The Delight of Surprising Yourself – Notes

(Private page for members of the The Delight of Surprising Yourself course.)

Wisdom of the Week!

  • “If we’re doing something well, we’re repeating. If we’re wobbling, we’re improvising.” John Cremer

Principles & Tools

  • Staying Fluid Under Pressure:  Remember your ‘instructions’ for how to lock up and how to reverse them.  Practice a few times: You’ll get better at noticing when your doing your particular “deer in the headlights” and at undoing it and coming back to being fluid and responsive.
  • Be affected by what’s happening. Care about it. If you scene partner does or says something crazy, one option is to react like you would in real life.
  • Bring a brick not a cathedral.  You don’t have to create everything but if something’s unclear – who you are, where you are, what you’re doing, how you feel – be bold and establish it.  Your scene partner will thank you!
  • Let it land. Pause after you’ve done or said something so there’s time for it to land. Useful in real life but especially online where there’s a slight time delay.
  • The most interesting thing is usually the relationship between the characters. Talk to each other about how you feel about each other.
  • Give each other names that aren’t your real names as a reminder that you’re playing characters
  • “If it’s bad, make it worse!”
  • If something unusual happens – explore it. aka “Game of the scene” or “The Unusual Thing”

Some photos of my laser display screen 🙂

Fun and Freedom are Built on Trust and Feeling Safe

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.


Genre Rollercoaster

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.

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

etc etc

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.

Animal Magic

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.

New Choice

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: Like a lot of short form games, 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.

Household Olympics

Four players. Two non verbal “athletes” competing in the Olympic event of a household task supplied by the audience e.g. ironing, pairing socks, peeling potatoes. Two commentators – with their cameras off. The athletes do everything in slow motion for extra drama.

Tips for playing

Athletes – Its all about your physical commitment. Total focus on your “sport”. You can lead the commentators too with your emotional reactions, slips, triumphs, how you look at the start, how you are afterwards.

It’s helpful for the commentators to create some structure so the audience and athletes know what’s going on. This can also be led by the athletes. e.g.

  • Warm up: “Welcome to the [washing up] Olympics. The two finalists today are [Igor Boynovich representing Russia] and [Marissa Keystone representing Hutsville Carolina, USA].” Use the athletes’ physical offers – does one look confident or unsure? What’s at stake? What’s the backstory between them? Any injuries? Speculation about what might happen.
  • Match / playoff: Either commentators or athletes can signal it’s about to start. Nice to make it clear so we know it’s beginning. What happens during it? One might pull ahead or fall behind. Mistakes? Drama? Sabotage? Hubris? Late comeback? Disqualification? Maximum commitment from athletes and commentators. Sport is incredibly important to the people involved!
  • Aftermath: Who won? Who lost? How do they feel about this? What are the implications? Find a way to climax and end. Commentators sign off with maximum drama “What a day it’s been!” or whatever.

Fun extra things

  • Any parodies on sports shows – names, backstory of the commentators
  • Naming the show you’re presenting, the sponsor? “Welcome to Crease Out, bringing you the best in top class ironing and proudly sponsored by the Flat Earth Society.”
  • Jargon specific to the sport “Oh I see Dexter is using the unbent back-fold. Well out of his normal repertoire. I wonder what other tricks he has up his sleeve.”
  • Commentators asking for replays to see big moments again, slow motion or speeded up replays, reverse camera angles

Your commitment to what you’re doing is what makes it great!

On not knowing and being ‘wrong’.

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

Original poem here with extra line quoted from someone else. Also find her here.

*Non-Native English speakers – she sometimes makes up words. I think “unselve” means “remove my sense of self.”

The Bengsons – Keep Going Song

This song has struck a nerve recently. It seems to be largely improvised. Notice how their sometimes not knowing where it’s going makes it even more powerful.

Laughing on Purpose

Laughter comes more naturally when you practice it. There are lots of opportunities but a couple I know are:

  • Lisa Hatton – Laughter Yoga and breathwork. Usually 8:00am Mondays and 8:30pm on Wednesdays. Get updates by emailing Lisa at
  • Julia Johannsen – Joy Circle, by donation. Tuesday 11-11:30 GMT. Get updates from her here.

It’s worth watching this documentary on the power of laughter.

I talked with Julia about laughter last year.