10 Tips to Start Improv-ing NOW!

I believe that anyone can do improv! And while there is no such thing as a set-in-stone rule when it comes to improv, this list will provide you with basic guidelines to great improv. Whether you're looking for acting exercises, party games, or to begin your improv career, use these 10 tips to start improv-ing now!

1. Yes, And...

It's the oldest rule in the improv book: "Yes, and," anything you are given in an improv scene. By doing this you are accepting your partner's suggestion and building upon that premise.

What this means: You agree to whatever circumstances, premise, or direction for a scene that has been set, then add to the scene with your own statements or actions. By doing this, you acknowledge that your partner has made a good decision and you will both now be using it. Then, because you're a stellar improv partner, you build the scene by adding your own information.

In practice: Begin with two people. Person A makes a declarative statement. Person B responds with "Yes, and..." and makes another statement to add to what Person A just said. Go back and forth until you're comfortable adding to information given.

2. Show Don't Tell

Which would you prefer: watching two people talking about doing an activity for 20 minutes, or watching two people doing that activity for 20 minutes? Obviously, we all want action.

What this means: If you're in an improv scene, instead of talking about an activity that has already been done, or is going to happen, SHOW us that activity in action. We are a visually compelled society and your audience's ears will grow tired after a few minutes of only dialogue and no activity.

In practice: Begin with two or more people. One person begins a physical action, the other people join in the scene, building upon the activity that has been established. If you are a beginner, you may find yourself talking about what you're doing. That's alright, but as you become more comfortable, challenge yourself to never reference the activity during your scene. (Ex: two guys are on a boat fishing, but during the scene they only talk about their wives and their work, never about the fishing).

3. No Questions

Generally speaking, avoid asking questions during your scene. This doesn't mean you can never ask questions. It means that you should avoid asking questions that puts the burden of creating the scene on your scene partner(s). So avoid asking questions like:

  • "Where are we?"

  • "Who are you?"

  • "What are we doing?"

  • "What is that?" [accompanied by pointing at an empty space]

What this means: As you become more comfortable doing improv, you may find the occasional question lends itself to the genuineness of a scene (let's face it, people ask questions all the time in real life). But avoid starting a scene with one of those noncommittal questions listed above.

In practice: Take turns starting scenes with declarative statements and continuing with only declarations. As soon as someone asks a question, stop the scene, and start over. Continue until you feel comfortable with this technique. For an extra challenge, choose scenes where characters are lost or learning a new activity.

4. Make Assumptions

Going hand-in-hand with #3 - if you can't ask questions, make assumptions.

What this means: Go ahead and make bold choices at the beginning and throughout an improv scene. Instead of asking your partner's permission to create the world around you, start creating it and trust that they're going to "yes, and" their booties off with all your great ideas! Instead of asking, "Where are we?" say "Wow! 1912 New York bordellos never looked better!" You're not being selfish by doing this. You're giving your scene partners a plethora of vivid imagery and creative content to bounce off of and build a scene with.

In practice: Same exercise as #3.

5. Get Physical

No, you don't have to do jumping jacks or push-ups or burpees to be physical, but don't be afraid to get exaggerated in your movements to breathe life into your scenes.

What this means: Tying in to #2, physical action can be more interesting than chit chat. And with improv, the bigger the better. Don't hurt yourself, but don't be afraid to over-exaggerate movements and activity to emphasize your intensified emotional states.

In practice: Play a charades-like gibberish game. Player A begins by performing an activity. Player B comes in and tries to join in whatever they think the activity is. Without speaking any known language to each other, the players must work together to communicate what is happening. For an extra challenge, have Player B smoothly transition into a new activity in the middle of the scene. At the end of the scene, both players reveal what they think they were doing.

6. Deny Nothing

If questions are improv creativity balls and chains, the word "No," and its equivalents are an improv guillotine.

Denial Improv Moves Examples (AVOID THESE):

  • Changing a name someone has bestowed a character/object. "Bob? I'm your other son, Dave!"

