The Ultimate Guide to Improv:
101 Tips, Strategies, and Tools for Improv Success!
Are you a beginning improvisor who wants to familiarize yourself with all the tools of improv? Are you an intermediate improvisor who wants to reach the next level? Are you an expert improvisor who wants key reminders and to gain some new insights?
Regardless of your experience level, you'll love this unique resource. These ideas come from such geniuses as Keith Johnstone, Viola Spolin, Del Close and many others. You'll find more and better information here for free than you'd get elsewhere by paying.
There are a ton of ideas here. You could spend years really learning it. So bookmark this page to reference it again and again. Also, feel free to share it on social media!
Without further ado, here are 101 tips for improv success!
#101 Watch yourself on video
What's the most effective way to see your strengths and weaknesses and improve? Record yourself and watch it back! Public speakers consider this a must and so should you!
Don't like watching yourself on video? Get over it! If you want other people to watch you, the least you can do is watch yourself, too. It's one of the best ways to improve your performance at anything!
#100 Let things get imbalanced.
New improvisers often want to maintain balance. If you have a magic power, suddenly they have a magic power. If you have a gun, they're wearing a bullet proof vest. If there's a problem, they have a solution close at hand.
True drama is created when it's not equal. Think of all the work they have to do in movies to make it seem like Superman has the odds against him. He's invincible, he can't have the odds against him!
#99 Just answer the damn question
In an effort to come up with the "right answer," many people will put off giving any answer at all. There is no right answer!
If someone asks you how old you are, don't stutter and stammer and think -- answer the damn question! What's your name? Just say one! Who cares what it is?
Any real character would instantly know, and so should you.
#98 Stay within the circle of expectations
In order to be clever, many improvisers add in nonsense that takes away from the scene.
If you're at the beach, it doesn't make sense for there to be a snowstorm. A tsunami, sure! But, if you introduce something random, you'd better explain it somehow.
If you're in Africa hunting lions, we expect a lion encounter. It doesn't make sense if suddenly there's a Walmart and no lions.
#97 Move the story forward
Often, scenes get locked up with people bickering, talking, gossiping -- avoiding any kind of interesting action.
Move the story forward before that happens. Find a dead body, meet a ghost, discover a secret about your lover. Threaten, search, seduce... anything that moves things forward!
#96 Avoid the "7 Deadly Sins" of improv
Blocking: Negating the ideas and suggestions of other people (or yourself.) A:"Nice hair!" B: "I don't have any hair."
Wimping: refusing to give information. :"How long have you been here?" B:"I don't know."
Pimping: Trying to get others to give all the ideas. A: "Where are we?" B: "At the mall silly." A: "What should we buy?" B: "A new dress!" A: "Who's that over there?" Etc...
Gagging: Making gags at the expense of the scene. A: "I'm going to shoot you!" B: "With a toy gun? HAHAHA!"
Hedging: Avoiding being specific. Think politician. A: "What have you brought me here for?" B: "That's an excellent question! There are many reasons and they are all important. Some of them may be beyond what you can possibly imagine. In fact, nothing you can..."
Bridging: Avoiding doing something. A: "Have you brought me here to fire me?" B: "Well, I've been looking at your performance and it's really not where we'd like it. It's a bit below really. And, you've been behaving like a buffoon with the female staff. Also, there are some questions I'd like to ask you..."
Cancelling: This is removing an idea that's been established. A: "Wow, those flying saucers were horrible." B: "Yes, Jimmy, but they were just part of your dream."
#95 Let go of your great idea
If you have a great idea and you force it in, it's not a great idea! You can't have a great idea -- you only find out if an idea was great after you do it. Its merit is based on the response it gets, and you can't know that in advance.
If you sit there holding onto an idea you think is amazing until you can fit it in, 2 things happen:
- You stop paying attention. You miss what's going on and don't really listen.
- When you do fit it in, it won't fit with the changes that have occurred. You'll be disappointed with the results.
When you have an idea you really love is when it's most important to let go of that idea!
#94 Use these skills in your life
You know, I remember taking a series of improv classes and each week I would ask the other students how they had used what they were learning. They often said they hadn't used it at all. Hadn't really thought about it.
Now, that was largely because the teacher wasn't pointing out how to do that. But, if you're spending the time and money to learn a valuable skill like this, make sure you take a moment and look for opportunities to use it in your life.
I've also seen improvisers with decades of experience who would block like crazy, be wishy-washy, get stuck on there own ideas, and do all sorts of things that on stage they know ruins a scene.
Well, it ruins a life!
So, in your day to day life and conversations, use the same concepts. Accept and add on, listen, commit... treat it like a scene you really, really want to be successful.
#93 Touch each other -- "let's get physical, physical!"
It's not unusual to see improvisers look like they're scared the other person has a disease they might catch.
That's not natural. In real life people touch each other. Not necessarily a lot nowadays. But, in general, the longer and more close the relationship, the more they'll touch.
That means, if you're in a scene with someone who is supposed to be your spouse and you won't come within 5 feet of them, it looks weird!
#92 Get in sync physically with your partner
Viola Spolin played a great deal of mirror games. Games designed to get people physically mirroring each other. This helped make them more in sync, attentive and alert.
Of course, there are many times when it doesn't make sense for two characters to be in sync with each other. Even then, it's good to warm up by doing some of these games.
Also, just taking a little bit of time at the start of a scene to interact non-verbally can help build a connection.
#91 Ask for "a scene without" type suggestions
Often, suggestions from an audience can be traps. They'll call out disgusting things that really wouldn't ever make an exciting scene. It's just to get laughs.
An idea from Keith Johnstone is to ask for suggestions of "a scene without _______." A scene without love. A scene without joy. A scene without puppies.
It's much harder to give a suggestion that causes problems this way and can create much better material to work with.
#90 Give yourself blind offers
Don't know what to say? Not sure what to do? Make a blind offer to yourself!
A blind offer is typically when you hand some invisible object to someone else and they let you know what you handed them. It's blind because you don't know what it is until later.
A blind offer to yourself is exactly the same. Pick something imaginary up without knowing what it is! Make some gesture or movement and only justify it after the fact.
You reach to pick something up. It's the baseball glove from when you were 7. Or the baby shoes you bought for the child that was never born. Or the treasure map your parents left you.
You might even know what you're picking up, and abandon that for whatever new idea comes to you. That's taking the unknown rather than the known!
Want to learn step-by-step how to use improv to make your life better?
Then check out my new book on Amazon...
#89 Volunteer fast and enthusiastically
I'm amazed by how many people come to an improv class virtually refuse to volunteer. If called on they'll look like they're going to their execution. A slow execution.
I get it... fear.
Here's the thing, that behavior just reinforces the fear you want to eliminate. Actually, it causes a few things:
- By showing your fear, you lower the expectations of your audience. Something that would have been amazing if they had high expectations will be mediocre. People tend to get what they expect.
- You train your body to go into a crappy, fear based position when you go in front of the room. Every time you do something, you build a habit. What do you want to build?
- If you succeed in not-volunteering, you lose in two ways: you miss out on the opportunity to learn and experience a breakthrough; you give yourself more time to build up fear in your mind.
That all goes for more than in an improv class. It's true in all of life.
What should you do instead? Be the first to volunteer! Before you even know what it's for, jump up, wave your hands, and say, "Pick me! Pick me!"
Look really excited and confident on the way up! Let people know by how you move and your facial expressions that this is going to be AMAZING!
#88 Be fascinated by your scene partner
I know, you want people to be fascinated by your wit, charm, class, intelligence, quick humor and universal Godliness.
Here's the thing, that gets you stuck in your head. Trying to be interesting generally makes you the opposite of interesting. It makes you dull, boring, conceited, a sponge on humanity, and the improv equivalent of the 3rd Home Alone movie.
Instead, be fascinated by your scene partner. Become irresistibly interested in everything they say and do. The more attention you put out, the more you'll get back.
And, remember that the more you pay attention to them, the more you'll notice all sorts of wonderful ideas they are presenting to you.
#87 Change ideas at different paces
This is another Keith Johnstone idea. You can change the dynamic in a scene by how quickly or slowly you change ideas.
For example, perhaps you spend 30 seconds focused on finding where you put your keys. You check all over the place wondering where they are.
Versus, you spend 5 seconds looking for your keys, then get distracted by wondering what your boss will say if you're late. Then, 7 seconds later, you notice you're hungry and wonder if you have time for a snack. And, 6 seconds later you realize you left your keys on the patio.
It creates a very different character and mood!
Plus, if you are changing ideas/focus every 30 seconds and you're interacting with someone who changes focus every 7 seconds, it creates a marked contrast. It's very interesting to watch.
#86 Learn to speak gibberish with cards
Gibberish! That all important language! So very vital to the improviser -- if I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times:
"Ich, nockam dertokar. Dishgoratic nomlar disfactin, lobro harckam!"
Mark my words!
There are any number of gibberish Improv games, and they are very useful in getting people to use their bodies and be more expressive and dynamic.
The challenge is that some people just start making vague grunting noises when they try gibberish. "Ugh grrrowlll oog ugh!" It doesn't sound like a real language at all:)
So, again from Keith, try writing some good gibberish phrases on index cards and just saying what's on the cards until you become fluent. Try Spanish sounding phrases. German sounding phrases. French. The key is make them sound real and practice.
