Info

Posts from the Improv Exercises Category

The National Theatre of The World did a long scene recently where Matt Baram and Ron Pederson never referred to each other by name.

Naomi Snieckus then mischievously pimped them, herself and Chris Gibbs into doing a scene that only contained names.

The result was hilarious but also fascinating, as they used only first names (e.g. “Edgar?” “Daphne…” “Timothy!”) to emote and define their relationships to each other.

It’s a fun alternative to the “Fifty” exercise, where two people do a scene using only numbers from 1 to 50 in place of dialogue.

Try it at your next rehearsal!

Name Game Wordle

One of the things that I do when I bring improv into the world of social work and/or academia is an exercise that I now call “The Drawing Exercise.” I learned it from the wonderful Jess Grant (in a group rehearsal with a bunch of very awesome people).

The exercise goes like this:

The premise is that the group works to create a picture together: line-by-line, person-by-person. Individuals take turns, but there’s no given order to the turn-taking. This is a silent exercise. The group is given one marker and a large sheet of paper on an easel (or on the wall). The instructions given are minimal.

  • draw ONLY one line or mark at a time
  • no talking
  • make your mark and then wait, facing the group, until someone takes the marker from you
  • the final drawing should appear drawn by one hand.
  • find your ending; when the group feels the picture is complete, you agree to this (non-verbally) and stop drawing

The group stands back about two meters from the paper, forming a semi-circle facing it. The facilitator makes a single mark on the paper, then stands by it with the marker in their hand until someone in the group (“A”) takes it from them. “A” proceeds to make another mark on the paper, and once again steps away from it with the marker in hand and stands until someone else continues the activity. The process continues until the group feels their picture is complete.

There are a ton of great things within this exercise, but for now I’m going to talk about making one mark at a time.

As an improvisational exercise, having to make one mark at a time is meant to induce the process of making room for the ideas of others. It’s intended to point to how it feels to do this kind of sharing, and to point to the experience of creating together and/or “having to” create together.

The technique of making one mark at a time also ensures that people take turns, and in doing this, give up some control, while making the concept of having control or personal power, visible.

Allowing for the ideas of others is an improvisational technique; not just allowing, but necessitating/obliging/enforcing. We’re forced to make room for the ideas of others, forced to “hear” those ideas because they are then “in the world/on the paper.”

We can’t ignore the reality that has been created because it is visible, concrete. In this way, it’s training for the improviser: to begin to say “yes” to, to work with, to engage with and accept, the marks of others.

The mark begs our consideration, as does our fellow players’ existence. Their words, their stories, their body language: these are all changing the space, shifting the flow of the air in the room, altering the shape of our body when we sit down or shake their hand or pull our gun (hahaha Michael Scott).

As an improviser, this is what we learn to do. We learn to actively consider the existence of others; their ideas, their postures, their words, their silences. We actively consider the existence of others and ourselves.

As we’re forced to consider the marks of others, it makes us reflect on how we feel about it, how we react to it. It helps us to hear the voices of others, to consider their marks, and to consider them in the context of what was drawn before and what will come after, as part of a whole process of creating together.

Sometimes this is exciting and sometimes this is shitty. But it’s usually an awakening. So I’m really thankful for improv and the way it does.

cathyblog

Cathy Paton is an Arts Facilitator who has worked in Canada and internationally with many groups, exploring movement, improv, and communication. Trained in long-form improvisation, modern dance, life/art performance method, and red-nosed clown, she is currently working on a PhD project that looks at how we can change our ways of relating through the art of improvisation. Cathy has a background in social work, and is always looking at ways of combining the arts with ways of being together.

This is a great tool for getting people comfortable with each other (we mean really comfortable), and for connecting non-verbally.

Photo © Crista Flodquist

Photo © Crista Flodquist

To start, everyone stands and touches some part of someone else, using both hands. You don’t have to use your whole hand, it can be as little as the tip of one finger.

