Improv ideas in stressful situations


You are stuck in the airplane for hours with little information, you are waiting for traffic piled up in front of you, or a false alarm fire bell empties your building to the parking lot. These are times when big changes happen to everyone's routine and people get stressed out.

Right now I'm in the first case. I the middle of my flight to Munich we diverted to Boston because the main cabin lost all power. Sleepy travelers, who have not been given much information find various ways to cope or find some control.

This is a time when I hope that everyone on the airplane has taken an improv class.

Accepting offers you are given: often they can't be changed so accept them and move forward with what has been given.

  • we are diverting to Boston
  • we are sitting on the tarmac

Making your partner look good: makings things better or easier for others make you both feel better.

  • the flight crew can't change things, taking it out on them doesn't help
  • helping other unhappy passengers get bags, move past, eases tensions

Serve the story: what can you do to make the situation the best for everyone instead of focusing just for yourself.

  • Don't be the loud person who has to get off right away
  • The story changed so focus on what comes next to tell the story as it is now, what is the next flight I need now.

The principles of improv are great for life every day, and really come into clear relief when the pressure goes up.

What are situations where you have used these ideas yourself, or what have you seen where you wish others had taken an improv class?

Improv lessons from Charlie the Unicorn

If you have not seen Charlie the Unicorn, get ready for a treat. If you have seen it, did you see all of the improv lessons in there! I love this video, but it took a few times (I'll admit to watching it a bunch of times) to see good scene examples. Don't believe me? Watch it again, and I'll talk about what I saw below.

Improv Fundamentals in Charlie

1. The power of being positive

It's really entertaining to watch incredibly happy people stay happy, especially when they are in a scene with someone who is being neutral or negative. It's an antidote for negative!

2. Strong Objective

The positive unicorns have a clear objective for the whole scene and try a variety to tactics to get Charlie in the cave at candy mountain. Charlie is reluctant, but that never keeps him from actually moving forward.

3. Stating the obvious

Just stating what is happening, that is a liopleurodon that tells us the way to go, is enough for it to become the reality of that world. And "were standing on a bridge" simple, obvious, but nice to see. This is all especially nice when working with space objects in improv.

4. Delay the trouble or no new trouble

Charlie is a grumpy character, but he is like that every day - so when he is reluctant to go with the other two, that's not anything new. The key is that he does go with the others and the story moves forward despite his protestations.

5. Go into the cave

Sometimes a cave is just a cave. But in this case, that's the cave in Candy Mountina is the offer we have been building on the whole scene - so we certainly want to go in there. Even if that is death - what comes after that? So interesting to find out.

6. Sometimes a well placed gag is the perfect ending

The ending is short and sweet. We have the final button that sums everything up and fills in all the gaps on what the real objective was for the pink and blue unicorns. And Charlie is changed, in this case to pain for being duped.

What did you see? (please comment below)

Those are a few of the things that I saw, what did you notice?

KJ2 - Learning - Failure is the only option


Notes from a Keith Johnstone retreat - August 8, 2009

I wanted to learn the unicycle, so I went out and bought one. After 15 minutes I gave up and put it away until a friend of mine told me it takes 6 hours to learn. So I tried again and learned to ride in 5 hours. (paraphrased from Keith's lecture)


He went on to tell us that in the first 15 minutes he was looking for improvements and that there are no improvements in 15 minutes work on a unicycle. The knowledge that it takes 6 hours means that no improvements in 15 minutes is no big deal, that things will pick up later. As it turned out this was the truth and it took  5 hours in reality in this case.

The same was true of drawing faces. Instead of setting out to draw 200 faces, he decided on 5000 faces. It took one year, one month, and three days to finish and therefore there was no frustration after the first 200 becuase there were 4800 left to do, so the expectations were low.

The trick is to let the audience see you fail and be happy about it.

Improv is creation in the moment in collaboration with other players, there is no risk of failure - there is certainty of it. Failure won't plague every scene but it is going to happen. Many of the games depend on failure because the audience wants to see you take risks and fail.

If you practice the question game until you have it down and can go for several minutes without making a mistake, there is no risk, and therefore no more game. It becomes a vehicle to show off your intelligence or how superior you are to the audience.

In learning improv, or anything, you need to fail. Most teachers and coaches prevent their students from having failures by trying to help them "get it right". They are robbing them of opportunities to reflect on their mistakes and gain experience.

As teachers, coaches, performers, or any other pursuit, we must accept the fact that we will also make mistakes, fail, and have opportunities to learn. It is still important to fail with good humor. As coaches we have an opportunity to model the very thing we are teaching.

You can't win every class as a teacher and you can't win every audience as a performer.

-Keith Johnstone, Aug 8, 2009

Failure Practice Exercise

Take any comic strip from a newspaper or website and remove the last panel. Now write 5 alternatives of your own. Keep trying with different strips and different days, there's plenty of practice. If you keep doing this for a month you will have generated lots of ideas. Who knows - one of them might succeed?