Before you know it, you'll be able to atchem dokoro discomerdia!
#85 Try being incongruent
In real life, people say one thing verbally while their body language says something entirely different. It happens all the time.
On stage, people often are more congruent. Someone is supposed to seduce another person and they just come out and say it and their body language totally matches. In real life, that person might not say anything directly. They may fear rejection, they may not be allowed to seduce them because of a working relationship. Whatever!
There are a lots of things like that. Maybe you don't like someone, but you're in a situation where you have to be polite to them. You can't just say, "I think you're a creep!" But your body language brings the idea across. Subtly.
This can be incredibly interesting to an audience!
Rather than being direct in your attitudes, desires and beliefs -- try to hide them. Resist the idea verbally while giving in physically or vice versa. Say, "No, we can't!" While physically you move closer to the person you desire so badly. It's hot stuff!
#84 Subtly endow your scene partners with attributes
In real life, you may think one person is stupid. You might think another is rude. Another loving.
You don't have to say that to them, and it influences how you interact with them to a fantastic degree. (Regardless of the truth of your beliefs. Often our ideas of others are based on incomplete and erroneous information.)
When you're in a scene, go ahead and just decide what attributes you want to give the other players and subtly respond to them in a way that shows that. Keeping in mind that you usually wouldn't be direct about such things in real life.
It will make you more interesting and fun to watch!
#83 Practice not advancing
This can be a very humorous tool...
Imagine you're about to open the fridge door. It's stuck. You pull harder. It's still stuck. You get someone to help you pull. It won't budge. You try a rope and pulley system. Nope! You grab a gun and shoot the door. No luck! You get some dynamite and try to blow it open! Damn this fridge!
That's the act of staying with one activity. You're not advancing into another action. You stay with the action of trying to open the fridge. You try a dozen different ways and it gets more interesting the more you try!
A lot of old cartoons are based on this. How many ways has Elmer Fudd tried to catch that wascally wabbit? How much creativity would Wiley Coyote use in trying to get a Roadrunner dinner?
#82 Try being a klutz
It can be pretty funny to watch someone be a complete klutz. Some entertainers have made a career out of it!
You may want to take a tumbling class! Just remember to always be safe. Remember it's the response that gets the laughs, not the fall, bump, or trip itself. Unless the audience really doesn't like you, they want you to be okay.
That means that you can scream, yell, groan, look around confused, roll your eyes and make crazed facial expressions. That's how you indicate your pain and frustration.
Which is all hopefully just an act!
#81 Change pace
Some people talk and move slow all the time. Some people talk a mile a minute and gesture wildly -- all the time!
If you want to portray different characters and personalities, you'd better be able to change your pace! It's one of the simplest, easiest ways to convey a new character.
If it's a stretch for you to talk fast, practice! If talking slow and moving less makes you want to jump off a cliff, practice! (Practice the slowness, not the cliff jumping...)
Simply having a different pace than your scene partner can make for great humor and delight an audience:
Even if you haven't seen the movie Zootopia, you may have seen or heard of a scene in the movie. A fast paced rabbit enters the DMV and wants some information. The slow paced sloths who work there are... reeeeeaaaaaaallllllyyyyyy sssllllllllooooooowwwww!
It's damn funny!
#80 Speak in verse!
Rhyming allows you to lose control of what you'll do and say.
You say, "My wife has gone to see her dad." You follow it with, "Perhaps you soon will find me mad." You begin pulling out your hair.
Another time, "I fell in love my first site of you." And now, "But that I had known your love weren't true."
It helps to move things in unpredictable and unexpected directions. That's really what you're training yourself to do, become comfortable with the unexpected.
#79 Be boring
People constantly try to be interesting, and it makes them boring. There are at least 3 ways that happens:
- You edit out anything you think wouldn't be interesting. By doing so you edit out your own creativity and only say what you think is safe. (You block your own ideas.)
- You try to create interest through conflict and merely become combative. (You wind up blocking other's ideas.)
- You get stuck in your head and wind up missing what's going on around you. You become a missing person, so to speak. (You block out reality.)
By trying to be boring, you'll usually become more interesting because you'll be more present and spontaneous.
#78 Use the story arc
The story arc is the basic structure of what happens in most stories:
"Once upon a time..." "And, every day..." "Until one day..." "And, then..." "And, then..." "And, then..." "Until finally..." "And, ever since that day..."
"Once upon a time there was a boy who loved cheese. And, every day he ate many kinds of delicious cheese. Until one day all of the cows disappeared and there was no more cheese. And, then he discovered the cows had been stolen by aliens. And, then the aliens offered him a job as their spaceship farm lad. And, then he wound up sailing around the galaxy taking care of the cows for the aliens, so they had food on their trip. Until finally, they landed on a planet that looked just like earth and he escaped the ship with one of the cows. And, ever since that day he's had plenty of cheese and preferred to stay on the ground."
Or try this on for size:
"Once upon a time there was a boy kept in a cupboard. And, every day his step family treated him like dirt. Until one day he found out he was a wizard. And, then he went to wizarding school and learning he was special. And, then a dark wizard tried to kill him. And, then that dark wizard tried to have him killed a whole bunch of other ways. Until finally he killed the dark wizard in a way that was very fair and really not his fault. And, ever since that day there's been peace for the wizarding world and he married his best-friend's sister."
The Story Arc can be useful, especially to beginners who are worried about what to say or do next. The challenge is that if you make it habitual, your stories or scenes can become formulaic.
One trick is that you can start in any section of the arc. For example, in the middle.
You may want to take some movies and books and see how they fit into the story arc, as an exercise.
By learning to utilize it as a tool, you can feel more confident in your ability to generate stories off-the-cuff.
#77 Forget being funny
The more you focus on being funny, the more you'll become driven by a need to please others. You'll lose your spontaneity and become nothing more than a mere slave to the whims of laughter. You may notice how a lot of comedians tend to not be so happy in their real lives.
Laughter is one of those things that tends to be as fickle as love. The more you try to force it, the more it moves away.
Focusing on anything else at all is will be more productive.
#76 Utilize "relationship driven" vs. "action driven" scenes.
A relationship driven scene is interesting because of the dynamics between the characters. (It can be a scene with just one person and still be about the persons relationship with themselves or the people they describe.)
An action driven scene is about what happens. Someone discovers a body, they try to hide it, someone starts shooting at them, they are pulled into a seedy underworld of lies, lust and revenge.
A scene or story can contain elements of both, duh!
It's useful to aim for one, or to notice where it's naturally going and put the emphasis there. You'll notice that any book, play or Hollywood movie may be more focused on action (most of them) or on character and relationships.
Often it's the relationship driven stories that move us most. Read Anton Chekhov's stories and you'll see many tales where nothing really happens and yet it's deeply moving.
#75 Create stories.
Improv based on stories and the elements of good stories is memorable.
Improv that's just a bunch of goofing around is forgettable and audiences leave and get curious what they'll try next Saturday.
#74 Figure out the specifics: Who? What? When? Where?
Beginning improvisers start a scene in a kitchen. Advanced improvisers start a scene in Rosie O'Donnell's kitchen.
Beginners walk through where a table was previously established. Experienced improvisers, quickly show where the different objects in the room are and remember.
Beginners are a random person, maybe a farmer, and may refuse to settle on their own name and identity. Experienced improvisers quickly establish exactly who they are and their relationships with the others in the scene.
The more you establish who you are and your relationship to others, where you are, and what you're doing -- the more solid your foundation from which to build a scene. Once you have some specifics, your imagination can take off and begin to easily express itself.
#73 Make emotional sounds. Ummm hmmm...
In real life people go, "Ah! Oh! Hmmm. Ooops! Argh! Ohhhh! Ummm hmmm! Rawr!"
We make all kinds of noises without noticing it. And, once we go on stage and get nervous, we go into talking-head mode. We don't make our normal expressive noises.
So, try adding some emotional noises to your scenes and find out what happens! Even if it feels unnatural at first. You'll probably discover that you come across as more expressive and natural.
#72 Avoid too many questions?
We often ask questions as a way to avoid adding anything ourselves. We do it as a way to make the other person do the creating. We want them to contribute the ideas. Then, we may even block those ideas we asked for!
Try doing scenes without asking any questions and find out what happens. Make more statements. Make demands! It's likely they'll be more active and you'll put yourself more on the line.
#71 Be positive!!!
Humans can be negative little buggers! Often, we try to be interesting by being negative, by arguing, by being upset. This actually tends to shut things down and be less interesting. It makes it so there's nowhere to go.
Instead, start off happy, excited, thrilled! Everything is great!
Keith Johnstone used an excellent example once. He mentioned how Eddie Murphy wound up arrested in the movie Trading Places and he said with a beaming smile, "This is the nicest police car I've ever been in!" Audiences love it!
Plus, it creates a platform for your...
#70 Create a tilt.
A tilt is when you take the happy world that's been created and you turn it on it's head!
- You're talking to your loving wife and discover she's been having an affair...
- You're talking to your son and discover he died and he's asking you to avenge his murder...
- You're in the arms of your lover who reveals that he's a werewolf...
Once you tilt the scene, it becomes tremendously interesting to find out what happens next!
#69 Start the unknown and discover where it...
The unknown is supposed to be just that... the unknown! If you know where it's going, it's not the unknown anymore. it's the known.
