(Private page for members of the The Delight of Surprising Yourself course.)
Save this page – I’ll keep it updated as we go. But this is not homework! Just some notes to remind and inspire you.
- Games and scene set ups we’ve done
- Shows you can watch
- Poems and Quotes
- Laughter sessions
Games & Scene Set Ups
Clingy Priest (variation)
The suggestions take the form of adjective + profession e.g. silly nurse, nervous pilot, over-friendly fire fighter. The game runs as a sequence of characters. There’s no need to do in depth scenes, just to have fun with the character then introduce the next one.
Player 1 comes on screen. Director asks for a location (e.g. zoo, supermarket, airport) and an adjective + profession.
Player 1 plays that character for maybe 20 seconds before introducing the next character. Take the new character from the chat if you can see it. If not, you can make one up.
Two ways the new character can enter:
- Player 1 says “Oh look it’s the _____[confused teacher]____”. Use this to call someone on.
- Player 2 switches on their camera and waits to be endowed [told who they are]. Use this if you want to get on!
You might have a brief interaction. Player 1 leaves.
Player 2 is now on their own for 20 seconds before introducing player 3
Tips for playing:
- Don’t be subtle or clever introducing the new character. Just say what exactly what an audience member has written. They’ll love hearing you directly using / honouring their suggestion. “Finally! Here is [the heroic flower seller]”
- The fun of this is mainly about enjoying the wide range of characters. If some kind of theme or story emerges, that’s great but if it doesn’t that’s fine too.
- There’s no need to have a meaningful conversation each time either. For our purposes it’s also a chance for everyone to do something straight away.
- Bonus points for maintaining a connection to the original reality.
- Mega bonus points for coming back round to the original idea to create a neat ending when everyone’s had one or two goes but be careful not to do this too soon. I’d expect maybe 10-15 characters.
Two people start a normal, grounded scene. The director occasionally calls out “Pause! Continue in the style of _____” and names a new genre of film or TV. Thriller, telenovela, art house etc etc.
Tips for playing: Use the first part to establish who you are, where you are, what your relationship is. Don’t look for anything funny at this stage. You’re establishing a reality that the director will mess with later. The more clearly you establish the base reality, the more you’ll have to work with later.
Two characters start with opposite statuses – one high/one low – and slowly find a way to end up the other way around. The high status character became low and the low status character switched to being higher status.
Status is fascinating. Part of us is drawn to watching the psychological dynamics. We played with different ways of behaving in high and low status ways as a way to find characters. Someone can be powerful in life but act in low status ways e.g. a hesitant king or space captain. Equally someone can be low status in life but high status how they act e.g. a condescending beggar. High status characters can also be – on one level – kind. “Looking after” someone is quite a high status thing to do.
Tips for playing: We know where it’s going to end up. The joy is in the journey and each subtle shift. So take your time. The more logical each shift is, the more satisfying it is to watch and play. When you get to the extremes of high/low status at the end – feel free to let rip and play full out for a fun climax!
Starting from a Movement
Instead of initiating with words, initiate with a movement. This is a great way to keep moving and allow yourself time to ‘discover’ something new rather than trying really hard to say something clever.
You might know what the movement is e.g. cleaning a window, climbing a ladder or you might not. Either is fine.
Scene partner – two reliably good options:
- Tell them what they’re doing. Whatever you say is correct. Even if they thought they were screwing in a light bulb, if you tell them they’re launching a spaceship, then that’s what it is. Take it from there.
- Join in. Copy their actions even if you don’t know that they are. At some point one of you clarify what you’re doing. Then mainly talk about something else, not about what you’re doing. Usual tips apply – relationship, what you care about, noticing what’s unusual etc etc
Players create a scene. The director can call ‘new choice’ at any time to make a player change the last thing they did or said. The last thing remains and they carry on.
Tips for playing: A bit like Genre Rollercoaster, the fun comes from the director messing with you. So establish the reality of who you are, where you are, how you feel about each other, what you’re doing. If it feels too safe the director will keep calling new choice until you’re back on your edge. Usually the director will call New Choice more at the beginning then allow the scene to play out later.
Two human begins with animal like characteristics meet and interact.
We ask for suggestions of animals from the audience.
