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Monday, September 9, 2013

5 Tips For Improving Your Improvisation!

Yours Truly, Bobby Keniston

So today at Theater is a Sport, I'm talking about improvisation and how it relates to theatre, particularly in school and community theatre. 

To answer the first question you must all be thinking.... WHAT IS IMPROVISATION?

In simplest terms (or, at least in the terms I think of it), improvisation is the act of creation with no (or very limited) preparation.  It is diving in and just creating.  It's being spontaneous. 

Because of this almost freestyle nature, improvisation can make many newcomers to theatre nervous.  Scared, even.  Heck, even I get nervous when playing improvisation theater games from time to time. 

It's acting without a safety net (the safety net being lines written for you).

But, then, here's another question:  WHY IMPROVISATION?  WHAT'S THE POINT?

However, I'm a firm believer in improvisation and its uses in character development and really digging into questions of motivation and "as ifs".  Not to mention, it can be SO MUCH FUN.  It's a great way to learn to trust yourself, and trust your cast mates.  And, if you can become proficient at improvisation, it truly comes in handy when you get on stage and something goes awry. 

In a sense, I believe Improvisation to be the purest form of acting, really.  The goal of any play should be to appear like it's happening right there in the moment, and the performers should appear to be creating their own lines and actions.  It's trying to create the notion of improvisation, only you've had rehearsal and lines written for you. 

And, my favorite thing about improvisation is that it makes the two biggest rules of acting come to startling life:  LOOKING and LISTENING.  And then, REACTING.

So here are a few tips for spontaneously creating a scene when playing theatre games or learning to improvise.  Hopefully these tips will help you to keep a scene going:

TIP #1:  I did not invent this, and anyone who has ever had any experience with improvisation has probably heard it:  YES, AND...  What this means is that you should take what your partner gives you, and treat it as fact.  And then build on it. 
For example:    
PARTNER A:  Boy you sure are getting fat!
PARTNER B:  It's the Ho-Hos, man.  They call to me in the middle of the night.  It's like I'm cheating on my wife with snack treats!
That's accepting what your partner is giving you, and building on it.  This scene could now go in different directions, with the subplot of the wife o what-have-you.
Now, Partner B might be as skinny as a rail, but not in the truth of this improvisation. 

TIP #2:  ESTABLISH YOUR CHARACTER ASAP!  When improvising a scene, it's a good idea to cut the malarkey and get right into it.  Audiences will want to know who you are from the get-go. 
For example:
PARTNER A:  Doctor, help me!  My arm was just cut off!
PARTNER B:  Careful!  Your dripping blood all over my examining room!  Don't you have any manners?
Right away, Partner A has established him or herself as a person in dire need of medical attention, and Partner B has built on that, making his or her doctor a bit fussy and unfeeling.  This scene could build in many interesting ways. 

TIP #3:  Some call this setting up a BLOCK and some call it DENYING, and both those terms are true, but I'll put a more positive spin on it:  GO ON THE JOURNEY WITH YOUR PARTNER.  Remember that in an improvised scene, it is not about YOU.  It's about you and your partner(s) working together as a team.  Blocking or denying your partner is a way to kill a scene very quickly, which, obviously, is the exact opposite of what you want to do. 
Here is an example:
PARTNER A:  Doctor, help me!  My arm was just cut off!
PARTNER B:  Your arm is right there.  And I'm not a doctor.
And another:
PARTNER A:  Is this your first frat party?
PARTNER B:  What are you talking about?  I'm in the supermarket!
And another:
PARTNER A: (miming holding a puppy)  Do you like my new puppy?
PARTNER B:  There's nothing there!
See what I'm talking about?  Go with your partner.  This is all part of Yes, and... to an extent, but it's more than that, too.  It's about moving in synch with the person you're performing with, and not shooting down their creations. 

TIP #4:  KEEP RAISING THE STAKES!  Just like a scripted scene, a performance is more interesting if the stakes keep going up, and the action keeps rising and rising.  Scenes are interesting if they build.  No one wants to see something stay on the same level for too long.  It's boring.  Part of the point of improvisation is for you and your partner to keep building, just like a written scene should keep building.  Now, fun improvisations often go off and build in a somewhat exaggerated or surreal fashion, but that's okay, too.  As long as it builds.

TIP #5:  RELAX AND DON'T BE IN YOUR HEAD TOO MUCH!  You're going to be a very nervous improviser if you stay in your head too much.  If you keep worrying, "I don't know what to say, I don't know what to say, I don't know what to say...", then guess what?  You're not going to know what to say.  But if you really look, listen, and put trust in yourself and your partner, then you can do this.  Don't worry about being as funny as the Upright Citizen's Brigade, or Drew Carey's Improv shows.  In fact, right now, don't worry about being funny at all.  In fact, don't worry.

Just make a scene.  Relax.  Create.  You'll be fine.  No one's life is hanging in the balance.

Remember, improvisation can be a really great time, if you can let yourself go. 

And also remember--- theater is a sport.

Any questions or comments?  Let me have 'em!  Share them with me below, or send me an e-mail at!

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