When the coach/director says go, everyone starts moving in any direction, as one entity. You can move wherever you want, but you must be in contact with other players at all times. If you find yourself losing the ability to use both hands, you can use a foot.

“Slow things down to make them more important, like the baby carriage scene from The Untouchables. When you slow it down and move or speak deliberately, it’s more fun than making fast, ambiguous motions.

Don’t left brain it. Don’t make pussy moves just to ‘go there’ already. Make everything, every movement or word, mean something.” – Susan Messing

If you find yourself phoning in movements, or hurrying from Point A to Point B, fully extend your body as you commit to the movement you’re already doing.

Caligula can get physically tiring very quickly, but it’s fascinating to watch the group meld and take on a life of its own. At some point you may find members being lifted, encircled, or even upside down. If that’s the case, take your time and lend physical support where it’s needed.

Photo © Crista Floquist

Photo © Crista Floquist

Silence is scary.

Silence between you and your partner.

Silence from the audience, punctuated by the dreaded cough.

This is when we usually resort to babbling. But if you can just breathe through it, nothing will give you more confidence than being comfortable with silence on stage.

Here are some exercises to bring out your inner Harpo.

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

Emotional Object Work

This exercise uses two performers.

One person does an activity they can repeat, e.g. folding laundry, or hammering wood.

The other person’s job is to say things to make that person react. But they can’t say anything; only show how they feel through how they do their activity.

For instance:

(Player 1 mimes chopping vegetables)

Player 2: I saw your ex, Linda, today.

(Player 1 starts chopping faster)

Player 2: She was across the street so I couldn’t talk to her.

(Player 1‘s chopping slows to normal)

Player 2: But then guess what? I ran into her again on the bus.

(Player 1 begins chopping furiously)

So now we know Player 1 has something going on with his ex.

Show how you feel through object work: try chopping a cucumber angrily, then happily, then jealously. And that’s just one activity. Imagine the possibilities with assembling an Ikea Malm dresser…

Variation

Every time Player 1 says something, Player 2 must find a new object in their environment and show how they feel through that object.

If they’re angry, perhaps they find a ball and squeeze it. If they’re happy, maybe they find a bubble wand and blow bubbles.

Third Wheel

This exercise is for, you guessed it, three players.

Two people ask for a relationship (married couple, best friends, co-workers, etc.), and begin a scene.

After they’ve established a conversation, the third person enters. He or she says nothing; the other two immediately stop talking. Everyone stays silent until the third person leaves again.

It might be parents talking about how they don’t have sex anymore, and a kid comes in to grab something from the fridge. Or maybe it’s co-workers planning to quit, and the boss comes in to pour a cup of coffee.

The third person should enter and exit at random, for anywhere from a minute to five seconds.

Catchphrase

The Coach/Director chooses two people, and asks for a catchphrase for each one. It can be anything from random sounds (“Sloopadeeoop!”) to a sentence that defines them (“Dudes gotta be dudes, dude”).

Each player can only say their catchphrase throughout the scene. Tone and body language will tell the story.

Clown Walk

This is a clown exercise we stole from Todd Stashwick. For this exercise, one person will be the clown, and one person will just be him or herself.

Both players begin by simply walking around the space. The person in front is just being themselves, walking their normal walk.

The clown walks behind them, mocking their partner’s walk, heightening and exaggerating it.

After a minute or so, the person in front suddenly turns and catches the clown in mid-mockery. They both stop in their tracks and make eye contact.

The clown reacts by being genuinely and sincerely sorry for what he or she has done.

Staying where they are, both players slowly turn and silently look at the audience. Don’t mug or play to the audience; just be as real as possible.

Repeat these actions twice more, with the clown’s mockery of his partner’s walk getting more and more absurdly heightened, followed by regret.

Then switch roles.

Upstage, Downstage

This exercise works on physicality, mime skills, and giving and taking focus. Oh, and audiences love it.

To begin, two people start a scene down stage. For simplicity, have the players stay seated throughout.

Once the scene has been established, two more people do a silent scene behind them, up stage.