Say that you're in a seen with your spouse. You've established that you're a recently married, happy couple. You look at them and say, "I've got a revelation I have to make to you..."
You don't know yet what your revelation will be, and you trust your mind to come up with one. That's how it works, a person in motion stays in motion. Newton's Law. You are setting up your tilt before you've even thought of it. You just trust. The T word!
"Honey, I've got something horrible to tell you..."
#68 Reincorporate carefully.
This is an idea of Keith's and I give it with reservations.
The basic idea is that, if you reincorporate ideas from earlier in a story or scene, you'll create an effect of wholeness. The thing will seem to have come full circle and it will please the audience.
I agree with that. And, it can be useful if you're feeling stuck. Personally, I think for a writer like Keith it's more appropriate. For actors it can cause a problem. What's the problem?
Think about it. If I tell you to re-use something from the start of the scene at the end of the scene, there will be a number of side-effects.
- Rather than having a blank mind and paying attention to what's going on around you, you'll be trying to remember what's already happened and looking for opportunities to bring it back and finish the scene.
- When you do bring it back in, you're NOT improvising anymore. Your regurgitating something you've planned. I use that term intentionally -- you're vomiting back up previous ideas. It trains you to plan!
- He himself says he doesn't like it when improviser play scenes with suggestions about where the scene will end. It takes away the spontaneity. That's exactly what this does! It says, "Look! This starting point? This is how we'll end!"
If you look, you can see a difference on someone's face when they are making it up -- truly improvising -- and when they are saying something they've planned -- reincorporating. They look much more alive and happy when they make it up.
Here's my suggestion: NOTICE when the scene comes full circle. When you notice previous ideas being reincorporated naturally, go ahead and end the scene. Use this knowledge of stories to recognize natural endings, rather than trying to force them.
Want to learn step-by-step how to use improv to make your life better?
Then check out my new book on Amazon...
#67 Try suggestion-free improv.
I've discovered an interesting phenomenon...
Many experienced improviser become addicted, dependent, habituated and hooked on getting suggestions. Let me give you two examples.
I was leading a group that had a woman in it who had done improv for 10 years. She taught classes in improv. She comes to the front of the group for an exercise and asks for a suggestion. I said try it without a suggestion, you don't need one. She said, "I can't do it without a suggestion." She looked so scared, I thought she might cry! So I gave in and said, "Fine, you're at a restaurant on a date."
A couple of months later, I had another experienced improviser at a group. This lady started in by yelling, "Someone tell me a room in a house!"
I said, "Look, I've found people can get dependent on suggestions, you don't need one. It's improv!"
She looked like she was ready to feed my entrails to a rabid velociraptor. She went, "Nonsense! I ALWAYS ask for suggestions in my classes!" (Apparently she taught improv classes, too... didn't stopping her from blocking to the point of combativeness...)
I said, "Will you just try it out?"
She paused. She said, "Fine!" Then she looked at her scene partner and said, "YOU START!" (Notice, she was basically ordering him to give a suggestion. She wasn't willing to start it from nothing.) After the scene she left. Thankfully, she never returned.
I can give numerous reasons why this addiction to suggestions is a problem:
- Look at what she said: "I ALWAYS take suggestions." Well, isn't that a reason you should try something different? It's improv, you're not supposed to plan it!
- Suggestions are supposed to be for the audience. It's a goodwill gesture -- it's to let them know it's really made up. You already know it's made up!
- Saying, "I can't do it without suggestions!" is fear based, it's blocking, and it is superstitious.
Both Viola Spolin and Keith Johnstone made a point of saying that audience suggestions should be used only occasionally. It's a goodwill gesture. Viola was worried a suggestion dependency would degrade the art-form. Keith said his Theatre Machine would go weeks without asking for suggestions. He strongly emphasizes ignoring suggestions you don't get excited about.
A simple, easy way to do suggestion-free improv is to start off with blind offers. Get into some postures that you don't know what they mean. Start doing some random movements. Then start to play the scene and create a reason for your body position and actions.
Try it! Create from nothing!
#66 Speak in gibberish or blahs.
One of the most useful ways to get you out of your own head and into the moment is with gibberish!
Take away the focus on words and you focus on your scene partner, the audience, your surroundings. You'll move your body more and become more expressive.
I saw Viola Spolin's main protege Gary Schwartz give a talk about practicing giving speeches all in gibberish. Then, he demonstrated how much you can convey without words. He conveyed a story to an audience member entirely through gibberish and body language. As I recall it involved getting kissed by a monkey at a train station...
An easy way to make gibberish even simpler is to just say blahs. "Blah, blah blah blah blah." It's easier and requires even less focus than gibberish! (Though, it is a lot of 4-letter words...)
Make up your own language and have fun!
#65 Dress up and look classy!
Ahem! Ahem! Improv is the home of some of the worst fashion choices in acting. It seems like ripped, poorly fit clothing is much more the norm than makes sense.
It's ridiculous to expect to be taken seriously when you're dressed as like a homeless person with poor taste.
Dressing poorly does three things:
- It's lowers the value of improv in people's eyes.
- It lowers their expectations of your performance.
- It makes you feel less confident.
If improvisers wish to be taken seriously, part of that is dressing well. Many people get into improv to improve their social skills. One aspect of social skills is dressing well.
You don't have to wear Armani and other designer clothes. Just make sure they fit well, aren't ripped, and look good on you. Also, bathe so you smell nice. Also, do something with your hair -- make it a crazy mohawk if you want, but don't look like a slob.
#64 Ignore laughter's siren call.
If all you go for is laughs, you may get encouraged to do stupid stuff. It's like peer pressure -- or those buffalo that run over a cliff because all the others are.
Audiences will laugh at things that ruin scenes. If you shut down one of your scene partner's ideas, they may laugh and you start blocking your partner more and more. But, the scenes will fall apart and no one will want to work with you.
Or, they may laugh when you grab your crotch. All of a sudden, you're grabbing your crotch all the time and getting crazier and crazier in an effort to please them. It's a downward cycle.
Aim for more than laughs!
#63 Get props, lots of 'em!
Improv is amazing because you can have a blank stage, or no stage at all, and create entertaining theatre.
That doesn't mean you have to, though!
What if you acquired a whole bunch of props you can use? It can open up doors to more invention and creativity than is possible if you have no props whatsoever.
Keith Johnstone is very fond of his couch that has a slit so people can disappear inside of it -- devoured by the couch. Or, they can appear from inside it -- birthed by a mysterious being!
You don't need a magical sofa, but some costumes and props can add variety and possibilities to your improv.
#62 Take voice lessons.
Your voice conveys a lot of information about who you are. It influences how people feel about you before you've finished your first sentence. It's a tool, a fine instrument.
It only makes sense to learn how to use it well. Learn how to project. Learn to play with your pitch, tonality, rhythm and timber. Treat it like a musical instrument, because it is.
You may also want to get training in other applicable disciplines. Take some classes in movement: Feldenkrais, Alexander Technique, and Dance. They can all contribute to your ability to improvise -- and, to your success in communicating in any context. Plus, they can be fun and interesting!
#61 Get all Taoist: use a mantra.
Repeating a mantra in your mind can make you speak less and convey more. It makes you less verbal and adds a subtext to your speech.
- Try a love scene where you repeat in your head, "I love you. I love you."
- Try a love scene again and say in your mind, "I hate you. I hate you."
- Try having an argument and have the mantra, "I love you. I love you. I love you."
Often, by having an internal mantra that's the opposite of what you're saying, it creates amazing dramatic effect.
#60 Play with how you move.
How you move says volumes about you before you say a word! You walk, gesture, sit, and stand in a way particular to you.
Just look at your walk. How quickly or slowly do you walk? What parts of your body swing and move as you walk? Where is your body bound up and immobile? Where do you look and focus as you walk?
You can play with and alter all of these things and become a totally different person!
If you normally walk fast, try moving slowly. If you normally walk in a relaxed loose way, try being tight and bound. If you normally swing your arms, try keeping them still.
This will do more than create a different impression on the audience and make you look more interesting in scenes. It will actually change what you say and how you respond to others.
How we move is who we are -- try changing it!
#59 Put in effort and teach quality -- be professional.
This is for teachers...
Putting together a bunch of random improv exercises and calling it a class is lazy. It's also far too common.
Take the time and energy to put together a system and exercises all geared to having people succeed. Every exercise should have a purpose. It should be part of a series of steps designed to illustrate important concepts. A good class should be well thought out and well-designed.
Also, be professional in every way possible.
Welcome people to the class when they come in. Make people comfortable. Be attentive and polite. Find out if people have questions or concerns and answer them. Dress well. Have good grooming. Give feedback in a positive, useful, thoughtful manner.
Be more professional and you'll do everyone a favor!
#58 Learn to use eye contact.
Eye contact is one aspect of body language and it has an incredible impact.
The first step is becoming aware of eye contact. Use it as a means to convey a message about who you are and what your relationship is to the other person.
Do you make strong eye contact? Do you look away a lot? Do you blink a lot? Do you look more at one person than another? What does that say about you?
Plus, if you're interacting with an audience, learn to make eye contact with everyone in a way that makes them feel seen.
Has someone ever looked at you in a way where you felt they didn't really see you? You need to learn a combination of eye contact and facial expression to make whoever you're looking at feel acknowledged.