Dubbing Scene / Body Double
Four players. Two are the physical actors. Two others do their voices.
Tips for playing:
- It’s a bit like being a pantomime horse – coordinating your body and voice is super cool.
- There are four people in the scene so you should be contributing 25%. That feels like a lot less than 50% so allow enough space for the four players to all contribute.
We play this a bit different from normal in that we allow the story to move forwards sometimes but you all seemed OK with that, so let’s keep it like that! Two players start a scene from whatever initiation they want (e.g. word, movement, location, relationship). At any point the director says “Pause – Meanwhile in ______” and names a new location that has been mentioned in the first scene. The first players leave the stage (turn their cameras off). Whoever wants to be in the new location turns their camera on and a new scene follows until the directly calls out “Pause – Meanwhile in ______” and we shift to another location. etc etc.
Tips for playing: There is plenty of time to discover funny patterns so no need to rush. To begin with, focus on establishing who you are, what your names are, what your relationship is, what you’re doing, what you care about etc etc. The more clearly you can establish the reality, the easier it will be later. It also gives other players more to be inspired by.
You can be different characters if you want. Try to make it clear through your embodiment if you’re a different person.
See if you can feel when the end is. It will most likely involve the original two characters again. e.g. in the videoed one, everyone had assembled at the grandparents’ house or the piano recital was finally happening. Nice ways to finish can be to escalate whatever’s going on (eating / feeding / chaos at the grandparents’ house), bringing back the original suggestion (the piano), or coming back to the theme of the first scene (Sally building up to dive into the pool on Thursday).
Like in the montage, you can spot fun patterns from other scenes and build from there. e.g. buying the last chocolate cake
Others – We did these but I suggest we don’t put them in the show
Scene Painting leading into a scene
Everyone contributes to describing a realistic location where everything ‘fits’. Characters find themselves in that location.
One player shows the another around an imaginary museum. The guest can ask lots of questions, which the museum expert answers with complete conviction.
Montage of Scenes from True Stories
Players tell true stories from their lives, first inspired by a word from the audience then either by the word or by the previous story. When there is enough material to play with, the stories stop and players do scenes inspired by the monologues or by previous scenes.
Tips for playing: This is all about spotting patterns and what’s unusual in what’s happened then riffing off that. This is what Middleditch & Schwarz do in their shows. Other troupes like Austentatious do the same but they’re noticing the unusual thing within the show. We can practice doing this more in another course!
- Einstein’s theory of improv time. Ten seconds on stage feels like an hour. But for the audience it only feels like ten seconds, which is a fine length of time to invite them into what’s happening. Notice next time you watch a film or TV.
- Suggestions: You don’t have to use them literally. If the word is “banana” you can eat a banana. But you could also be a banana, you could be the chief of a “banana republic”, you could be someone who is going bananas (crazy) with a situation, you could be someone whose skin has turned yellow, you could be a slapstick clown fed up of falling over for a living. It’s nice to say the word to show you’re honouring the audience’s suggestion but feel free to associate in whatever way you like.
- If things are getting chaotic, try pausing after speaking. You can still talk fast if you want. Then stop and allow at least a couple of seconds for your scene partner to respond.
- Use movement as a way to stay fluid and start embodying your character. Saying words is often the least interesting thing.
- If you’re not sure about something, it’s probably not been established. So be bold and just say what it is. You can’t get it wrong and everyone will be grateful! “I know you’re the ringmaster but…” / “It’s a golden floor made of dominos…”
- “Bring a brick not a cathedral.” Take it easy. Add a little bit every line. It doesn’t have to clever. You don’t have to know how it will end. Stay in responding and adding to whatever your scene partner is doing. You’ll co-create something amazing together.
- Mistakes are brilliant! They’re not ‘mistakes’ at all they’re little bits of randomness to build on. Take them and build them back in to what’s going on.
- Remember you can be any gender
- Allow space. Even if you need to say something fast, you can also pause to allow what’s just happened to sink in. Especially online where the is a lag between you and your scene partner.
- Allow space #2. If there are more than two people in a scene (e.g. dubbing scene) then you might only be contributing 1/4 of the time. That feels like a lot less than 1/2.
- Give each other different names than your actual names. It helps be clear that these are characters you’re playing, not you.
