Improv Initial Research


What is Improv?

– Improvisation is a form of theatre in which no script is used. Instead, the actors   create the dialog and action themselves, as they perform.

– The audience is integral to the improv experience, they shape the


– Improv can not be done by one person; it is an art form that is necessarily   created by group thought and a group mind

– It uses the audience’s suggestions to shape the action that unfolds on stage

– Action is spontaneous; unlike scripted theatre, there is no guarantee than any   given scene will “work”

– Improv is not, by definition, comedic (though comedic improv is the most   popular kind)

– “Perhaps the single most important thing that improvisors learn is the value of   agreement. Since nothing exists until the actors create it, a scene will only be   “real” (for both the performers and the audience) if everyone agrees with each   other about things like where they are, who they are, and what’s going

on.” (Roehl)

– Fundamental process of improvisation is the action of performers accepting   and building off of each other’s ideas

– Since its inception, improv theatre’s main goal is to be accessible to everyone


History of Improv

– Informal improv pre-dates writing; before scripts were being written, people   told stories by acting them out

– Most direct ancestor of modern improv is the Commedia Dell’Arte

– troupe of performers who traveled Europe, presenting shows in public


– actors would improvise all their own dialogue, within a framework provided by a set     “scenario”

– their popular performances would often satirize the authority figures of the day

– began in the mid-1500s and remained popular for almost 200 years

– Improv faded into obscurity after the Commedia died off

– Resurrected in England by Keith Johnstone in mid-1920s

– felt that theatre had become pretentious

– wanted to bring in the average man in the street and those who went to boxing/sporting     matches (same audience for whom Shakespeare had written)

– combined elements of both theatre and sports to create a hybrid called Theatresports

– improv teams would compete for points awarded by judges, and audiences would be

encouraged to cheer for good scenes and jeer the judges

– Paralleling events in England, American Viola Spolin developed games in the   mid-1920s as a way to introduce theatre to inner-city children, called Theatre   Games

– these games were created by Spolin because she didn’t believe you could simply tell a     child to “act”

– her games were structured to organically lead a child to perform a theatrical task     without being told what to do or how to act

– In the 1930s, Spolin adapted her games for the WPA, continuing to work with inner-city     children and adults in neighborhood theater projects

– Inspired by his mother, Viola, Paul Sills built on her work and became, along   with David Shepherd, a major driving force behind improv theatre at the

University of Chicago in the mid-1950s

– From their efforts spawned the Compass Theater, which eventually evolved into     Second City

– Alumni from these two groups are the virtual founders of sketch comedy in America     (Shelly Berman, John Belushi, Joan Rivers, David Steinberg, and most of the original     cast of Saturday Night Live)


Who Are Improvisers?

– No one type of improviser

– People with previous acting experience pick it up fairly well, though acting   experience is not necessary

– though anyone interested in becoming an improviser is encouraged to attend

workshops or classes, as they will be more credible/likely to be picked up by an    existing improv group

– No age restrictions

– children often make great improvisers, as they are less likely to censor themselves on     stage


Improv Show Structures

– Although improv, in itself, is the art of spontaneity, each improv group usually   follows a certain structure in each show

– Structures can be unique to each group; it’s their choice on how to run their   show (some groups follow their structures strictly, others more loosely

– Ian’s group, Nothing I’m Proud of, has a set structure that they perform at every   show:

First Form:

– begin with an audience suggestion of an historical event

– have a scene of all the members discussing that event, as if giving a lecture

– then have quick scenes based around the opening conversation, involving any   actor wishing to join scene

Second  Form:

– begin with audience suggestion for a made-up movie title

– open with all the members accepting an award for the “movie” in which they all   had a part

– have two scenes that come directly from that “movie”

– continue with scenes centered on events occurring around the filming of the   “movie” interspersed with other scenes directly from the “movie” until the end of   the show

– Other groups can use more strict structures that dictate how many and which   members perform in specifically ordered scenes


Improv Group Dynamics

– Trust among members is an essential element for an improv group to function   effectively

– In order for each member to reach his full potential onstage, he needs to feel   that he won’t be left alone in a scene that’s “going south”

– Each group should have different personality types in it

– a “wildcard” type can bring something new and exciting to a stale scene, and a calmer     type can bring stability, credibility, and structure to a scene

– During practice, groups run through exercises together that help them to both   hone their improv skills and feel closer to their other group members

– Nothing I’m Proud Of even eats dinner together every Sunday at a member’s   house

– “The stronger the realistic relationships are between the characters on stage,   the more the audience will connect with the scene. The more they connect with   the scene the funnier they will find it.” (MacLeod)


Strategies for Joining an Improv Group

1. Take courses or attend workshops on acting, stand-up comedy, and/or


– although there are usually no educational requirements to join an improv comedy        group, experience can help you feel more comfortable onstage and appear more        credible in audition situations

2. Perform in community theatre plays and open mic nights at local comedy     clubs

– this not only helps you gain experience, but also allows you to make contacts and       search for any openings in local improv groups

3. Check for auditions being held by local improv groups

– postings can be found in newspapers, on college and university campuses, and        online

4. Go to improv shows

– arrive early or stay later to speak with the performers and ask if you would have a        chance to audition for their group


Tips for the Onstage Experience

– Agree; first response to your partner while performing improv should be “Yes,   and..”

– you’re not just agreeing to what your partner said, but you’re also giving yourself an     opportunity to add information and better define what’s going on in the situation/scene

– Justify; information can get confused and illogical in improvisation, so if   something contradictory or absurd comes up in the performance, try to make   sense of it or explain why it’s so

– Commit; create a believable and sturdy world, then perform in that world

– when you commit to your partners, the characters, the scene, and your choices,     funny material will show up easier and more organically

– ironic detachment is the worst attitude to have onstage, and making jokes about your     scene will never endear you to your audience




“History of Improv.” Creativity Engineering. Creativity Engineering ™. 24 Jan. 2012. <;

“How to Do Improv Comedy.” wikiHow. 1 Sept 2011. 24 Jan. 2012. <;

“How to Join an Improv Comedy Group.” eHow. 2 Feb. 2011. 23 Jan. 2012. <;

MacLeod, Hugh. “Improv Relationships.” Learn Improv. 23 Jan. 2012. <

Reed, Stacey. “What is Improv?” Phoenix. 17 Jul. 2011. 24 Jan. 2011. <;

Roehl, Bernie. “Improvisational Theatre.” Improv Comedy. 24 Jan. 2012. <;


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