And, you need to do that with the entire audience. If you only look at certain people or certain parts of the audience, the people you ignore will feel weird and ignored.
#57 Use costumes.
Again, you can just make everyone imagine that you're wearing a suit of armor or whatever.
And yet, remember how fun it was as a child when you played dress up? All children do it. It's fun, playful and adds an element of variety.
#56 Change small body language to create big effects.
Part of being an amazing improviser is becoming a body language expert!
How much do you blink? How many gestures do you make? Are they fast or slow? Do you speak more to one person than another? How quickly do you reply when asked a question? Do you laugh a lot? Are you quiet or do you talk a lot? Do you smile much? Do you have straight posture or do you slouch? Do you pace the floor or stand still?
All of these things and many more can create huge differences in how you come across.
Plus, if you change one you're likely to change several. Change your posture and you're likely to change your eye contact and speed of movement. Change how much you blink and you may move around more.
Pick one specific piece of body language and focus on that. Find out what else changes. Discover what effect that creates.
Small things can carry a big impact!
#55 Find specific behaviors to match feelings.
If you hate someone, how might you show it? If you love someone, how would you show it?
One improv proverb is "show, don't tell." (Isn't the proverb hypocritical, since it's telling us?)
You don't usually tell someone you don't like them. You might ignore them. You may interrupt them. Perhaps you would talk about their failures. Criticize them openly. But, say so outright? Nope.
What if you care about someone? Do you bring them gifts? Compliment them? Give them a back rub? Sleep with them?
Brainstorm how you would express your feelings through your behavior. These can be directed toward a specific person, or entirely without direction.
How about fear? Sadness? Lust? Hurry? Worry? Disgust?
#54 Make and practice with lists.
We all get used to limited, patterned ways of expressing ourselves. Lists help move us into unknown terrain. Having our behaviors dictated by an external source helps us become more flexible and expressive.
So, create lists of...
- How you can tilt a scene.
- Feelings toward a particular person and how you would express it.
- Unique character traits.
Then practice picking up a list and only doing what you see on it.
For example, say you've got a list of things to do when you're jealous of someone. A list may include: accuse them of cheating on you, ask what they were doing with someone else, go through their stuff looking for clues, and pretend you don't care about them.
During the scene, just look at one of the items on that list and do it!
Another example would be randomly grabbing a scene tilt. You may grab, "Seduce them." This could make the scene very interesting. You could be in a scene with your sister, parent, boss or enemy. You wouldn't have ordinarily thought of seducing them, and now you have to.
So, make lists of different kinds and find out how it expands your possibilities!
#53 Gently decline ideas you don't like.
Improv is all about accepting other's ideas. It's a place where anything brought to the table is celebrated and utilized.
Here's the rub: Sometimes what's brought to the table isn't edible. Imagine your spouse serves you roasted sea slug. You going to eat it and go, "Yum, honey! Keep the sea slug coming!"
Don't you want them to have some feedback on what you like to eat? Then, they can bring you more of it!
Sure, it's a great attitude to have -- the whole accept and add idea. And, it's important to do that a lot of the time. And yet, it's good to get some feedback on what works and what doesn't!
Try playing some improv (not in front of an audience) where you can gently say, "No thanks, try another idea." That's long-winded though, so just say a soft, "Nope." Then let the other person come up with another idea. As many as it takes to come up with an idea you enjoy and are excited about playing!
Notice that there's no explanation of why not. If you explain why you don't like the idea, it can wind up in a long discussion, rather than just giving simple feedback. The person is also more likely to create artificial rules about what's acceptable and become limited. The point of the exercise is to become more flexible. To try new things.
Also, I was in a class once where we did this as part of an exercise. After I said no to a couple of my practice partner's suggestions, he started insulting me. Seriously. "What! That idea wasn't good enough for you, idiot! Dummy! Jerk! Fine, how about this..."
That was certainly not part of the game! If someone doesn't want to use one of your ideas, just come up with another one. Be polite.
Try it out! You'll come up with new options you normally wouldn't think of, and you'll get useful feedback!
#52 Practice blocking.
This is two tips for the price of one!
First, learn about stage blocking and make sure you gear yourself toward the audience. You want to make sure they can see you and your face, and that you're not blocking them from seeing someone else.
Many new improvisers will actually turn away from the audience. This is partly to look at their scene partners, and partly to forget the audience is there and lessen their own fear!
Nope! Remember, the audience is your friend! Interact with them and toward them.
Second, practice blocking other people's ideas so that you can recognize when you're doing it.
We often try to eliminate aspects of our behavior before we even notice that we're doing them. The first step to any kind of behavior change is noticing that you're doing it.
I remember someone saying to me in a class that they didn't feel comfortable blocking and that they don't think they do it in life much. They then did several blocks without noticing they were doing it. I pointed it out and he said, "Did I say that?"
Get curious about blocking of all kinds!
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#51 Try something new
Nothing's less inspiring than a predictable improviser! Streeeeeetch yourself!
Do you always do short scene? Try long ones! Do you have certain characters you always play? Be someone totally new! Always play games the same way? Change the rules! Change it all up!
#50 Include the audience.
Get the audience involved in as many ways as you can think of:
- Personal suggestions from their lives: breakups, how they met, life changing decisions...
- Borrow objects from them.
- Have them assist in games.
- Put them on the line (if you fail a challenge, they're the ones who suffer some horrible fate!)
- Interact with them during scenes and games.
- Have them sing or do special effects noises.
- Make a group of them into a committee.
- Flirt with them...
#49 Be cool. Be polite!
Even with something like improv... where it's making stuff up... if you like it enough you start to think there's a "right way to make stuff up!"
Heaven help anyone who disagrees about what that is.
So, here's the thing: be cool. Just like the Fonz, from Happy Days!
And, just in general, practice good manners. Improv is a place to let go of a lot of social norms, but you needn't let go of all of them.
#48 Find out how many ways you can respond to one thing...
I remember doing an exercise and the guy I was partnered with said, "I can't think of how else I can respond to you!" I immediately reeled off a list of 5 ways. He said, "That bothers me that I couldn't think of any and you've got so many..."
Ya gotta practice though. It's just like if you're a public speaker and you get certain tough questions again and again. You have to practice finding useful ways to reply.
Here's a simple list of generic replies:
- A question.
- An accusation.
- Run away.
- Get angry.
- Get excited.
Imagine your lover cheats on you:
- "For how long?"
- You've been doing more than that!"
- "I can't take anymore..."
- "You son of a..." Bam! (You slap them!)
- "Oh, that's wonderful! I've been so worried that you were, and now I finally know for sure! My mother WAS right about you -- I worried that she'd finally lost her touch. She'll be soooo pleased!"
#47 Utilize 3 easy ways to triple your learning!
If you take any kind of class or practice any skill for a couple hours every week or two, you'll improve a little.
But, if you practice in between classes, you'll develop expertise much faster and have far better recall.
And you'll also make faster progress if you make notes! Run back through what you learned and any tips and pointers you've received. That could be from a class, practicing or watching. The people who improve the fastest generally take notes.
Finally, teach what you've learned to someone else. Even if that just means explaining it to your cat. Studies show that people's memory retention goes way up when they do this. (Particularly with orange-haired tabby cats. More research will explain why...)
So: find a fun way to practice, make a mind-map, and tell friends what you're learning!
#46 Do badly. Mess up!
Any time you try to "do your best" is usually when you'll limit yourself. You'll edit-edit-edit!
Instead, try to do really bad. Bad! BAD!
I've done this, and seen it done by others, in business meetings. People always, always let out a lot of energy that's normally pent up by trying to be perfect. Everybody has more fun - they become more creative, expressive and enjoyable. Plus, by doing "the wrong things," you learn to recognize when you're doing them! It's hard not to do what you don't notice that you're doing.
Feel the freedom of doing it wrong!
#45 Connect with your partner first.
Notice the word... partner. It's not adversary, victim, or enemy. It's... partner!
Treat them like one.
Often, people start off a scene without seeming to notice their partner exists. Or, it's like a fight. This goes back to a few things: thinking that conflict creates interest, fear of the audience, and defense.
What really interests people is connection. Notice how what adds spark to those old movies, like Casablanca and It Happened One Night, is the connection between the leading actors. Often, without saying a word theirs a palpable intensity.
Try taking 5 or 10 or 15 seconds at the start of a scene to connect with your scene partner and relax. Nobody will kill you. In fact, it may just create curiosity about what will happen next. Often we try to solve a problem with something that causes the problem. We try to avoid a pause to prevent us from losing our audience, and often that can lead to losing them!
Take a breath... Ahhhhhh:)
#44 Be transformed in the scene.
The biggest mistake many beginners make is that they don't want to be influenced. Especially if it means taking the less powerful position. This leads to stalemates and stuck scenes that go nowhere fast.
Imagine you discover a magic lamp. Your pet monkey causes you to rub it. Out comes a magical genii with phenomenal cosmic powers (and iddy-biddy living space.) He offers you 3 wishes.
"Is that all? I can have all of the wishes I want, thanks to my magic monkey, leprechaun and lucky penny. You're a lame genii." Well, you weren't affected by the genii. You came out on top. But, is that as interesting?
Someone pulls a gun on you. "That's not a real gun -- put it away!"