- Talk to each other about how you feel about each other. Find the relationship. If you’re stuck, begin your next lines with “I”, “We” or “You.”
- Slow down! Nerves often make us go too fast. That plus the time lag on Zoom can get confusing. Allow yourself to be affected by what’s just happened.
- The heart of the scene is probably the relationship between the characters. Feel what you feel and express it. Talk to each other about how you feel.
- Patterns are fun. Look for the unusual thing. Then ask yourself “If this is true, what else is true?”
- Who are we? Where are we? What are we doing? If you don’t know, your scene partner probably doesn’t either. You can do everyone a favour by being bold and naming it.
- Your offers are a gift to your scene partner. Give them something they’ll love playing with.
- Make your scene partner look good. Just decide that they are a poet and a genius and whatever they’ve done is amazing even if you don’t understand it yet.
- Managing nerves – staying fluid
- Embracing freedom to do whatever you want
- Being seen physically and verbally
- Relaxing into fun
- Reducing self editing – allowing things to come out without knowing what they are
- ‘Discovering’ rather than ‘inventing’ – allowing yourself to be surprised
- Embodying characters by emphasising different body parts or being a bit like an animal
- Building things that fit together – I am a tree / Scene painting
- Giving and taking offers – “Yes Let’s” / Yin & Yang / Listening & Naming
When you tell someone else how / who they are. Like in “It’s Thursday” “You’re feeling ____ because _____”. Or Clingy Priest “Here’s the absent minded bus driver.”
The first thing in a scene. Something you say or do that starts the ball rolling.
Cross initiation – when you both start different scenes at the same time! It happens – you just have to jointly decide which way to go.
Longform / shortform
- Short form improvisation is when you are given a game by a director. Usually fast and funny. Can rely a bit more on being quick. e.g. Whose Line Is It Anyway?
- Long form improvisation is finding your own fun while you’re playing without anyone telling you what it should be. Can be whatever you want it to be. Troupes find their style over time. e.g. Austentatious, Middleditch & Schwarz
Ending a scene, particularly if it’s going to be followed by another scene.
Ending a Scene
The director usually calls “Scene!” to end a single scene.
An offer is anything you contribute to a scene. It could be verbal “Well here we are at Disneyworld!” or non-verbal like a look, an expression or a pause. You’re noticing and responding to your scene partner’s offers. They are noticing and responding to yours.
How Improv Works
The concept of “Yes And” – accepting the reality that has already been established and adding to it. This is also sometimes called “Accept and Build“. You can also think of it as Yin and Yang. The Yin is accepting what you’ve been given. The Yang making a decision and contributing something yourself.
The main kind of improvisation I like is essentially a chaotic feedback loop. Whatever happens we’re practicing noticing and accepting it (yin) and building on it (yang).
Joy, Skill & Risk
Improvisation’s sweet spot is a combination of joy, skill and risk.
Trust, Connection and Fun
Fun rests on relaxing, connecting, trusting and safety – physical and emotional. That means taking care of each other and also taking care of yourself. If something doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. We are playing characters who aren’t ourselves but there are real people there too. Have healthy conversations.
A great way to get inspired, see what’s possible and start to find what you like is to watch other people’s shows.
Genre Based Shows
- Austentatious – shows in the style of Jane Austen novels. You don’t need to know the novels. Polite manners, young women considering who to marry. A fun 30 minute radio version on BBC Sounds “Fried and Bread With This” here. (The title from the audience is a play on “Pride and Prejudice”, her most famous novel.) There are two shows available to download here. Brits might recognise Rachel Parris from The Mash Report.
- The Maydays “Happily Never After” – An improvised show in the style of Tim Burton films. The Maydays often have a wide emotional range so they may include sweet and touching moments as well as silly/funny ones. Here they are in Barcelona. One quite dark storyline interspersed with some silliness. The sound quality is OK but might be a bit hard to hear sometimes. And another show recorded in London.
- Impromptu Shakespeare – Improvised Shakespeare-style show. I haven’t found a video of this yet.
Two person shows (“Two prov”)
- Middledith and Schwarz on Netflix – Fast, clever, playful American two person improv. Very funny! They sometimes switch who’s playing a particular character. The embodiment and position on the stage shows you who they’re playing.