The second scene should somehow relate to the first scene, but take place in a different environment.

For example, if the players upstage are roommates and they mention the neighbours downstairs, the other two can show us what those neighbours are like.

The players down stage should carry on with their scene, while the players up stage show us their world.

Unlike a split scene that takes place on opposite sides of the stage, both of these scenes should play out without pausing. There will still be give and take of focus however, since one pair is talking and the other is silent.

Viewpoints Exercise

Lastly, we asked improv guru David Razowsky for his thoughts on silent scenes. Here’s what he said:

All scenes have dialogue, even – and especially – scenes without “spoken” dialogue.

When you consider that scenes aren’t about what we say, rather they’re about how we say it, then the world opens up for you.

The first line of dialogue isn’t spoken – it’s noticed. I enter a scene and see you sitting, standing, moving, gesturing, and my first line is based on that; that’s how I cast you.

If we are truly in relationship to each other, then the words that come out of our mouths don’t matter. Any Viewpoints* exercise will highlight that.

I enter a scene and stop. You move somewhere on the stage in relationship to where I stopped. I move somewhere on stage in relationship to that.

We’re in the middle of a scene as long as we’re aware of each other’s “Spatial Relationship.” Our “dialogue” is not spoken text, rather it’s our movement toward and away from each other.

A major part of this exercise is to realize that your ego is going to want you to speak, that you can’t possibly be “interesting” because you’re not using dialogue.

That’s creating from lack and in communion with your ego, never a union that creates, always a union that keeps us in stasis.

This exercise requires you to not do anything to make anything happen: no unnecessary grunts or gestures or movements that aren’t based on responding to your partner.

You have everything you need – trust it.

A scene with no dialogue is the greatest expression of trust two or more actors can engage in.

* Viewpoints is an acting method that utilizes nine tenets:

• Architecture (Everything in your environment: light, shadow, sound, objects, the stage.)

• Spatial Relationship (The relationship you have with a person or your Architecture. You are in a spatial relationship with everything.)

• Shape (When you change your shape on stage, you change the scene and your emotion.)

• Gesture (Can be Expressive, such as a “Talk to the hand” gesture, or Behavioural, such as yawning or a nervous tic.)

• Tempo (The pace at which we do things; the speed or slowness with which we breathe, move, talk, stand.)

• Duration (The length of time we hold a shape, a tempo, a gesture, repetition.)

• Topography (Where you move on stage.)

• Repetitition (Of speech or movement.)

• Kinesthetic Response (A reaction, e.g. I drop something, you look. A door opens, you turn. I come towards you, you back off.)

To learn more about it, click here.

 

“Everybody’s talkin’ at me, I don’t hear a word they’re sayin'” – Nilsson

If the thought of doing a silent scene fills you with nightmare visions of Marcel Marceau, relax. You don’t need to chew the scenery, and not everyone has to be mute.

Even one silent character can steal the show.

Second City actor Jason DeRosse played a baby in a five-person scene. The other performers were hilarious, but the audience was riveted on Jason. He didn’t make a sound; just lay on his back looking wide-eyed and innocent, occasionally grasping a mobile overhead.

When I asked him about it afterwards, he told me “Strength in silence!”

If you want to strengthen your non-verbal muscles, the following exercises can help.

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

 

Music is a powerful emotional cue. Some of the most memorable scenes in movie history use music in place of dialogue:

• The shower scene in Psycho

The opening montage from Up    

The iconic slow-mo walk from Reservoir Dogs  

Rob Norman and Becky Johnson did a silent scene with music at Comedy Bar. The audience shouted out “colonscopy” and “Titanic.”

Mark Andrada cued the title song, and Rob and Becky played out a love story between doctor and patient that could only happen in improv.

Now it’s your turn…

Emotional Soundtrack

For this exercise, select two performers.

The Coach/Director plays a piece of music. It can be anything from Carly Rae Jepson to Jay-Z, from jazz to blues to hillbilly music.

