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Theatre Improvisation

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Improvisation is a drama technique that is used by most actors. It can be used either as a practice technique to allow actors to explore their characters, or it can be a public performance in its own right.

It can be used to allow actors to 'get to know' the character they are playing and how they feel and respond to other actors on stage. It can also be a good method for just goofing around with friends or keeping young children amused; for example, you can encourage them to make scenes from their favourite films.

Improvisation is basically drama without a script which allows freedom for the actor. It usually involves the actors acting out a scene without any pre-planning so the ideas are fresh and unique.

There are professional improvisation groups (usually comprising about five to six members) who improvise a scene in response to suggestions made by the audience, often involving key words. However, this can get boring for both audiences and performers. The key words often follow a similar trend ('politics' or 'sex' for example). After a while things get repetitive. Also, most of these groups tend to veer towards humour, or 'theatre of the absurd'. Following these trends can make the performers feel restricted.

Five Simple Rules To Improve Improvisation

There are a few basic rules in improvisation; the first and perhaps the most important is no blocking. Blocking is when another actor rejects an idea that is presented to them1, eg:

Actor 1: [Points to the sky]: Look at that UFO up there!
Actor 2: Don't be stupid, there's nothing there.

Automatically the idea is blocked. The actor should have gone along with the idea even if it wasn't what he wanted to happen. You shouldn't plan how you want the improvisation to go - just go with the flow!

The second rule is do not think. If you go into an improvisation and you've already decided the story and how you want it to go, it will not work. You need to compromise and go with other peoples' ideas. Just open your mouth and see what comes out! Remember, that the best improvisations are not planned.

The third rule is do not make jokes. In an improvisation things the audience will find funny will come up naturally and if you're performing in front of an audience and you make a joke, you will definitely kill the mood. No one wants to be on stage in complete silence with only the sound of the wind and tumbleweed rolling past; purposely trying to be funny will definitely achieve this.

The fourth rule depends on the audience but improvisations are best when you do not have to censor yourself. This includes being able to swear and make references to sex, drugs and alcohol etc. This obviously cannot be the case if there are young children in the audience.

Don't Forget...

When doing an improvisation you need to establish the 5 W's:

  • Who
  • Where
  • What
  • Why
  • When

However, depending on the circumstances of the piece 'Why' and 'When' can often be missed out.

These can be decided before the improv2 has started or once you are in the improv if you are more experienced. If you are performing in front of an audience they can be asked to decide them.

One last thing to remember in improvisation is to try and avoid arguments or talking non-stop. Silence can be amazing in an improvisation.

Improvisation Games

Games involving improvisation can be used in any situation and for almost any purpose. They can be used to amuse a bunch of bored children, or to enable actors to explore their characters. They also require very little in the way of props or scenery; usually, anything that is laying around can be adapted to fit the piece. Below are some of the most common and simple improv games.

Park Bench

The premise for Park Bench is very simple. A number of chairs - usually about three, depending on the size of the group - are set in the middle of the area, with enough space for the players to walk comfortably around. The players then decide on their characters. These can be absolutely anything, from a man walking his dog to a lost space alien. Players then enter the 'park' and interact with each other in the manner of their characters. When a player gets tired, or runs out of ideas, his character makes excuses to the others, and then leaves. Another player with a totally new character can then take his place.


This game has many names and many variants, but the following is one of the simplest. The players stand in a circle. The first player mimes holding something, for example a hamster. He then mimes interacting with the hamster, for example, stroking it. He then either passes it to a neighbour, or throws it in the air for another player to catch. Either way, as soon as another player touches the object, it transforms into something completely different. No two people may use the same idea. The game ends when all players have passed the object on.

And Finally...

Remember to use your imagination. And have fun!

1 It can also mean non-improvised movement or direction in a piece; for example, a director telling you to move to a specific place etc. 2'Improv' is a shortened word for improvisation. It can also be shortened to 'impro'.

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