How to Start Your Own Improv Comedy Group
Table of Contents
Sample Game Staging Suggestions
About The Author
if all the theatre books in the world taught people how to
rehearse but not how to perform?
Nothing on presentation.
This odd situation exists in the genre of improv theatre
books, where there are quite a few published tomes providing
improv training, but nothing, really, on how to perform it
in front of a live audience.
This book gives all the tools that a reasonably competent
adult would need to understand improv theatre, train others,
form a performing group, and keep it together as long as possible.
The unique element of this book is its focus not only
on improv concepts and games but on practical guidelines for
creating a viable performing group and staging improv games
for live audiences. The book includes an extensive game list
with staging comments.
You can order the book here
Table of Contents
- The goals of improv training
- Getting yourself going
- Basic Agreements/Scene Rules
- Understanding Games
- Workshop #1: Basic Agreements
- Workshop #2: Exploring the Group/Space
- Workshop #3: The Character in The Scene
- Workshop #4: Introduction to Performance
- Organizing the troupe
- Organizing the show
- Show rehearsal
- Ongoing Workshops and Rehearsals
- Musical Improv
- Long Format
- Contact Improv
- Keeping It Together
- Nowhere To Go But Up
- Whither Improv?
- List of games explained in the book
- Other games and staging suggestions
Sample chapter: Chapter
3, Understanding Games
A game is a simplified world. There are clear guidelines.
There are boundaries. There are tasks to perform and positive
feedback to be had simply for trying to achieve those goals.
Everything is clear-cut, unlike most of life.
What theatre games do is occupy the mind while training the
individual in a number of presentation skills. Any particular
game may emphasize one or another presentation skill. If we
play a mirror game we are learning to watch other people onstage,
and to physically duplicate that behavior. The growth of mind-body
integration is obvious. If we play a game where two players
are dubbing the voices of two other players, you train the
physicality of the non-verbal players and the quickness and
observation powers of the second group, plus increasing cooperation
But the main value is the freedom that game playing brings
to the player. They improv player gets absorbed in the game
challenge and is no longer worried about the audience. This
turned Viola Spolins shy children into assertive theatrical
performers, because it was all (presented as) a game.
The underlying scenework
Onstage games almost always involve some kind of scenework.
Its analogous to a track meet where the athletes
overall strength, flexibility, endurance and cardiovascular
efficiency provide a basis for all the running, jumping and
The games are really just vehicles to get the players in and
out of scenes. Its important that your players feel
totally at home in doing scenes so that they are at ease when
the game lands them there.
The workshop games tend to develop scene skills, such as group
agreement, give and take, stage picture, saying yes, making
statements, etc. If the players remember these things when
they are onstage, you will have good scenes and good games
and a good time will be had by all.
How Many Balls in The Air?
It would not be unlikely for a particular player in an improv
game to trying to give reality to an imaginary pencil while
moving with the body image of a stork with a legato (fluid,
smooth) internal rhythm in a floating imaginary atmosphere
while constantly searching for tiny imaginary objects while
playing the role of a bed bug stuck on a piece of toe jam
on an Australian aborigine.
That may seem like a lot to be carrying around, but most of
it would just be starting points from which a certain physicality
and bits of onstage business would result.
Lets unpack the situation where such a pile of elements
could be carried around by one person. First of all, giving
reality to imaginary objects is a fundamental skill in an
environment where we typically have no props. Looking at and
playing with the prop in a studied way can give a greater
sense of reality to the object. This is object work which
needs to become second nature to an improv player, so, since
it is automatic to our imaginary skilled player, lets
cross it off the list of balls in the air.
When the player is waiting for her scene assignment, or just
after it begins she may decide to take on the body image of
a stork, and the floating atmosphere. This is an instant way
into creating a physicality that translates into a particular
kind of movement. Once she has made this choice she is in
it, and it should take little attention to keep it going if
she has a history of doing animal/people work.
The game itself may be Tiny Objects, which requires a player
to constantly discover tiny objects in her environment, so,
since thats the main focus of the game, it shouldnt
be too difficult to continue. The toe jam location and the
bed bug persona was probably given by an audience member,
and that is simply who she is.
