its simplest terms as acting without a script. Many actors and non-actors enjoy this highly creative and fun activity. Actors use improv exercises to help develop characterization, as a tool to explore character relationships within a script, as a means to keep their acting skills sharp and be able to think on their feet, and of course as an art form in itself. 

There are many famous improv companies all over the country: The Second City, The Groundlings, and Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) are among the best known, among others. The popularity of improv comedy has helped inspire several popular television shows, including “Saturday Night Live “(SNL) and “Whose Line is it Anyway”. 

Non-actors are less intimidated by improv acting than acting from a script, as the audience is usually a little more forgiving when you’re making up the lines. There’s also an element of playfulness in improv that makes it feel more like a game than performing: after all, ‘charades’ is one of the most popular and well-known improv games. 

Like any game, improv does have rules. Some mistakenly believe that, because there is no script, improv is an “anything goes” activity. That’s not entirely true. In order for an improv scene to be successful and not drift off into awkwardness, there are two fundamental rules that all participants should endeavor to follow: 

Rule 1: Never negate what your partner brings into the scene

In other words, if your scene partner says something like, “Hi! I’m here to repair your refrigerator”, you mustn’t respond by saying, “No you’re not!” If you do that, you have completely negated the idea your fellow actor has brought into the scene, and now have put him at a disadvantage. 

There are some exceptions to this rule, but it really should only be broken by improv actors who are extremely skilled and experienced. For most improv players, the best practice is to go along with whatever your fellow actors say and add your own spin to the situation: “So glad you’re here–the kitchen’s this way! You wouldn’t believe what I’ve done to try and fix it!”

Rule 2: Always bring new information into the scene where you can

Not only do you accept what the other player has brought to the scene, by all means you can add to it with your own information. For example: “Oh yes! I’m so glad you’re here to fix the refrigerator–I’m so afraid to open it, I’ve ordered takeout for every meal–want a bite?” This gives your fellow actor something to work with. 

Another way to do this is by using the “Yes, and…” principle of improvisation. “Yes, and…” is the opposite of “No, but…” which can ruin the collaborative energy of a scene. When your fellow actor says something, respond with “Yes! and…”, then add the next bit of information. This will keep the scene going, and help build the story on the spot. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box: the more you practice, the easier it gets!

Improv can be enjoyed by just about anyone. It’s a fun activity to play with friends and family that doesn’t involve looking at a screen. Here are a few simple improv games that you can try out at your next gathering , whether in-person or virtual.

Most improvs work best with two to three people; any more than that can result in two scenes overlapping on stage. However, there are a couple of games below where you can expand beyond just a pair of actors, or you can swap actors in and out of scenes to get everyone involved.

Questions (2 people)

Asking questions are usually discouraged in improv, but in this game the questions are deliberately used to build the story. Ask the audience for a setting, and put two actors there who can only speak to each other in questions. Avoid one-word questions if you can. If a player accidentally responds with a statement, they are “out” and another actor can replace them. 

Actor’s Nightmare (2 people)

For this game, one player needs a script; if a copy of a play isn’t available, you can use a comic, novel, or book. The second player doesn’t have a book/play, and is thus experiencing the “nightmare”. The object is for the second actor to respond to each line the actor with the book says. The goal is to build character and story based on the information in the play/book and keep the scene going. Players can switch who holds the book midway, or start a whole new scene.

Scenes from a Hat/Props (2 people)

Another “Whose Line is it Anyway” favorite: have the group write brief scene suggestions on small bits of paper and toss them in a hat or box; then, two actors draw a scene from the hat and improvise the scene without telling the audience. Examples could be “job interview”, “how to get out of taking a test”, “first day as a [insert career]” etc. 

A similar game is “Props”, where random objects are placed in a hat/box; and the actors draw one object and use it to build a scene.

Dubbed movie (4 people)

Four actors pair off by two: in each pair, one player is the “actor” in an imaginary film, and the other is the actor who “dubs” the lines in English. In other words, two actors are performing a scene in gibberish, using mainly gestures, tone of voice, and body language, while the other two actors “interpret” what’s happening for the audience. This can be a lot of fun, as the actors can all play off each other. This is another game that’s great for a large group, and performers can switch out to give everyone a chance.

Party Quirks (4+ people)

This game was by far the all-time favorite of my theater students. If we ever ended up with extra time at the end of class, they would always ask, “Can we please do Party Quirks?” It’s a very fun way to build some ensemble energy and get everyone involved.

First, have everyone in your group write down a “quirk” on a piece of paper (like Scenes from a Hat): be creative, but respectful. In other words, don’t use real illnesses, disabilities, hate speech, or anything that seems to be mocking a type of real person. Think more like “believes she/he is a cat”, “obsessed with lapels”, “off-duty crime scene detective who thinks everyone’s a suspect”, “food thief”, “compulsively quotes movies” and so on. It’s best if actors choose a random quirk from the hat, not one they’ve written themselves.

Next, once you have your quirks written in the hat, choose someone to be the “host”: Start with the “host” on stage, and the partygoers offstage. Each partygoer chooses a quirk from the hat, but cannot share their identity with the host or other guests. 

The Host can set the scene by readying the room for the party. Players announce themselves offstage one at a time, saying “Ding Dong!” to cue the host to let them in; be sure to give the host and each guest adequate time to interact before the next “guest” arrives. Guests can also interact with each other to develop their characters.

The object of the game is for the “host” to try and guess each guest’s quirk; if you have a large group, have the guests exit the scene once the host has successfully guessed the quirk. I’ve seen party quirk games evolve into almost full-length plays; they can be challenging, but incredibly fascinating.   

Remember, stay in the moment…

These are just a few of the thousands of improv games that exist. Try them out, and then research some others to practice. Don’t worry about what to say in the scene! Stay in the moment, and remember: the only limit is your own imagination.


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2023-09-29T14:01:11Z dg43tfdfdgfd