You spouse announces they're going to divorce you. "That's fine, I've been having an affair for months."
A refusal to be influenced! A refusal to be less powerful.
What's interesting for the audience is when the genii/gun/divorce/layoff/apocalypse changes your world and flips it upside down!
Give them what they want.
#43 Challenge yourself!
If something is easy, people generally get bored. They don't appreciate it. They lose their zest and attention.
Do whatever you have to do to keep yourself challenged!
If that means improvising in sign language, one-handed, while surrounded by man-eating sharks and a bevy of fembots...
#42 Lose track of who is leading and who is following.
Viola Spolin emphasized this ad nauseam. You want to lose track of who is in charge of the scene.
In dancing, it's one thing to dance on your own. You can do anything you like any time you like.
It's another to dance with someone else. One person lead, another follows. Stimulus, response. Stimulus, response.
It's totally different to change who is leading and who is following so quickly you don't know anymore. You start to do things that you both think was the other's idea! It becomes a magical, spontaneous creation.
That's what the best improv is. It's not based on rules, right and wrong, or one someone directing it. It's a mysterious connection creating art from the unknown.
#41 Thinking of 5 ideas is easier than thinking of 1!
If you're stuck for ideas, it's usually because you're editing. Almost always.
A quick trick is to come up with 5 or 10 ideas rather than 1!
Will you always come up with all of 5 or 10? Nope! But, you'll always come up with more than 1. Once you take the pressure off of yourself to come up with the "right idea," the ideas will flow and you'll be 100 times more likely to come up with something you can use.
#40 Try on different personality types.
If you want to create enthralling scenes, to make improvising easy, and to develop an ability that's useful in your everyday life, learn to understand and adopt different personality types.
There are numerous ways of classifying, dividing and understanding personality types. All of them have value. It doesn't matter which you pick.
A simple example is to pick on of four temperaments: Choleric, Sanguine, Melancholy and Phlegmatic.
- Choleric: direct, in-charge, the leader. The leader who doesn't care much about feelings.
- Sanguine: talkative, carefree, social, and fun-loving. The life of the party.
- Melancholy: detail-oriented, introverted, and perfectionists. Home studying on a Saturday night.
- Phlegmatic: private, thoughtful, caring, and desiring community. A steady friend.
With just these 4 personality type, you can create a limitless array of choices in the human dynamics of a scene. For example...
A scene with a choleric and a melancholy: the choleric will be annoyed by the melancholy's obsession over details. The melancholy won't understand why the choleric is rushing into actions without thinking first.
This is also valuable in your day-to-day life. If you interact with someone more in their style, they'll feel more comfortable around you. If you have differing styles and don't recognize that, it can lead to problems. You can begin to recognize what communication styles the people around you prefer and begin to be more flexible.
And, that's just one way of looking at personalities. Find one you like and reap the benefits!
#39 Establish a platform -- start happy
Many people want to go straight into trouble. They walk on stage and start arguing and fighting. That's not drama, that's being difficult. They look upset right from the get-go.
It's better to build a platform for the scene. Start happy and with everyone getting along. Then, introduce problems. Interrupt the routine (as Keith Johnstone says.) So that when the trouble comes, it will be in contrast to what came before.
It's like a painting that's too busy. You need a background that's simple and clean to contrast with the excitement in the foreground.
#38 Don't be disgusting all the time.
Improv seems to have become synonymous with gross out humor. Because of many performer's emphasis on getting a laugh, they'll go to no end. Any kind of joke will do.
There is an emotional releasing element to improv that allows things that are normally taboo to be brought out in the open. That's different than just trying to do anything disgusting to beg for a laugh. Yes, let yourself express what you normally wouldn't. But, not all the time.
And, remember that a great deal of good story and drama is about what's not said. The unexpressed desire. The pain that's not spoken. The dreams that aren't even considered.
The more improv is used as a vehicle for dressed up fart jokes, the more it will be considered a lower art form. Eventually, it will go out of style as a fad. A silly second-cousin to other "real art." But, if you put real thought and effort into it, it can be one of the most genuine art forms. Because, it's created in the moment, living, without editing, and is immediately gone.
#37 Create a problem and add to it.
The first thing that many people wish to do when there is a problem is to solve it!
Stuck in a hole? Here's a ladder!
Impassable mountain? Here's your plane!
Bad breakup? Lost your job? Here's an amazing person who runs a successful company!
Do you immediately want to solve any problems that come up? On stage and in story, it's usually better to let the problems develop into bigger problems...
Stuck in a hole? Well, there's also poisonous snakes. And, you're being chased by killers...
Impassable mountains? Ah, it's okay! You don't have enough food to live on anyway. And, you're leg has gangrene...
Bad breakup? Lost your job? Guess what! You have 36 hours to get them back or you'll be sent back to your home country where you'll have to farm goats the rest of your life...
See, create a problem and let it develop into a bigger problem. Loads of hit movies are based on the idea that you only solve a problem after it's too late and impossible to win.
#36 Mix different kinds of scenes and games.
Make sure that you create enough variety in how you create a show to keep people interested -- including you.
If you've been doing the same types of games and scenes so often that you've lost your excitement, change 'em. Try something new!
Mix up scenes with two people, three people, six people, or even just one person. Bring up audience members. Take suggestions and then don't. Play something funny, then something serious. Do talking scenes and quiet scenes. Sing, dance.
Keep it interesting and challenging for everyone, especially you.
#35 Treat audience members and scene partners kindly.
How would you feel if you walked into a restaurant and the waiter or waitress roughly grabbed your arm and dragged you to your table? What if they pushed you down, told you to hurry up and gave you very little attention? And, then the food tasted horrible?
You'd be... displeased!
Well. When you are dealing with an audience volunteer or even your scene partner, treat it like a customer service position. You want them to feel attended to and that their needs are met. You want to treat them well and make sure they enjoy the experience. Otherwise the only tip you'll get is where you can shove it!
Make sure you make anyone you interact with on and off stage comfortable. Encourage their ideas, kindly let them know what's going to happen, guide them through the process and make THEM look as good as possible.
Do unto others...
#34 Break the 4th wall! Get all Ferris Bueller up in here!
Ya know how in Ferris Bueller's Day Off he made all those comments to the camera? Feel free to do that occasionally. It adds a fun interactive quality.
Here's the thing though: keep your comments within the reality you've created. Many beginners make side-remarks, but they are usually of the out-of-scene, negative variety. They'll say, "I have no idea how to do this!" Or, "What a stupid thing! How can I respond to that?" So, they criticize themselves or their scene partners. No, no, no!
Keep your comments to the aspects of the scene and reality you've created. "Jim has always thought he's better than me. Well, he'll soon learn otherwise..." "She's hot, huh? Little does Theresa know that she's about to fall under my seductive spell of... seduction!"
Have fun with it!
#33 Sing! Sing! Sing!
If you're in improv for any period of time you'll wind up singing. It's gonna happen!
Bite the bullet and get on with it! Start practicing. You can turn on music tracks without words and make up lyrics. Or, you can just start to sing and gradually a tune will develop.
Many people have what amounts to a phobia of singing. They will defend it by saying, "I can't sing! You've never heard a voice as bad as mine! I can't carry a tune, can't even push one around! Birds will fly before you get me to sing in front of an audience!!!"
Ahem, get over yourself!
What's actually the case is that at some point in your past you received a negative comment about your singing and it hurt your feelings. YOU may have been the one saying it! Or, you got such little encouragement as a child you just didn't think you were good at anything. Whatever. It all comes back to self-esteem.
Here's the question: do you really want your fears to limit your life and what you can do?
"But, it's not a fear, I'm really bad." Shut up Negative Nancy! With that kind of attitude you can't do anything because you might be bad at it. If you're really bad, take some singing lessons. Or, learn to be happy with singing badly like millions of happy singers who can't carry a tune to the kitchen. No one is asking you to be Frank Sinatra or Aretha Franklin.
(Often, by the way, people who have this fear are actually beautiful singers. But, they hide it so well even they don't ever find out.)
Singing is something every single person should be able to do for their own enjoyment. It's something every child enjoys and if you didn't keep that joy you can get it back.
"Sing sing sing sing. Everybody start to sing. High high, ho ho..."
#32 Let responses go by... 1-2-3-go!
"Just say the first thing that comes to mind..." That's a lot of what you think of as improv. Don't edit, just say the first thing that pops into your head.
There's a problem with that...
Often the first thing is defensive, stupid, or habitual.
Now, it IS important that you be able to do that. You need to learn to let go of filtering and just speak your stream of consciousness. And, that's just one skill. You want to be able to have a wide range of responses available to you.
Often, improv that's all first responses gets top heavy. It helps to create the talking head syndrome. Try this instead:
Take your 4th response to whatever happens. Do an entire scene like that and find out what happens.
One thing you'll notice for sure, if you're with someone who is taking only 1st responses it will create a strong power dynamic. The 4th responder will almost always dominate over the 1st responder. That makes it yet another way of creating character and personality.
If you gradually switch from taking a later response to an earlier response (or vice versa), you're improvised scene will have a whole other character as well. It can create a sense of change and effect.
Plus, if you've play with waiting for later responses, you'll begin to see a wider spectrum of how you can respond. You'll develop more variety and creativity.
Play with it and find out how it feels.
#31 Learn to give and take focus.
