Improv inspired by true - anonymous audience secrets.


If you want variety in your improv...then you probably like different formats.... comedy, games and long form.

Consider asking audience members to write true personal secrets anonymously on cards before a show..and then use them in place of suggestions or to prompt the show along.

Here's the way it worked at BATS Improv recently.

I approached audience members and asked them if they'd like to contribute to the show.  If they said yes, I would tell them I was looking for personal secrets.

Something the people at work don't know about you.  A guilty pleasure.  Something your parents don't know.  A belief.  Something you didn't do.  Something you've always wanted to do.

Many of them took the challenge.  Others replied, "I don't have any secrets."  "Really", I thought.

The Improvisational format involved 5 director - directing each other in scenes.

My theme was to tell a story using the audiences secrets.

We started with this one.

Two actors on stage...married and happy for 3 years.  The gal confessed the secret on the card above to her husband.  He was not pleased and decided to leave her.

The following scene found the gal alone in a park reflecting on her situation.  An actor off stage provided her inner thoughts with the aid of the microphone.

Her husband came by and they chatted for a while.  Both interjecting more secrets from time to time.

In the next scene she went back to her childhood home to talk to her parents.  There were more confessions including the one below from her mom.

In the final scene she returns to her husband and they decide to confess all their secrets.  (I gave them each a stack to use).

Every time an actor used one of the secrets the audience showed their appreciation.

These aren't all the secrets used in the improv...but they will give you an idea of what it was like.

Yes I did choose not to use some secrets that were graphic or overly sexual ...or simply seemed like a gag.  But here's the thing I liked about the experiment:

  • I loved getting the audience involved in a personal way - and talking with them before the performance.
  • I loved being reminded that we all have parts of us that are personal and secret.
  • I loved that the material was not trivial.

I have been experimenting with secrets and wrote about it in an article in this blog.  You can find it here.

I found inspiration in the web site: PostSecret and by talking with the folks in Austin about what they've been doing with secrets.

Have you experimented with true secrets on stage?  Would you be interested in more of this work?  Please comment below or drop us a note.

Improv discussions in 140 characters tweet!


I talked with Paul Killam about Twitter and Improv Conversations.

William: Paul you are an improviser at BATS Improv in San Francisco and you teach improv at the College of Marin.  And you have been performing improv regularly for about 20 years.   You’ve started using twitter for improv discussions.


I started using social media several years ago because my students in college were all there and I could disseminate information to them without having to send group emails.  Facebook became popular just after that and was a better platform.   Being able to reach my students is important to me.  And twitter seems to be a more immediate and less game oriented format.  Still...I’m not sure what to make of twitter.

It seems to be primarily about driving traffic to web sites but there is also another sort of sphere going on...about discussions in very-very short forms.   I was starting to understand that some people have very succinct twitter posts....and useful ones...and things that I’m interested in.

I thought it might be an interesting way for people to exchange ideas and drive conversations in a topic I’m interested in, Improvisation.  And a good discussion can help me to clarify what I’m thinking about improv.

William:   What makes it a good tool?


It’s a very short, you can’t repeat yourself over and over again.  You have to say it and cut out words....and get on with it.  If improvisers were using it, it might be a way to disseminate ideas and have discussions.

William: When you search twitter for ‘#improv’ you find mostly two things: announcements for shows and classes with a link and quotes about improv.   But the ones you post are different.  Here’s one:

 Submitted for your analysis: The real root of "problems" in improv scenes: fighting for control. Observe and report. #improv#impro


Most of the time when I hear improvisers they’re not do I put this...most of the time the exchanges seem to be besides the point on some level.  For example, how do get songs into improvisation?  Big deal, I don’t care.

You know what it is?  It’s that they tend to be about entertainment rather than about the things that makes scenes work or not work.  I don't think that anyone talks about some of the basic root problems that exist in improvisation.  

And because I am teaching rather young students I’m trying to figure out how to get them to not kill off their scenes immediately by introducing conflict or to understand that the reason they’re being negative is because they’re afraid and it’s a natural condition and that once they understand that, maybe we might be able to improve it.   So I suppose that by posting that one I’m trying to get improvisers to think about the basics...the root problems.

I’m looking the things that make scenes better and why are there always things that screw scenes up.  Why is it so difficult?  I don’t think it should be that difficult.

So with that specific one I was trying to address the basic ideas that I think are obvious and I want to see what other people think.

Do other people notice the same things I do?  Or is it only the people I hang out with that I find their ideas interesting– are they the only people thinking about these things? I put the hash tag on there in case someone else from ...say...England is searching for ideas about improvisation and they see the tweet and say, “oh look at this someone is thinking about this ...I was wondering about this too”

William: Explain what you mean by “fighting for control”.


I think that fighting for control is making sure that you get to ....oh...I’m not sure how to put this...changing the direction of a scene to fit someone’s own ideas ...or to keep themselves safe by not having to change.   Or putting another person in the scene in a position of losing, of having to change ...having to become the character that is acted-on.

It happens all the time.  People say, “Wait, wait I have the right idea that’s going to fix this.” And it takes the scene off in a totally new direction that leaves the original question just sitting there without being answered.  Or leaves the original set of exchanges unfinished.