- 10 Thousand Million Love Stories – Improvised stories about love.
- Do The Thing – Fun Brighton two-prov musical whom I’ve enjoyed seeing. Two shows here – The Long Flowing Locks of Lusitania and Sleep Time Fury Now.
- Parallelogramophonograph (now called P’graph!) at the Barcelona Improv Festival They are also regularly performing online now at twitch.tv/hideouttheatre
- Showstopper – London improvised musical. Amazing! There are two recorded shows available online here. They are doing a live online show on Friday 28th August. Details here.
Short form improv means players are given challenges and games to play. Mostly we’ve been doing long form improv, where we discover what’s fun while we’re doing it.
- Whose Line Is It Anyway? – Long running US/UK TV show. UK show from the 1990s. US show, which is still running. If you’re in the UK, you can also see it on All 4 here.
Poems and Quotes
“Treat your audience, and one another, like poets and geniuses.”Del Close, Co-Founder of iO / ImprovOlympic, hugely influential Chicago improv theatre
“Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous I don’t know”Polish poet Wisława Szymborska, Nobel Prize acceptance speech.
As the Broken Do, Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer
May I be wrong. May I come
to you without my books,
without my rules, without
my shoulds. Let me always
arrive at your door with empty hands.
Let me meet you with my pockets
full of blank, not convinced
of anything except
the possibility of everything.
Let me be wrong. Let me not label anyone
a liar. Let me bottom out.
What is it in us that wants to be right?
I have seen it turn a whole month, a whole life
to ice. I have felt the chains of certainty,
I have worn the shackles of listen-to-me.
Let me be wrong. Let there be chinks
in my belief. Let there be splinters in my conviction.
Look how alone it is
in this hour when I am so perfectly right.
May my rules go begging. May my imperatives
learn to crawl. May my righteousness hold an empty bowl.
May my musts all redden to rust.
And may I be wrong as the wrongers are wrong.
May I unknow. And unlearn.
And unselve. And love as the lovers love
Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer
*Non-Native English speakers – she sometimes makes up words. I think “unselve” means “remove my sense of self.”
Traveller, There Is No Path, Antonio Machado
(Wake = the waves behind a ship)
Traveller, there is no path.
The path is made by walking.
Traveller, the path is your tracks
And nothing more.
Traveller, there is no path
The path is made by walking.
By walking you make a path
And turning, you look back
At a way you will never tread again
Traveller, there is no road
Only wakes [of ships] in the sea.”
― Antonio Machado, Border of a Dream: Selected Poems
I really like Julie Nolke’s videos. (She made the famous ‘Explaining the Pandemic to My Past Self‘) She plays all the parts but gives them really different physicalities. We will practice this!
Laughter comes more naturally when you practice it. There are lots of opportunities but a couple I know are:
- Lisa Hatton – Laughter Yoga, by donation. Saturdays and Sundays (depending on the week) 9:20-10am BST. Book here. Lisa is in our Friday improvisation group!
- Julia Johannsen – Lighten Up and Laugh, by donation. Tuesday 11-11:30 BST. Just go to Julia’s Zoom here https://zoom.us/j/3281569185 Julia’s a good friend of mine. You can join her email list here and/or donate on Paypal to email@example.com
Mila shared an article on Laughter. Why I stopped meditation and replaced it with something more powerful.
Lisa recommends the documentary Laughology here.
I talked to Julia about laughter last year.
Using Zoom for Improvisation
I always end up with MASSIVE HANDS on videos 🙂
I guess you’re familiar with Zoom by now but if not, I made this video at the start of you-know-what to go through some of the functions that can help using Zoom as an improviser.
We’re going to work with the Zoom app. If you don’t have it, you can download it for free here. Install it and use the audio / video check before we meet so you’re not stressed at the last minute.
If you already familiar with Zoom, then just skip it.
- Gallery / Speaker views
- Muting / Unmuting sound
- Switching video off and on again
- How to ‘hide non video participants’ to focus on people who are in a scene, create walks, step up for a game and so on
- How to hide the image of yourself on the screen so you don’t get distracted by seeing yourself
- What breakout rooms are
- Chat box and how to use it