If multiple scene are going on, or there are more than 2 actors on the stage, it's important to be able to give and receive focus.
So, practice having a few couples on stage, perhaps in a restaurant setting. Each couple is in a different, unrelated dinner conversation. First, focus goes to the couple who are celebrating their anniversary. Then, at a sign, they become silent and still, and let the another couple take over the focus. Maybe a couple of business people. In a bit, the focus goes to another couple. Then back to the first.
This teaches how to share the spotlight rather than trying to fight for it.
#30 The Jaws Principle: the unknown is scarier than the known.
Did you notice how in the movie Jaws they avoided showing the shark as much as possible?
Same thing in Alfred Hitchcock movies, he tried to keep the menace out of sight. An unknown terror allows us to create a much more terrible creature than we'll ever see.
Notice how intense the love scenes were in those old movies where they couldn't show anything? It tends to hook your attention much more than when they spell it all out.
Show me all you want, but let my imagination do it and it will make it real for me!
Sometimes improvisers aren't very subtle. They try to shock and awe. But, it can be more powerful to hint. To tempt, tease and seduce the audience with ideas rather than spelling it out.
#29 Take examples from movies, plays and books.
Often, improvisation comes back to a lot of the same themes and ideas over and over again. Many incredible concepts and themes get missed. What if you grabbed them and ran with them?
Try taking some movie, TV and book themes and improvising around those. Corruption, rape, kidnapping, identity theft, loss, lies, incest, abuse, and greed. It's all there. Plus, magical powers, struggling for business success, time travel, foolish courage, travel to exotic destinations and harebrained schemes.
Look at Shakespeare! Many of his plays have all of those rapped into one!
This can lead to a depth and novelty often missing from improv.
#28 Be a hero!!!
Improv is where everything is made up and the points don't matter (to quote Whose Line Is It Anyway star Drew Carey.) It's funny that many people are still scared of what might happen.
You'll see people put effort into protecting themselves in an imaginary world they are creating. If there is a gun, they discover it's a toy. If they're is a dragon, they find out it's not real. Or, they escape easily. Or, they can turn into a dragon themselves. A bigger dragon!
Part of improvisation is being willing to be a hero. That means a few things:
- Being willing to enter a dangerous situation. Bravely going where nobody has gone before. Entering the monsters layer and getting captured.
- Getting into trouble it seems you can't escape from. Being emotionally distraught. Realizing that all hope is lost.
- Succeeding and winning the final battle. Or, failing in a really cool way. Sometimes heroes die...
Be willing to get in heaps of trouble, experience the emotional distress, and find out what your character does. Usually the character has to go through some form of transformation for it to really be satisfying.
#27 Create artificial limits.
Improv games are creating artificial limits on what you can and can't do: you can only speak in three-word sentences, you have to talk in gibberish, you can only move your body as directed. That's the definition of a game!
You can create new games by understanding that:
If you tend to talk very little, make a game of talking a lot. You have to speak even if you have nothing to say. If you talk too much, the game can be that you're not allowed to say anything.
If you avoid conflict, disagree with everyone. If you get in conflict too much, agree with everything!
Generally, it's useful to do both versions of an exercise. By practicing disagreeing, you help yourself to notice when you do it. Same if you practice interrupting or anything else that's an issue for you.
The bizarre thing is that the more you limit what you're allowed to do, the more freedom and variety you create!
For example, if I limit how much you talk, you'll use your body more. If I make you speak faster, what you say will change and become more unpredictable. If you can't say people's names, you'll have to use other ways to get their attention.
It's a simple system to alter your behavior and develop more variety in how you act!
Want to learn step-by-step how to use improv to make your life better?
Then check out my new book on Amazon...
#26 Break the routine!
Let's say you're in a scene on a park bench. You're talking to your lover. We'll call that a routine.
Pretty quickly that will get dull.
You need to break the routine. How?
Perhaps they tilt the scene by revealing they are having an affair. Or, that they are moving to Africa. Or, they are already married. Or, they don't love you anymore. Or, that they have poisoned you and you have moments to live.
All of those things will break the routine of sitting on a bench with your lover. They send the scene in a whole new direction. Each one has very different consequences.
It's possible that as you continue discussing the revelation that you'll fall into another routine. Perhaps an argument. Then, you can break the routine again. How?
Let's say they're having an affair and it just becomes an argument. You could threaten to kill them if they leave you. You could say you'll end your own life. You could blackmail them. You could reveal a dark terrible secret about the person with whom they're having the affair. You could bribe them to quit. You could reveal you are the parent of the other person.
Lots of ways.
The key is to notice when a routine has been established and break it in an interesting way with tilts. Then, for the other person to be strongly influenced by the routine breaking. (If you just say, "Oh, I knew that already." Well, then you're partner will hate you and the audience will be bored...)
Hulk see routine, Hulk smash routine! Arghhh!
#25 Create a moral dilemma.
Much good cinema and literature is based on the idea of a moral choice. A moral dilemma.
Should I tell her about the affair? Should I steal? Should I reveal the murderer? Should I kill? Should I cheat? Should I let them have the life saving serum, or should I take it? Is it okay to tell a little white lie? Can I break the rules if nobody finds out?
This is the basis for a lot of good storytelling.
If you actively seek opportunities to create and utilize that in your improv, it's likely to create a bigger impact.
That doesn't mean it won't be funny. It doesn't mean that at all. In fact, some of the funniest things in the world are funny for just that reason.
Ever listen to stand up comedian Mike Birbiglia? His stories often have very serious subject matter. Many comics do. He talks about a drunk driver crashing into his car and a botched police report said he was at fault. At a certain point, after a couple years, he decides to just pay for it so he can get on with his life. It's an incredibly funny story the way he tells it. The humor is accented by the tragedy.
You got a moral choice... create a moral dilemma or don't!
#24 Avoid gossip, act in the moment!
Often people talk in scenes about stuff going on outside the scene as a way to protect themselves from anything happening.
It's that way in life a lot, too! How often do you hear things like, "I'll do it someday, but when I was younger..." Followed by all sorts of excuses and stories to justify not taking action. Or this, "They say that the older you get the slower you learn so I can't..."
The same things happen in scenes and it's just as lifeless. "You know Sally, John and Susie are having troubles. I remember when we were in school and you and I were dating and then John and I started seeing each other..." Nothing's happening in the scene. Nobody is being altered.
They need something to happen in the moment. He reveals his love and asks her to marry him... She reveals she's a spy disguised Sally... They discover a secret letter...
Anything happening... NOW!
#23 Make blind offers.
We tend to be control freaks. Does that include you? If you want to let go of control and make it look like you're reading each other's mind, here's how:
A blind offer is when you make a gesture or hand an invisible object to someone and don't know what it is.
You say, "Here's what you asked for!" Then, they say, "Oh, you finally brought the shovel/penguin/magic wand/diaper!"
Or, you make a movement with your arms and they let you know that you're digging a grave or painting a wall or whatever they decide it is.
Doing this gives that eerie, mind-reading, supernaturally in-sync quality.
Versus, if you just tell them what you're handing them, it doesn't have that quality at all. I remember doing an exercise that taught this skill in a class and one woman handed what looked like a baby to another woman. She looked at it and said, "Thanks for the kitten!" The woman who gave it to her said, "No! It's a baby monkey!" She couldn't let go of control.
Give in to your partner's imagination and find out where it takes you!
#22 Change emotions... damn it!
Changing emotions creates energy and a sense of development. Most people habitually try to keep the same energy and emotion. They go on stage and are angry. They just stay angry the whole scene. That's their deal! Or, sad. Scared. Bored. Whatever.
Worse. They may be a monotone that's just trying to be clever.
By changing your emotional state in response to what's going on around you, it drives the interest through the roof and helps you keep energy in the scene.
You can use virtually any emotion in response to anything. This helps to create a special quality. For example:
Let's say you're on a date with your boyfriend and he proposes to you. With which emotions can you respond? Let's see!
- Fear: "I think that if we get married our love will die..."
- Anger: "I told you, when you proposed I wanted you to do it at the top of the Empire State Building! With a live band playing my favorite song!"
- Curiosity: "Hmmm. What should I say to you??? What options do we have? If I say yes, will we live here? Will we move to Europe? Will you stop drinking? What if I say no? Will you give up? Try to win me back? Throw yourself off a mountain? Get back together with your long lost love?"
- Sadness: "Oh God! I never thought I'd be proposed to... I thought I'd live to be an old maid... I suppose we have a 50% chance of divorce, love doesn't last like it used to. Oh, I'm cursed with bad luck. Yes, I'll marry you!"
By learning to pick the emotion and then justify it, you create a skill-set in how to become very interesting.
#21 Give away responsibility.
People are taught to take responsibility. But, they're also taught that it generally sucks to take responsibility. Another word for it is blame.
You'll be more creative and original if you don't take responsibility at all. There are two ways to do this.
- Assume that any ideas you come up with while interesting aren't yours. They belong to some muse who delivers them to you. They say nothing about you as a human being, about your worth, or about your intelligence. So, you can feel free to let whatever ideas you generate just come out!
- Find ways to have others dictate what you do. There are numerous improv games that put one person in charge of what another person says or does. These tend to be incredibly fun. The reason they are is because we get to let go of trying to control everything and just flow with the current.
