What is Applied Improv?

inspiration light bulb

Applied  Improv

Improv, or Improvisational Theater, is a pure form of collaboration, creativity, and communication as a performance art. Applied Improv is the adaptation and use of improv games, exercises and activities in any context other than performance. There is a wide range of contexts that improv is applied including healthcare, wellness, therapy, training, communication, soft skills, K-12 education, and many others. Further, Applied Improv has a practical and sometimes specific outcome other than fun or entertainment.

Higher Engagement

Applied Improv uses games and exercises as the scaffold for learning. In some cases the game itself is a metaphor for the learning, in others the the game is a framework used to actively interact with the content. The act of play keeps the players engaged with the material for a longer period. By keeping people engaged with material and concepts for a longer period, more learning can happen and it happens in an active way that increases retention and learning.


Applied improv is based in experiential learning and intrinsic to that process is reflection. Daudelin* (1996, 39) defines reflection saying, "Reflection is the process of stepping back from an experience to ponder, carefully and persistently, its meaning to the self through the development of inferences; learning is the creation of meaning from past or current events that serves as a guide for future behavior." After each game or exercise the reflection process allows for the participants to find the meaning, extract the learning, and find their own understanding of the material.

* Daudelin, M. W. 1996. Learning from experience through reflection. Organizational Dynamics 24(3): 36-48.

Fundamental Principles

Theatrical and applied improv activities teach a set of fundamental principles that serve as a great model for using these techniques in other applications. There are several fundamental principles that underlie improv and have applicability in improv, work, and life in general* (Madson, 2001).

  • [intlink id="1365" type="post"]Yes, And...[/intlink]
  • [intlink id="1381" type="post"]Make your partner(s) look good[/intlink]
  • [intlink id="1371" type="post"]Celebrate Failure (make mistakes boldly)[/intlink]
  • [intlink id="1371" type="post"]Taking survivable risks[/intlink]
  • [intlink id="1376" type="post"]Storytelling is Collaboration[/intlink]
  • [intlink id="1374" type="post"]Make and receive offers[/intlink]
  • [intlink id="1460" type="post"]Listen[/intlink]

* Madson, Patricia Ryan 2001. improv wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up

How do you define it?

Let me know what I missed. How you frame it. Agree. Disagree. Add your voice with a comment below.

Bringing improv into one to one coaching


cubicleOne minute you are sitting in your cube, checking your email. The next you hear a knock and all of sudden you are on a theater stage with a spot light glaring in your eyes and expected to perform. Now you wish you had taken at least one art or theater class in high school! This is what some clients might feel when you bring up improv games in a one on one coaching session. What I learned from the AIN conference session by Drew Tarvin was that there are the four main things to watch for:


It's easier to be part of or hide in a group. The experience of a one-on-one session is much more intimate and you need a higher level of trust for the client to be comfortable performing when all eyes (yours) are on them.  Take the time to build trust and always be prepared to keep the trust equal by playing along and contributing in the games as much as the client.


The way you approach building trust and what games you play will depend on if you have a single session or multiple sessions. Keeping games simple, light, and introducing the concept of celebrating risk or failure will help right off the bat. Taking the time to let trust build and not pushing too hard will pay off every time.


As the coach you have to operate on two levels - the improviser and the facilitator. You need to develop your split brain and maintain observation without interrupting your game. When it does happen, it's a great time to own that and model the celebration of taking risks.


Regardless of the exercise or coaching, be sure to clearly define the goals and understand how the activity is moving toward the goal. Many games are fun to play, and sometimes that is a goal for unblocking or building trust. Games can be used in different ways, make sure you know what you are trying to achieve.

What do you think?

Leave your thoughts in a comment below:

Reading, Writing and Improvisation


My mom was a school teacher. Growing up, we had a vocabulary card every night at the dinner table. Its  hard to say which I resisted most - eating stuffed peppers or using the new word in a sentence. This week I had a chance to right that wrong inflicted on me. My friend Josephine is an improviser and an elementary school teacher.  We taught a workshop this week for K-6 school teachers. Improv games and activities are a perfect way to teach literacy by applying them to reading, comprehension, vocabulary, writing, even phonics.

Category Die (Bye) is a game where players in a line have to say an item in the chosen category every time a conductor points to them. The conductor alternates players and the audience yells "Die!" or "Bye!" for any mistake - hesitation, repeats, not in the category, anything they like.

Building on her work from Santa Clara University, Josephine and I collaborated on teaching improv games and adapting them to the classroom. It's simple to take familiar games like Category Die (or Bye in the case of kids) keep students attentive and engaged while they learn.

To adapt Category Die for reading you can use categories such as characters, location, objects, and emotions in a story

Almost any improv game can be used or adapted to helping students understand and learn stories, words, and meaning in any book. Many of the kinestetic games will work with younger kids and be a fun alternative for older kids.

Story Book Tableau -  read a page from a picture book, and then let a group of students create a tableau that shows what happened. After that the picture in the book is shown and you can discuss what was in the picture and what was in the text.

We started out teaching the improv game and then exploring the adaptations. After just a few games the teachers started describing the ways they would use each game in their own classes. We accomplished out primary goal for the workshop - give them some concrete tools to go back and use at the beginning of the school year, from the first day of class.

What comes next? The next workshop will build and expand the improv toolbox they can use with their students. The possibilities are endless, because each game provides a frame that you can use with many different kinds of content.

As an adult, I can appreciate the benefits my mom being a teacher.  Now, it's my turn to teach as an improv coach and mom has already taken her first improv class.  ( I still don't like stuffed peppers though. )

Q: What improv game could you adapt to teach someone at work, at home, or at school?

A: Leave a comment below with the answer - I'd love to know.