The music sets the mood for the scene, which the players perform without words.

They can be sitting, standing, miming an action; it doesn’t matter, as long as there’s eye contact and a connection between the characters. Let the musical changes inform the action and reactions.

Try it with different kinds of music, with or without chairs.

You can also try adding sound effects.

Watch how sound effects heighten the tension (and hilarity) in this scene from Boogie Nights. (Yes, there is dialogue, but the tension is in the spaces between the words and sounds.)

Inside Voices

This is similar to the Gibberish Translation exercise, except the people on stage are silent.

To begin, choose four people. Two will be in the scene, and two will be Narrators. The Narrators stand on either side of the stage or rehearsal space. The other two ask for a location, then start the scene without speaking.

They can be sitting, standing, miming an action; it doesn’t really matter. The only rule is, no talking.

Allow the performers to settle in for 20 to 30 seconds, giving them time to get comfortable with their character and make eye contact with their scene partner.

One Narrator then voices a thought inside the head of the character closest to him.

The second Narrator then voices the other character’s thoughts.

Since all the dialogue is internal, the characters can’t hear what each other is thinking. For example:

Narrator 1: Look at Brad, sitting there all smug. What a d-bag.

Narrator 2: Cathy sure is pretty. I wonder if she likes me?

So we’ve established that Player 1, voiced by Narrator 1, is repulsed by Player 2. Meanwhile Player 2, voiced by Narrator 2, has a crush on Player 1.

From here, both the Players and Narrators can have fun ratcheting up the tension between them, since all of the thoughts – however outrageous they might become – are in the characters’ heads, while their outward appearance might suggest something else.

1 to 50

This exercise demonstrates the importance of tone and body language, and the unimportance of words when we communicate.

Two people start a scene, with or without a suggestion. Instead of words, they can only say numbers. The players take turns until they reach 50. For instance:

Player 1: One.

Player 2: Two.

Player 1: (quizzical) Three, four?

Player 2: (excited) Five-six-seven!

Notice how quickly we become emotional when we don’t have words to hide behind. In order to communicate your point of view, tone and physicality become much more important.

Good Morning Fucko

This exercise is great fun to watch and play. The Coach/Director may side coach, in order to keep players focused on responding to each other, while maintaining their own point of view.

To begin, place two chairs close to each other, facing the audience. This will be the bed.

Two players lie back in the chairs with their eyes closed. They silently choose a deal, or point of view, for themselves as they “sleep.”

After 10 or 15 seconds, the Coach/Director says, “Good morning, Fucko.”

Both people wake up, in character.

The scene plays out silently, as the performers discover where they are, and who these characters are to each other.

Are they married? Roommates? Was it a one-night stand?

Remind players to check in with each other as they go about their day.

Don’t race through activities. If your character makes the bed, don’t just flip the covers and walk away – unless that’s how that character makes a bed.

If you step in the shower, turn on the taps. Then grab the soap. Does it have a hair in it? Ewww. Find the shampoo, and so on.

Or maybe you skip the shower and find yourselves sitting across the table having cereal.

What is the vibe between you? That’s the scene.

(Thanks to Todd Stashwick, Adam Cawley, Rob Norman, Jason DeRosse, Susan Messing, Tom Vest, Cameron Algie, Greg Hess, and David Razowsky for their help with this post.

Stay tuned for more exercises in Part Two.)

This exercise sharpens listening and reacting to your scene partner, because there’s no way you can pre-plan actions or dialogue.

To begin, two players step out.

The Coach/Director hands one person a book. It can be any book that contains dialogue. You can also use a screenplay or play.

Someone calls out a number below 50, and the player with the book turns to that page. They read the first piece of dialogue they find in quotes.

photo-20

Let’s say the number is 34 and the book is The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. The first sentence in quotes on page 34 is:

“Well, Harry, what brings you out so early?”

The second player must respond to that initiation, however they feel is appropriate. They might say:

“Mindy kicked me out of the house. Again.”

or

“I don’t want to be late for my A.A. meeting.”

or

“I skipped the full-body shave this time and just sprayed on a little more Axe.”