That's part of the joy of improv. You accept any ideas they give and run with it. That puts them in charge of you to some degree, because once they send things in a direction you keep going that way. Just like flowing with a river in a raft. And, really, when there is more than one person, neither can control it -- so, it's really our muse again.
Have all the fun, without the responsibility!
#20 Start confidently!
First impressions... You only get one. So make it a good one, right?
Even if you have no idea what you're going to say and do... Even if you want to make an amazing impression and you think the idea you're starting with is equivalent to vomit... Even if you're scared of everything in the world, including this...
When you start the scene, act like you have complete confidence that this will be amazing and wonderful.
When you don't know what to say, just start to speak as though you know exactly what to say.
When you feel you're out of ideas, say, "I have a great idea!" And, say it as though you do!
When you start in a certain direction you'll tend to continue in that direction. It gets your entire physiology involved. Say, "I have an idea!" And, you'll tend to come up with an idea.
Plus, it will set people's expectations higher!
It's only wins all around the board. I feel very confident about that!
#19 Only accept suggestions you want and that excite you!
Audience suggestions were meant to be a goodwill gesture. By taking suggestions you prove to any doubting audience members that it's not a rehearsed performance.
In turn, giving suggestions should be a goodwill gesture. And, they should give suggestions that make for exciting play and keep everyone attentive and entertained.
It's become quite common for an audience to throw out stupid suggestions. It's like a litany of gross out words from the 8-year-old playbook. Poop, fart, burp, sex, one-legged midget!
If you get the suggestion that you're a burping, farting, one-armed midget attempting to scratch a tied-up hog. Don't!
If you get a suggestion that's a word you don't understand and can't use. Don't!
If you get a suggestion that could be played and you just don't particularly like it. Don't!
Ask for and get suggestions you are excited about, because if you're excited about playing them the audience will be excited about seeing them.
Get what you want!
#18 Cut boring scenes quickly!
In a similar vein. If a scene is dying and you are trying to save it, don't!
If you're not enjoying the scene or game... if it feels like you're trying to breathe life back into a buried house cat, just call it quits. There are many scenes that should have been called quits long before they were, because no one had the guts to say, "This isn't fun. Let's try another one!"
Cut the dead weight. Just do scenes and games you're excited about! Remember the mantra, "Always leave the audience wanting more!"
#17 Accept and add.
This is the classic improv powerhouse that is known throughout the world. What it means is this:
Any idea or reality your partner brings to the table, you accept it. If they think you're a martian, you accept it. If they believe the sky is falling, you accept it. If they think your eyes are beautiful, you accept it. (And, you DO have beautiful eyes! Has anyone told you lately?)
You also add on to their ideas. If they think you're a martian, you accept and add on that they are an earthling you've just kidnapped. If they believe the sky is falling, you add on that it's because God can't keep it up because he's tired. If they think your eyes are beautiful, you add on that you use them as a tool to control weak minds. (Which of course you do, you sexy improviser!)
This is the process that's necessary to building a reality together.
It's like making a salad: if every time they try to add something you pull it out, it won't work. They throw in some lettuce, you take it out and put in kale. They add tomatoes, you remove them and put in carrots. They remove the carrots and put in cucumbers.
You'll never eat!
If you instead each add complimentary ingredients to the salad, in no time at all you'll have a healthy meal!
This idea is commonly referred to as the "Yes, and..." rule. This can be a misnomer, as you can say "Yes, and..." while not really living by the heart of the rule.
That is: this does not mean that your character will always agree and add. If you're in a scene with your lover and they ask to have another person join you in bed, your character may say no. That can be fine. If you're in a scene with someone who claims to be your lover and you say they're not your lover, that's likely blocking their idea.
As far as an approach to getting along with people in everyday life, "Yes, and..." can be fantastically useful!
"I've got this idea for marketing with publicity stunts!"
"Yes, that's great! And, how are you thinking?"
"We'll train dogs to howl our brand name so millions of Americans hear it at noon everyday."
"Yes, and we could train certain dogs to grab our items off store shelves and put them in shoppers baskets without people noticing!"
Yes, that's a silly example. And, if you great new ideas with agreement and add to them, you'll quickly find yourself and the people around you feeling more creative and inspired. And, at an acceptable time, you can go over the practicalities. And, you need to brainstorm first and judge later.
It's like with writing. If you just let the ideas flow, you can edit them later. If you try to edit as you write, it tends to shut down your inner muse.
Treat your muse will, and you can create beautiful music...
#16 Create the space.
Imagine walking into an empty room that's completely without distinction. All the walls are the same color. No windows. No chairs. Nothing. It's an odd experience. You don't have anything to reference off. Everything is the same. You don't know the purpose of the room. You don't know who uses it.
Now, imagine being in a room you know well. Where is everything? Who is typically there? How is it used?
A very different experience!
When you're improvising, it helps tremendously to begin imagining what the space is. What does the space look like? What's it used for? By who?
Why is this important? Because, you'd behave very different in the White House than you would in your dining room at home. You act different in your bedroom at night than you do at a bowling alley. You act different in your bedroom at home than you do in your parents bedroom! (Right? RIGHT??)
I hope so...
By imagining the space around you, you give yourself something to work from. A foundation. A creation foundation.
Also, if you use a table in a scene, and then walk through it later, that's weird for the audience. Why did you walk through a table? Do you have magic powers? Oh, it was just you weren't paying attention and didn't notice you did it! Damn!
It's another reason to be attentive. And, it's another exercise in how to become more attentive and alert. You can measure your awareness by how many invisible tables you don't walk through!
#15 Create a character.
Ask most people to improvise and they say, "But, what do I say? What do I do?"
Those are the wrong questions!
Most of us improvise our way through life successfully -- more or less -- by knowing who we are, where we are, and with whom we're interacting. That allows us to handle many situations we've never handled before.
If you know you're a plumber, that direct how you act.
If you know you're at a customer's home to unclog a toilet, you're further directed.
If you know you're in a bad mood, you've got even more direction.
If you know you're in a bad mood but you also want them to tip you, you know an awful lot.
Once you know you're a cranky plumber hoping for some extra cash from someone he doesn't like, it makes improvising easy.
Imagine someone says to you, "Let's go to a baseball game!" How do you respond?
How would you respond if you only spoke Chinese? In Chinese! How about if you're a former baseball champion who lost the most important game of his career? Perhaps the mere mention of the game would bring you to tears. How about a child who loves baseball? How about a football fan who thinks baseball is stupid? Or, a bookworm who thinks sports are stupid?
Create your characters age, relationships, job, personality, mood, fears and desires. There are no "right answers," just decide. Once you do, improvising mostly takes care of itself.
#14 Have an objective... Any will do!
This isn't as Method acting and Stanislavsky as it seems.
Have you ever wanted people to view you as intelligent? How about funny? Sexy? Have you ever wanted to embarrass somebody? No, not you! Ever desired one persons attention? Ever want to be viewed as valuable? Perhaps get a raise?
Maybe you've been in a room with multiple people and wanted different things with each one... You wanted to attract one person, and to repel another. You want to be viewed as smart by Jim and to make Janet happy.
You want all kinds of things! Sometimes, it switches.
You want Jim's attraction until he starts to give it, and then he offends you and then you want to make him go away. (Sound familiar guys?)
How you behave in relation to each of those people will be considerably altered by what you want. And, by having different wants for each person, you become a multi-faceted person. You create an appearance of complexity.
How you go about accomplishing those objectives says even more about you!
Some people try to win affection through compliments. Some through mock insults. Some through gifts. Some through sex. Some through listening. Some through talking.
Which one you pick changes how we perceive you.
We also get to find out if you succeed or fail in your objective. It can be just as entertaining to watch someone fail at achieving their objective as it is to see them succeed. In real life people have maybe a 50/50 success rate. (I mean, does every guys who wants to get laid succeed?) It makes sense to keep that the same on stage.
Explore your desires!
#13 Focus on relationships.
You say different things in the bedroom with your lover than you do in the kitchen with your parents.
I hope so, anyway...
What's your relationship to the person you're speaking with?
Are they older and wiser than you? Are they like a younger brother? Are they your boss and you'll get in trouble if you disagree with them? Are they your silly uncle? Are they your closest friend who is the only one ever to learn about your affair?
Deciding who they are in relation to you helps create a real dynamic that is interesting to watch.
Hell, you can even have this with yourself, can't you? Do you like yourself? Do you want yourself to get a better job? To believe you're capable of more?
But, back to others! Once you know even the minimum basics of your relationship, you have a lot more to work from.
Plus, if you ARE having the same kind of conversation with your parents that you'd have with your lover in the bedroom... you know something crazy is going on!
#12 Get specific!
Don't be a putz!
Yeah, you heard me!
Don't wimp out! If you're asked a question, answer it! And, be specific.
All, that stuff about deciding who you are, where you are and what you're wanting. Do it! Be specific.
If someone asks your name, say one. They want to know where you are from? Say so. They want to know what kind of music is your favorite? Just pick a @$#% genre!
Don't be silly and pretend that you can make the wrong choice or that you're trying to keep it a secret. Answer the damn question with a real answer.
The more you add real, concrete information, the more believable you are. The more you have those specifics in mind, the more you'll have to work from.
Try painting a blank canvass and it can become overwhelming. But, if it's already got an ocean on it, that helps you know what to paint next. Versus, if there is already a mountain on it, that dolphin you wanted to paint won't make sense!