Lets say our player is Louise and that she has a partner
named George, who has decided to have the body/movement image
of a whale (even though he is a bed bug), also in a floating
atmosphere, and he is playing the same tiny objects game.
The scene might go like this:
Louise: George, darling, I believe that we are in some
unusual feeding grounds [flicking some dust off of her clothing]
George: Yes, precious, I believe that we have arrived
in a rather gooey state. [Leaning over slowly and picking
up a bit of goo to eat].
Louise: I suppose that we should add it to the list.
George: Oh yes, the list of putrid dining spots.
Louise: Quite. I do believe it will be a best seller
[pulling out her pencil and inspecting it for sharpness].
George: So, I suppose youll be needing the back,
then [licking some residue off of his fingers as he turns
his back for her to write on].
Louise: Yes, indeed [pushing him to the ground and
sitting on his behind]
George: I love this part [laying on his stomach, picking
up tiny morsels and popping them into his mouth as he kicks
his feet playfully in the air behind Louise]
Louise: I know you do, darling, I know you do [starting
to write on his back].
That is a perfectly believable improv scene, with physicality,
bits of business, and characters that emerged out of choices
of atmosphere and animal archetypes. The primary game was
the tiny objects assignment. But theres nothing stopping
a skilled improviser from adding a few more elements at the
onset to give the scene more texture.
In most improv games, however, there are one or two major
game goals under focus, with the whole set of guidelines for
scenework as an underlying framework. Youll notice that
the aspects of the Australian Aborigine, the floating atmosphere
and the legato quality have hardly any effect on the story.
The latter may have given rise to the slightly effete, upper
society dialogue. And the aborigine element might come into
play later. It doesnt really matter that all the elements
get woven into the scene. They are a point of departure for
what is really happening, i.e.- a scene in which a believable
relationship can be explored, in character, where dialogue
that is appropriate for the situation can emerge with minimum
Game focus evaluation
If you are leading an improv group you will have to guide
the players in what constitutes good improv. Beginning players
will often complain that what they did wasnt funny.
Extroverts without an improv background may be searching to
find some joke that they can insert to make it funny, to get
attention, or to carry the scene for all of the
Its your job to explain what we are really looking for.
The first question is, did we fulfill the demands of the game?
The game may be something like Phone Bank. In Phone Bank individual
players enter, at different times, a space with an imaginary
row of phones such as you might find at an airport. Each player
picks up a phone, dials a number, and starts talking. When
one player starts to talk, the other players reduce the sound
of their conversations to a whisper. Any player can retake
the focus by bringing up the sound of their conversation,
at which time the previous speaker will fade out. Players
keep going with their conversations, chronologically, even
when the audience does not hear them. Then, one by one, the
players take focus, make final comments, hang up, and leave
This game, when done properly, can create a fascinating collage
of character types passing each other in a public place, having
their little moment on the phone, and then leaving the space
Evaluating the success of the game would include mean asking
if everyone understood what they were supposed to do, whether
they faded out effectively when the next person spoke, whether
they continued their conversation believably, and got off
stage within an effective period of time.
Scene rules evaluation
The same scene, considered from the perspective of scene rules,
takes on another flavor. Of course, the Give and Take structure
of the game is a fundamental scene rule, and so that analysis
is relevant in both environments. But there are also considerations
of object work, in believably dialing and holding the phone,
opening doors, if any, on the phone booths, and putting the
phone handset back in the same place you picked it up. There
are also considerations of volume that side-coaching statements
such as Share Your Voice are designed to address. This is
just a start.
You also want your players to be able to evaluate how they
felt doing the scene. We are, after all, hoping that this
will be play for the players. We want them to
feel that their experience of the game is important. Were
the game rules clear to them? Did they retain their focus
or get lost in the presence of an audience? Hopefully the
comfortable familiarity of being on the phone gave them something
secure to hold onto onstage.
Finally we evaluate how entertaining we thought the piece
was. It may seem surprising that I put this one last, but
it is intentional. Not that we dont care about the entertainment
value. Just that if we do the first three things properly
the fourth will typically come along. The games are intrinsically
interesting. Most people would be fascinated to hear other
peoples phone conversations, even if they are imaginary.