Or whatever.

The first player then reads the next piece of dialogue by the same character. (Sometimes this might mean skipping a page to find the next snippet in quotes.)

Chances are, the written dialogue won’t make a lot of sense coming after the improvised line. That’s OK. The point isn’t to create Edward Albee-worthy scenes; it’s to get you focused on listening and responding to whatever is thrown at you.

The scene continues with one player reading their dialogue from the book, and the second player always responding extemporaneously.

It’s a bit of mindfuck, but that’s what makes it fun. Try it at your next rehearsal.

“We think in shapes and pictures. The shape your character takes informs who that character is, and lets your fellow players recognize him/her/it when they see that shape again.” – Todd Stashwick

Photo © New York Musical Improv Festival

Physicality is a gift, not just to your scene partners, but to you as well. The second your foot hits the stage to enter a scene, notice what your body is doing.

Is it hunched over, taking small, shuffling steps? Or upright and striding confidently?

Are you snapping your fingers as you walk? Did you prop one leg on your knee as you sat down, or cross your legs demurely at the ankles?

All of these things tell our scene partner, the audience, and – if we’re paying attention – us, who this person is, before we open our mouth.

When we see a shape or image of any kind, our brain immediately goes to work, trying to find a “match” for that image. Todd Stashwick teaches an exercise that demonstrates this.

To begin, one person goes up and strikes a pose, any pose, and holds it.

The rest of the team then joins that person, one at a time.

For instance, let’s say the first person is standing with feet apart, hands on hips. The second person could go behind and stand with their hands encircling the first person’s waist. The third person could stand with one hand on the first person’s left shoulder. And so on.

If someone looks tired holding their pose, you can help by supporting them with the pose you take.

When everyone has joined in, the Coach/Director removes one person at a time, randomly. After each person is removed, pause to observe the new stage picture. It’s amazing how much it changes.

When only two or three people remain, see what the remaining pose suggests – what scene is revealed – then have those players perform it.

The last two people might look like a cop arresting a perpetrator. Or a woman proposing to her boyfriend. Or someone choking a co-worker. Or Kali, the goddess of death.

Even if there’s just one person on stage, their physicality can suggest things too. Stashwick teaches students to look at the negative space on stage, not just the positive.

But besides helping players recognize characters, shape can help your stage picture too.

Stage picture is something that’s often ignored in improv, especially after the opening (if there was one). We’re usually too busy talking to think about what the audience is seeing, and what they’re seeing is probably two people standing around yakking.

The next time you find yourself rooted to the floor, change your physicality and see how it changes the scene. Not only will you feel different, but it will immediately look different than 99% of improv scenes.

An easy way to create a great stage picture is through symmetry. Susan Messing teaches that doing stuff together makes it look important. If one person goes in as a guard, go in as a guard as well.

Observe what’s happening on stage, then mirror it. If your team is large, and more people mirror a move or a pose, it looks even more impressive. It’s the kind of thing that makes the audience think you rehearsed it.

Try it at your next rehearsal or show. Use physicality to shape your characters, build your environment, and support your team. It’s simple, it’s fun, and it works!

Photo © Adrianne Gagnon

Jeremy Voltz is a wicked funny, crazy smaht improviser, singer, and mathlete. (Check it: He’s currently studying for his PhD in the subject.) He is a member of acapella singing group Countermeasure, and the improv singing sensation JerJosh and the SteveCams.

While you’re getting notes, how often have you heard “You guys were tentative out there,” or “You were in your heads”? It happens to all improvisers at some point, and even though we can point it out when it happens, it’s not so clear what causes it, or how to fix it. But let’s talk about it anyway!

Here’s my take on what goes on in your brain when you’re on the side of the stage, watching a scene. Of course you listen intently to what’s happening on the stage, because that’s what you’ve been trained to do. You’re listening for an idea so that when that scene ends and you find yourself on the stage, you’ve got something great to initiate. You’re listening for inspiration.