  • Denying an established relationship. Player A drops down on his knee to propose. Player B responds with, "What are you doing? I'm your mother!"

  • Questioning a location choice. "This isn't the mall! We're at the beach!"

  • Disregarding or contradicting anything established during a scene.

What this means: When you deny your partners' creative ideas, suggestions, or choices, you are immediately stopping any forward movement in a scene and consequently breaking the bond of trust between the two of you. Denying something your partner does is you telling them, "I don't like your idea. I don't think it will work. I don't trust you to have good instinct." Nobody likes to work with a scene partner who does that. Even if you come into a scene with a great concept and direction that you're sure will knock the socks off of everyone, be ready and willing to drop it all if your partner calls the mimed crowbar in your hand an ice-cream cone.

In practice: "Yes, and" what your partner does.

7. Trust Your Partner(s)

You're traveling into the unknown, blind with no protection and no lifelines to save you - except the creativity of you and your partners. No, this isn't an episode of Man vs. Wild, this is every improv scene you'll ever experience.

What this means: It means that everyone views and respects each other as a creative genius, and acts as a team player in any given improv scene. It also means getting to know your partner's boundaries and respecting them once they are established. Discuss things like pronouns, scene topics, and physical touch so you and your partner(s) know what's ok and what's off-limits.

In practice: There are lots of great trust-building exercises that you and your partners can use (like these 15 exercises), but one of the best ways to build trust is to spend time outside of rehearsal with your partners. Grab dinner, play some boardgames, or just meet up somewhere and talk for awhile. The more you know about your partners, the more you understand them. The more you understand their personalities, the better your team will work together and build a natural trust with each other.

8. Establish Who You Are and What You're Feeling

In the fast-paced, adrenaline pumping moments of an improv scene, knowing who you are and what you're feeling will help give all of your scenes direction and structure.

What this means: Knowing who you are will help you establish relationships with anyone else in the scene. And knowing the emotion you're feeling during a scene will help you establish your "why" or motivation for the character. Both the relationship and the "why" for a character are key aspects to finding and developing scene work and game.

In practice: With two players, establish the who, what you're feeling, and why you're feeling it within 3 - 5 lines of dialogue. Ex: Player A: Honey, come on, we're going to be late! Player B: Mom, I'm nervous. Player A: Oh Timmy! Don't be nervous! You're gonna have so much fun at your first homecoming dance!

9. Listen, Listen, Listen

All of the work of an improv scene can be done for you if you open your ears and close your mouth.

What this means: Your partners are giving you beautiful little nuggets of improv gold with things that they say. If you listen - really listen - you'll catch all kinds of clues for where your scene can go, as well as inspiration and jumping off points for other scenes. Great improvisers will take little things they hear their partners say, store them in their memories, and then use them in later scenes as brilliant callbacks that delight the audience to no end. And the best improvisers support their partners during the scene by listening to what they say.

In practice: This one is an individual mental exercise. You have to train yourself to listen to your partners - listen with intent - and practice recalling (or bringing back to the scene) information they said.

10. Don't Try To Be Funny

Comedy is not derived from things that are funny. Comedy comes from things that are truthful. Let's say it again. Comedy comes from things that are truthful.

What this means: Don't. Tell. Jokes. If you are performing an improv scene and feel like stopping it to tell a joke you think would go so well with whatever's going on, squash that feeling and keep playing the scene. If you stop the scene, you are stopping the action and letting the air out of the room. Also, don't do something bizarre, over-the-top, or blue just because you think it'll get a laugh. It won't. People laugh at situations (comedic AND dramatic) when they are truthful and they recognize something real in them. Don't feel pressured to make your improv "funny." Strive to make it real. Some of the best improv deals with dark subject matters. And remember, just because the audience isn't laughing, doesn't mean they aren't completely enamored with what is happening on stage.

In practice: Change it up, and do scenes dealing with serious or mundane material. Short-form games are good to bring up the mood, pump up the energy, and get people giggling, but exercise your emotional muscles to do more than schtick and find truth in your scenes.

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