So if you play the game right, creating a believable scene,
and you seem to be having fun, the audience will be right
with you, listening in.
Evaluation can take place in a workshop setting, or even post-performance.
Ideally post-performance evaluation will take place with a
video replay, if time allows.
By establishing these guidelines for evaluation, we redirect
the attention of the new player to where it belongs, on the
technical elements of onstage games and scenework, and on
their own enjoyment. Letting go of the worrying about entertainment
value puts the focus on the elements that will create the
entertainment value. The less they worry about how they look,
the better they look. Its a great load off of the player,
and a win-win for their future audience(s).
The Role of the Audience
The audience, therefore is a secondary consideration for the
improv player, just as the sports audience is not (usually)
part of the game in a sporting event. The audiences
attention adds excitement to the event, but their entertainment
is a by-product of the improv activity.
We do ask the audience for suggestions for our improv games,
such as settings, occupations, relationships, etc., but that
is to a large degree only to help assure them that the material
that they are seeing is truly improvised and not planned.
We could just as easily make up these elements ourselves,
and indeed, in games such as Scene from Nothing (see Appendix
B), we do that very thing.
Its interesting to note the types of suggestions that
we solicit from the audience, since the topic illuminates
some fundamental principles of improv and some practicalities
of improv performance.
Viola Spolin described three aspects that need to be decided
onstage, i.e. - who, what and where. We need to know who the
players in a scene are, where they are and what they are doing.
When we solicit a where we are looking for a location,
which I narrowly define as a location that will fit on the
stage. This is a crucial distinction when getting suggestions
from a live audience. When asked for a location for two performers
in an upcoming game, audience members will sometimes make
suggestions such as France or New York City.
At that point the emcee must ask for clarification, by saying
something like Where in France? until there is
a suggestion that is specific enough to fit onstage, such
as, on observation deck on the top of the Eiffel Tower.
This is mandated because we want the players to be able to
find and use physical specifics of a believable environment.
Of course, it is possible to run a scene where France would
fit on the stage, but then the players would have to be enormous
giants and it would be very destructive to the French landscape,
which could be interesting, at least. Still, for most scenes
we want a specific, localized where.
When we speak of who we are generally looking
of a relationship, e.g. - co-workers or blood relations, such
as father/daughter, brother/sister, etc. Soliciting a relationship
tends to bring elements of relative status into the scene,
which were explored in depth by Keith Johnstones Impro
and continue to form the basis of games such as Status Switch.
In any case such suggestions get the ball rolling and the
scene players can pick it up and run with it.
What we dont really want from an audience is the what
of the scene, i.e. - what are they doing. Sometimes an audience
member will spontaneously suggest something like they
are getting married, or shes dumping him.
If we give the players the who, what and where of the upcoming
scene, they will have nothing to do other than recreate the
audiences suggestions. We dont want that. We want
them to discover something new, surprising and fresh without
any real prompting.
In some ways we dont really care what the audience comes
up with, other than as a starting point. The suggestions just
give a set of initial conditions, and the players move into
the new and surprise everyone, themselves included.
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Sample Game Staging Suggestions
Game: Foreign Expert
One player speaks gibberish and the other translates into
English (or whatever language you are performing in).
The emcee plays a crucial role in packaging this
game for the audience. She explains we have a special
guest tonight, and assigns a gibberish/nonsense name
to the Foreign Expert. She explains that the Foreigner doesnt
speak English, but is an expert on every other topic, and
asks the audience to suggest a topic for the expert to discuss.
The emcee also points out and introduces the translator.
Once the audience chooses the topic, the emcee repeats it,
and then the translator translates the topic (in
gibberish) to the Expert. The expert may dialogue in gibberish
back to the translator in an apparent attempt to clarify the
question, and them will launch into a lecture. The translator
should be animated and gesture dramatically. The translator
should be more understated and take a background role, even
though they, of course, are the one making the whole thing
up. The translator of course gets ideas from the gestures
of the speaker, and the speaker may get ideas from the translators
stuff, too. One crucial element is that the translator must
listen carefully for a sort of concluding statement by the
speaker. Even though the speaker cant actually conclude,
of course, they can fairly clearly indicate the end of the
speech with body language and tone of voice.\
Game: Foreign Poet
This game shares many elements with the previous game, but
there are subtle differences in presentation.