For example, you’re watching the scene and you hear one of your teammates, fed up with their crappy doctor, shout, “What, did you get your medical degree at clown school?” And instantly, you picture clown medical school, the whole thing, with doctors all dressed as clowns, administering 50cc of seltzer to the face, and you love it and want to see it and want to play with it. Oh crap, what’s happening in the scene now?

This is your conscious mind doing all of this extrapolating and laughing at how funny your inspiration is. You can try to turn it off, but clown medical school is fucking funny, so don’t beat yourself up over thinking about it. Cool, we’ll come back to this whole inspiration thing.

There’s also a completely different background process in your brain, at an unconscious level, which is silently evaluating the current scene for an edit. IT IS CRAZY GOOD AT KNOWING WHEN A SCENE IS DONE. You just feel it, you know, it’s instinctual, basal. It’s just a bell that goes off when the third hilarious heightened thing happens, or the angry character shoots the other in the chest and then just stares hauntedly at the gun he’s holding. You know when that scene is over, in your gut.

Now, when your explosive desire to edit a scene lines up with that great, hilarious thing you’re compelled to initiate (clown medical school), it’s magical. But most of the time, they don’t happen at the same time. My belief is that often, hesitancy on stage is the inability to deal with the fact that these two things happen at different times. “I know the scene needs to end, but that funny thing I was inspired to do doesn’t make sense anymore, so I can’t edit!”

It’s a pickle, no doubt about it. Both of these feelings you get are compulsions. If you subscribe to the Dave Razowsky style of play, you follow your compulsions. But these two compulsions are sort of at odds with each other. Though if you subscribe to Dave Razowsky, then you also kind of subscribe to Buddhism (at least on stage). Don’t believe me? Read this interview. His improv philosophy greatly reflects the Buddhist mentality of being completely in the moment, and being completely aware of the impulses you’re feeling. Not judging them, just being aware of them.

So here’s another piece of Buddhism for you: It’s impossible to solve all of your problems. The desire to do so is in fact a problem. But instead, become aware of problems, without judgment. “See them.” I’ve outlined a problem for you, and it’s often an unconscious one. Do I know how to solve it? Nope!* But I do know how to make you aware of it, and in gaining awareness, you may lose your fear of it.

Here’s an exercise. It gets players used to:

(1) Playing from their gut and tapping into their compulsions

(2) Realizing when a scene needs to end, independent of everything else

(3) Evaluating whether or not their idea is good for the show and still relevant

Have your group do two-person scenes. During each scene, have players on the backline raise their hand when they think the scene should be edited. When a few players raise their hand at the same time, that’s probably a good spot to end the scene.

As a bonus, take note of who is raising their hands and when. (It’s an interesting insight into how you collectively play.)

Ask for a new scene, and repeat this a few times. Players will put their hands up at different times, and that’s OK. There can be a few good places to edit. Once players feel comfortable with calling for edit points, change gears.

This time, have them put up their hand during scenes when they’re inspired to do something. When a few people have their hand up and the scene reaches a good edit, pause the scene, ask a player with their hand up if their idea is still relevant or if they still want to do it, and have them come in. It might be that the time has passed, in which case, move on to the next person with their hand up. Do this for a while.

After this is comfortable, put the two together. Have players raise their left hand if they think the scene is done, right hand if they have an idea. Ask them to put their hand down if they are no longer compelled to follow the idea. The coach should call the scenes when a few people agree on an edit point, and ask somebody with their right hand up to initiate their idea.

This sounds clunky, and it is. It’s not really how an improviser should improvise, as it requires some mental juggling on the backline.  Its goal is to make improvisers aware of what’s happening inside them. The purpose of the exercise is not to fix anything. It’s not to make people think more, or less, or play differently. Just to “see”, as a Buddhist might say. Just to become aware of what hesitancy is at its core. I was surprised at the results when I did this with the longform team I coach, Surprise Romance Elixir, and they were too. Give it a try, and lose your fear of being on the backline!

