Improv Class: The Start of the Beginning

You teach improv, right?  What is the very first exercise that you introduce to the group? Do you do something with a name exercise?    Or do you jump right into an improv activity.

Here is a name exercise that I often use.

Know Your Neighbor Ask the group to get into groups of two.  Ask them to choose which is person 'a' and which is person 'b'.  Ask person 'a' to interview person 'b', finding out their full name, their hometown and a piece of literature that was important to them when they were young.  Then ask for a volunteer among the 'a' people to tell the story of their partner....introducing them to the group with the information they learned.  Then ask that person to choose which pair will go next.  When that is done, repeat the process with person 'b' asking the same questions of person 'a'.

I like that at the end of this exercise everyone has one person that they know and with whom they have shared a story.  I also like that the person who just told the story picks who goes next.  It prevents the predictability of going around in a circle.  This models the improv concept of always being ready.

Have you used this activity?

What activity do you use to start your first class?

What does your audience want?

The woman was driving a young man in her car. "I have something I want to tell you", she said.

"O-Kay", he replied "I better fasten my seat belt."

They talked about auto safety and traffic for a little while then a bell rang and the actors looked up at the rest of the class.

"That's 20 seconds" I said.   "Take a few moments to discuss what you think the audience wants to know about this scene."  The two actors started talking to each other and I gave the same instruction to the rest of the class, "find a partner and discuss what it is you want to know about this scene."

At the end of a few moments I asked the actors to continue the scene.

The woman spoke first, "Steve, I've always liked you ever since you started dating my daughter."

They continued for another 20 seconds, the bell rang again and I asked the audience if the actors had answered their question.  Most of the audience said 'yes'.

We ran this exercise for 45 minutes so everyone would have a chance to see what it feels like from both the audience and actor position.  Here's what we discovered:

The audience is a big guessing machine.

If their questions aren't answered soon enough, they lose interest.

If the actors don't know what the audience wants, how can they 'play' with them?

Here are the three things we kept hearing from the audience throughout the exercise:

    1. Names/relationships:  We want to know the names of the characters and their relationship to each other.
    2. Where they are:  We want to know the location of the interaction.  [Home, office, park or outer space]
    3. Why are we watching?  Trickier than the other two this one seems to involve commitment of the actors ("as if" they know where they are going) and following up on the elements of a scene.  (If you are driving in a car, you must be going somewhere that pertains to the scene...not just driving.)

What do they want exercise:

  1. Two actors improvise a scene (not a game).
  2. After 20 or 30 seconds ring a bell and stop the scene.
  3. Ask everyone to pair up and discuss what it is that they want to know about the scene.
  4. Resist the temptation to discuss this - and ask the actors to continue the scene and answer the question that they think the audience wants to know.
  5. After 20 or 30 seconds stop the scene again and ask the audience/class if their question has been answered.
  6. Stop and discuss or try it again.
  7. And the workshop leader, I suggest you model curiosity about the outcome.**

If you try this exercise please write a note below and let us know how it goes.  Always learning....


*The class is a summer Improv class at a San Francisco Bay Area College that I am co-teaching with two wonderful improv instructors:  Paul Killam and Lisa Klein.

**There are more questions about improv than answers, aren't there?

Image by:  'Kimberlee Kessler Design'

KJ Series - Notes from Keith Johnstone work in August 2009


William and I had the opportunity to work with Keith Johnstone and many wonderful improvisers in August 2009.  We captures lots of notes, ideas and inspirations from all of this work and are sharing these ideas in a series of posts.

Each post is labeled KJ for Keith Johnstone because that was the inspiration for the work.  We did our best to capture what we could and any quotations, misquotes, or variation is certainly our understanding from the work and done with the intention to be accurate and convey the meaning.

Look for more posts coming in the days and weeks ahead.

We would also love to talk to you more about all of this work. Please post a comment below, or say hi on twitter!

Quick Choice - Make fast decisions in a group


It happens all the time. You are in a meeting at work, a club, a group - and you are faced with a decision. What kind of pizza? What's the next topic to discuss? How should the group spend it's time next?  You need a decision and you need it now!

I was in just such a meeting with a group  of corporate trainers, coaches, and improvisers and we created Quick Choice. An exercise to quickly (in 6 minutes) get a group decision done.

Here is a PDF writeup of the exercise for you to try. Give it a shot - and leave a comment below with how you think it will work or how it did work!