The emcee announces that the famous poet (give gibberish name)
is here, and endows the audience with the quality of being
the poets ardent fans, saying, so, you all know
her work, so please pick the title of one of your favorites
among her poems, and the translator will translate.
At this point the audience makes up a title, and the translator
translates the title to the poet, and away we
go. The translator shouldnt try to rhyme. Just a free
verse version of the gibberish poem will suffice. One thing
that we try to do in my troupes is to amaze the audience by
going for the production of a poetic statement that actually
has wonderful feeling and insight.
Game: Mr. Know it All
This is a fun game that works apparently like magic, but
is actually quite easy to do if the players maintain certain
agreements (see staging suggestions). There is one narrator
and three players. The players are seated in a row, facing
the audience. The players answer questions posed by the audience,
each contributing one word at a time, in order, until an answer
has been created.
The players should not look at each other or appear to touch
each other in any way, so that it is clear that there are
no signals between them.
The narrator plays a crucial role here, in introducing the
three players as if they were one entity, e.g. - Mr. Know
it All or Ms. Know It All (or The Know It All
if the group of three is a mixed group of men and women).
Narrator explains that the Know it All knows everything and
can answer any question. The audience poses questions and
the Narrator repeats them for the audience and the Know It
All. The narrator also repeats the answer for clarity, sometimes
making a humorous comment of some kind about the answers (which
are not always brilliant, fully grammatical, or complete).
The players should try to answer the question in as few words
as possible. Yes or no or short, cryptic answers are best.
If any player whose turn it is to speak feels that the last
word given could possibly serve as the end of a sentence that
answers the question, that player should not speak. Once or
twice in a session the players should break this mold and
answer in a long rambling way, just for contrast.
The narrator can play an editing role here if
she feels that the three players have assembled a complete
answer by restating the successful answer to the audience,
with a sense of triumph, before another player can speak.
Ms. Ask A Lot
This is a group of three players lined up as in Mr. Know
it All with the sole difference in their behavior that they
come up with questions one word at a time.
This is a companion or conclusion piece to Mr. Know It All.
By adding this group of three to the first group of three
you get six players onstage and the groups simply ask and
answer questions of each other one or both ways. Can work
well if the two groups are women vs. men
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About the Author
a former class clown who once upon a time gave up his drama
major for literature and twenty years later rediscovered his
onstage performing talents after a traveling troupe of Second
City performers passed through his home town, gave a show,
a workshop and left a curiosity for more. Several books, rehearsals
and years later he collaborated with another player to create
a a highly popular performance group, The Bedtime Snack Theatre.
This group specialized in improv game performances as well
as musical and skit elements derived from improv material
and song parodies. And they served a snack at the break.
That group eventually morphed, split up, reorganized and emerged
as a number of other groups, such as 7000 Clowns, The Lucky
Ducks, High Moon Musical Improv, Brand X Improv, and Friday
The Lucky Ducks performed a number of live TV shows on public
access TV, with viewer input, and several of the later troupes
explored and presented the long form and musical improv genres
in the local market, based on an all-day seminar given locally
by Charna Halpern of Improv Olympia fame.
Paul is a creative and friendly type, with an extensive background
in professional writing, teaching and web marketing. He has
been active in advertising copywriting and print publication
management for 25 years, taught ad copywriting on the graduate
level for ten years, and was an early adopter of web technologies,
founding a web consulting and design group in 1996.
He writes poetry, essays, ad copy, movie reviews, stand-up
comedy, fiction, literary journalism, a humor column, a web
marketing/design column, etc. He has many interests other
than improv, including tennis (he's a USPTA P-1 pro), Transcendental
Meditation, poetry writing, and performance-oriented partner
He now mainly consults in web marketing and
design, website structures/usability, and search engine optimization/pay
per click advertising.
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You can also order the book here