I taught a workshop recently and these are experienced improvisers and quite often they were choosing to make the other person ‘wrong’ or the other person (or character) to lose in the scene.  My teaching has changed now, and I ask them what they were after....or what were they thinking.  That way we can uncover it rather than just be prescriptive.


That one of the things I’m trying to do with putting these ideas out there  - I don’t really go for prescriptive teaching ...but that seems to be what most teaching is.

William: One of your other tweets talks about a ‘magic bullet’.

Submitted for your analysis: notice many Improv "experts" advocate a "magic bullet" for improv success - genre, space objects etc #improv

As if saying “yes, and” to everything was THE answer, or good space object work was THE answer to make a scene good...


Or you must have Genre attached to every scene.  Or you must determine who the protagonist is...

William: Or you must find the game of the scene...


Maybe there are magic bullets out there...but it doesn’t seem likely.

William: Paul thank you for speaking with me...I’ll type this up and lets see if we get any responses longer than 140 characters.


ha ha.

8 RULES FOR CLOWN GAGS: Paraphrased from Kurt Vonnegut


When I saw these 8 ideas, I immediately thought that they apply to the work that improvisers do every time they step on stage.  I think they would make the basis of a good improv workshop.  What do you think of them?  ~William Hall

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the audience at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every moment must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your character, make awful things happen to them—in order that the audience may see what they are made of.
  7. Perform to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your clowning will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your audience as much information as possible as soon as possible. Your audience should have a complete understanding of what is going on.

8 Rules for Clown Gags:  Paraphrased from Kurt Vonnegut by Pat Cashin. [re-posted from Pat’s fun site:]

What's your secret? Who would you tell?

Secret-girl:  Improv Show based on Audience Secrets

Would you tell an audience of strangers that you

have more debt than your wife knows about

? That you

had sex in the bathroom at work

An audience did recently at BATS Improv.

Before the performance I distributed index cards to audience member and asked them to write down a personal secret. "Don't write your name, just the secret", I added. They did and I put the returned cards unread into my pocket.

Later on stage I would open one of the secrets and set up an improv scene based on the secret. The audience was very engaged. Every time I pulled out the stack of secrets they came forward in their seats.

The idea is based on the popular blog of anonymous secrets called PostSecret.  Short personal secrets finally unburdened.  Andy Crouch and his fellow Improvisers in Austin have been playing with this concept for a while and he offered this advice:

Always honor the secret.  Some are light-hearted and some are serious but always honor it.

Yes some of the secrets seems like jokes.  Like this one: I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.

But others were revealing.  One secret said:  I still sleep with a blankie.  I set up the scene with a young man sleeping in bed with the blankie tucked up under his chin.  He was visited by the 'angle of maturity' who tried to take his blankie away from him.  Instead he gave an impassioned speech about the important of having security in the world and if a piece of cloth does that for him then so be it.  He offered her the other end of the blankie.  She tucked it up under her chin and instantly felt what he was talking about.  They both leaned back into the bed....and as the stage lights were coming down to end the scene the actor asked, "do you want to help me with other parts of my maturity?"

Here is a list of some of the secrets from the show:

  • My husband is a porn addict
  • I hate my mother-in-law
  • I'm a cougar - for fun!
  • I still wet the bed
  • I don't wear deodorant
  • I blew out the transmission on my mom's car getting stuck int he snow while "parking' in high school.
  • I'm a bad father
  • I still love Diane
  • My step-son is my real son
  • I just bought a MAC and my husband doesn't know yet.
  • I was diagnosed with down's syndrome as a child

I know that I'll continue to explore this path to improv theater.  It feels like we're dealing with real human issues instead of another 'first date' scene (not that there's anything wrong with that).  There is plenty of room in the world of Improv for so many approaches to the work.  Man...isn't this fun!?

Here are a few more secrets the audience shared when I tried the format again:

  • I slept with a college professor
  • My babysitter used to drop acid (so I sat myself).
  • I scared my arm practicing giving love bites
  • I'm a virgin ...everyone thinks I'm not...I wish I wasn't.
  • I life in the Tenderloin and everyone at my school labels me as 'ghetto", when in reality my favorite song is Taylor Swift's "Love Story"...I'm a dude.
  • I like my ex, but she has a boyfriend in Canada.  She thinks I'm cool, but she likes him more!
  • Sing Happy Birthday to Becca!  It's her Birthday today!  Thx [we did]

Keith Johnstone in 140 characters

inspiration light bulb

Keith Johnstone is teaching in San Francisco now (August 2010) and we are tweeting bits from his workshop. Follow ImprovNotebook (click here).

And follow the hashtag:  #KJBats

Sample Tweets:

  • I think my brain is much more intelligent than I I tend to trust it. ~Keith Johnstone
  • Best side-coaching for improvisers in a scene? "Do it." Some actors don't want to move into the future. ~Keith Johnstone
  • Beginners will almost always shout: "Come in!" when the doorbell rings - they don't want to move... ~ Keith Johnstone
  • Actors are made of eggshells - improvisors shouldn't be... ~Keith Johnstone
  • Good actors are not thinking ahead.  They are listening to what is going on right now.  ~Keith Johnstone
  • I think my brain is much more intelligent than I I tend to trust it. ~Keith Johnstone