Don't make dolphins fly!
#11 Take risks!
A risk is something that scares you. It's when your heart beats faster.
You try a game you don't know if you can succeed in. You take an improve class even though you're sure you'll fail. You go in front of an audience for the first time. You agree with your partners ideas even though you think they're crazy and won't work. You do it even though every fiber in your body tells you to stop.
That's risk. Building that habit is one of the best things you can do to improve your life. It really is...
#10 Use your body, baby!
Ever notice the talking head syndrome? That's where a scene starts and each person's mouth is the only thing moving.
"Blah, blah, blah!" "Blah, blah, blah!" "Blah, blah, blah!!!!!"
Use your body! Move! Make some blind offers. Touch. Get on the floor. Move around the room. Crawl. Sit. Stand. Roll over. Play dead! Whatever, anything but standing around blabbing!
#9 Shut up! Silence is golden!
Do you talk to much? If you're improvising, it's likely that you do!
Slow down, both inside and out. Look, listen and get curious. Talking can be a defense. Let yourself settle and be in the moment. Shhhh.
The fewer words you use, the greater the impact of each one. The more you use, the less any of them matter. Talk enough and that's all people will remember about you.
Also, the more you talk, the less you think.
Just be with your scene partner, your audience and yourself. Shhh.
#8 Listen! Pay close attention!
Listening. Really listening. That's more than hearing. It's watching, hearing, feeling, smelling and tasting. It's paying attention.
The more you're in your head figuring out what the "right" thing to say is, the more you miss. The more you plan, the more you miss. The more you judge (yourself or others,) the more you miss. The more you think about the amazing sex you had last night... the more you miss!
It feels good having someone really attending to you. Be that person. The more you attend to what's going on around you, to what people are saying, to how they're behaving... the more you can utilize it effectively.
You ever talk to a salesman who ignored your protests that you didn't want what they were selling? That's the opposite of what I'm talking about.
You know in Miracle On 34th Street, how the Macy's Santa tells people to go down to the department store up the street because they have what that person really needs? Yeah, that's what I mean. Listening without bias.
Can you repeat all that back? Good, I thought you could.
#7 Raise the stakes!
Why do vampires play poker? High stakes!
But seriously, why do people pay hundreds of dollars to jump out of planes? High stakes.
Why do people watch hockey and not watch curling? (If you don't know what curling is, there's a reason.) Hockey has lots of high physical stakes, people get slammed. Curling is gentle and kind.
Generally, the more that's at risk, the more interested people are. Danger is a prime criteria that says to the human brain, "Warning! WARNING! THIS IS IMPORTANT!!!"
Anything that takes away the risk generally lowers peoples interest.
It could be by lowering the risk ("It's fine if you shoot me, I'm immortal!") It could be with a joke that makes the danger ridiculous ("I'll shoot you with this... banana!")
Risk can be physical. It can also be emotional. If you're marriage is on the line, that's risky. The possibility of losing love, or respect, or self-respect can be the biggest risks.
Remember the second most important rule of battle, never mess with a Sicilian when death is on the line! It will make you a better improviser...
#6 Be altered.
"Bad actors act when they're speaking. Great actors act when they're listening!"
Many people try to improvise and go out of their way not to be influenced by the other person. They argue, fight, block ideas, and do anything they can to seem unfazed.
The problem is that the audience WANTS to see you, well, fazed!
They want to see you surprised, overwhelmed, angry, happy, sad, lost, excited and disturbed. They want to see you react to what happens. Changed.
Let yourself respond honestly. If your spouse told you they were leaving you, would you make a joke of it? Probably not. If you were threatened with a knife, you make wisecracks? Nope. So, why do that in improv?
We can't relate to that. We can relate to someone who flies off the handle when their spouse announces a divorce. Or, who is emotionally overwhelmed. We can relate to fear at a threat with a knife. Or, even courage.
The only way you could make us by the wisecracks is if you've already established that you're an Indiana Jones type character who when confronted with a sword will make a joke and shoot the guy.
Respond honestly and we'll like you for it.
#5 Agree in 3-person scenes.
Mick Napier, in his book Improvise, suggests that people often mess up three-person scenes from the start. People want to create conflict by disagreeing.
A: "I love this golf course."
B: "Yeah, it's nice."
C: "I don't know, it's a little ratty to me."
This makes it harder to establish the platform for the scene and build up the momentum. It's even worse if the third person distracts:
A: "I love this golf course."
B: "Yeah, it's nice."
C: "I really wanted to go fishing today."
Now, it's hard to tell what the platform is at all. Is it about golfing? Is there an argument about what they did?
It's like if two people agree they are in England and the third says Russia. It's confusing and if you want to travel to France you'll disagree on what direction to travel.
At the start of a three-person scene, just get a general consensus started. Agree the golf course is awesome and then move into whatever is going to develop from there.
#4 Start first, think later.
We are fascinated by fear, risk and death. Meanwhile, we go out of our way to avoid them. It's natural. Everyone does it.
It's also deadly dull.
Rather than waiting until you have a great idea, start first. Your mind and body will catch up.
If you say, "I'm going to do an amazing thing..." Your mind will come up with what it is. It will. Virtually always. And, if it doesn't, everyone will appreciate that you threw yourself into it.
If you want for a brilliant idea to step forward and make itself known to you... you could be waiting a long time... very long...
A person in motion tends to stay in motion. A person at rest tends to become a dull decomposing blob. (That's right, Science!)
Say, "I have an idea!" You'll likely get one. Say, "You've made three mistakes." Poof! One-by-one they'll appear in your head. Walk over and pick up an invisible object. You'll soon realize what it is you're picking up.
On a larger scale: desperately trying to think of the "right thing" to say to that attractive stranger? Probably won't come. Looking for the "perfect business idea?" Never was one. Waiting for "everything to come together" so you can do an improv class, learn to dance, or travel? It won't.
If you walk up to that stranger, start any business you care about, or sign up for the class or trip -- if you start the process somehow -- you'll soon find ways to make it happen.
Start what you're excited to finish!
#3 Make the other person look good...
I'm about to say something to which you may take offense.
Don't be selfish!
You go onstage and you want to be the center of attention. You want to look good. You want everyone to love you, adore you, and think you're the most amazing person in the world.
Focus on making your partner look good. Emphasize their talents. Show off their bright ideas and creativity. Pay attention to them.
It's only by paying attention to them that you CAN look good. Really.
If you're off in your own world try to think of what will make you look amazing... you'll ignore what's going on and look stupid.
It ain't worth it.
Treat your partner like a genius and there's a good chance people will view you as a genius, too!
#2 Just die!
There are certain things a lot of improvisers just won't do.
That's because they would be out of the scene. Leave the scene before it's over? Never!
In fact, any strong action: dying, breaking up, killing, or firing someone is likely to be put off as long as possible. The improvisers are told one of them has to die in the scene. Minutes go by and they're making veiled threats. Hours pass. Night falls and soon the sun starts to rise in the east. Everyone is alive.
Just get it over with!
As in life, you have to take a strong action. It may seem like drawing it out adds drama. Nope, it adds time. It adds talking. It adds boredom. Rarely does it add drama. That's because it's an escape from the unknown. It's an escape from the irreversible. It's taking a strong stand.
Rather than beating around the bush, just hurry up and get it out of the way. Than, find out how it plays out. It's scary. Fear is interesting.
#1 Play with your status!
In every interaction you have with another person, there is a balancing act of status. Which person is higher or lower? Becoming aware of this can make your improv come to life! It can also improve the quality of your life:)
You communicate status very much non-verbally:
Do you stand up tall and make lots of eye contact? That's generally higher status than someone who slouches and avoids eye contact. Neither is right or wrong, but depending on the context and with whom you're speaking it can make a big difference.
Yes, body language is key. And, what you say is important, too:
If you insult another person it's an attempt to lower their status.
Complimenting attempts to raise them up.
Blame attempts to lower.
Giving orders to someone assumes you're above them. Begging implies you're beneath them. Giving advice also implies that.
By noticing what category what you're saying falls into, you can become more adept at interacting effectively with people.
Keith Johnstone first talked about status in his landmark book, Impro. He gave an example of one of his students who was consistently in B-movies. He tried out different status levels on auditions. If he played a higher status than the directors and agents, they hated him. If he played lower, they loved him but didn't hire him. When he played the same status, they loved him and hired him. He's now in A-movies.
(For those of you with a psychological interest: this is similar to concepts from Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) of Mirroring and Pacing.
Mirroring is where you take on the same postures, breathing rate and speech patterns as the person you're talking to in order to get in sync with them. Viola Spolin -- known as the grandmother of improv -- had students exactly mirror each other's movements on a regular bases as a way to get them in sync with each other.
Pacing is when you match their ideas and beliefs. The "Yes, and..." concept is a form of pacing, similar to Milton Erickson's utilization ideas. )
In improv training, many people will accidentally do the opposite of the status they are asked to play. Told to play high, they'll play low, and vice versa. This is because they have habitual tendencies in how they relate to people. They do what they are comfortable doing.
It's likely that by playing with your status, you'll encounter insecurities you never knew you had.
By becoming an expert in status levels and body language you can exponentially improve your communication. It also makes your improv go to a whole different level.