*OK, I said I don’t know how to deal with these two competing compulsions, but that’s not exactly true. In certain situations, I do. And the balance changes depending on the type of show I’m in.

If it’s a Harold, then it’s extremely important to edit in a timely fashion. And you don’t need a fully-formed premise to initiate a scene in a Harold, either. So I’m letting my editing compulsion dominate.

But if I’m doing a narrative show, where the team is crafting a story around a protagonist, then I better have an idea in mind for where I’m taking the story if I initiate a scene, even if it means letting a scene go a bit longer than it should. And if I don’t have a good idea of where to take it, well then, I’m gonna hope somebody else does!

But how you personally balance these two compulsions is a tough conversation to be having unless you can actually recognize when these compulsions happen. You should be able to point to them and say “That’s when my brain thought this scene was over, and that’s when I got the idea to initiate clown medical school.” Which is precisely the point of the above exercise. Try it!

Photo © Kevin Patrick Robbins

Josh Bowman is a professional fundraiser, story-teller, comedian, and blogger. He has worked and consulted in Vancouver, New York, and now Toronto for almost a decade. Josh also runs and writes for tenthingsivelearned.com, writes for The Huffington Post, and improvises around Toronto, including regular shows with The Beasts and Opening Night Theatre

On a couple of occasions recently, I have had conversations with fellow improvisers about how improv classes and workshops tend to function, and how we train in our art form in general. In my experience, a standard rehearsal/class/workshop goes like this:

Warm-ups.

Scenes.

Get feedback from your instructor.

Have some chuckles.

Go home, with a note or two to work on.

Repeat.

The value of this work is highly contingent on your instructor, how many notes you get, and how open and able you are to improve.

When you think of Olympic or professional athletes, they train on a daily basis, conditioning their bodies for long periods of time to get ready for their event/game day. As an athlete, you don’t just play your sport or practice your event; you work all the muscles in your body by cross-training in the gym, outdoors, or with a trainer. You use plyometrics to be able to move explosively on the field/court/etc. You weight train. You memorize and run plays, and watch tapes to think strategically. You circuit train.

We want to be consistently excellent on stage, but we are often afraid to do the work it takes to get to that level. I wonder what would happen if we trained for improv like athletes train for games. Thinking along this line, I would like to propose a first draft of a potential training regimen for a group of improvisers, and see if anybody would be interested in testing this out with a group (or, alternately, if there is any interest in me running some free classes to see how the damn thing would work). The caveat is: you would have to regularly go through this routine, without falling back on traditional coaching. Then, track the results on stage.

Just like any training routine, this is far from the only way to do it, but I wonder if we start thinking differently about the work we do before we are on stage, how much better our performances would get? What other routines could we add? What if we trained three times a week, with different circuits every time?

The focus here is on physical activity, memory, stagecraft, speed, trust, and elemental scene work. The circuit should be repeated over and over until the end of class, with no break. If preferred, it can be repeated for the majority of class, then a quick break, followed by scene work and an evaluation. If everybody isn’t exhausted after class, then something is being done incorrectly. Participants should have water readily available, and wear comfortable clothes.

Improv Circuit Training Routine

Ten stations, 30 seconds per station. Each station has a large sign indicating exercise (as per below).

Each player should do as many full circuits as possible. Coach is to hold timer and shout (or signal/buzz/ding) at 15-second intervals and 30-second intervals.

Half of the improvisers rotate clockwise, half counter-clockwise. All players should be partnered up, which may mean adjusting flow and number of stations. Ultimately, you are going through each station with a partner, who will switch for every exercise.

Station 1

Burpees to failure for 30 seconds for both players as follows:

Push-up to plank to full standing up. Jump and slap your knees. Repeat. No rest.

Station 2

Player 1 shouts proper first names at Player 2 for 15 seconds. Then switch. No pauses, must be as fast as possible.

Station 3

Alternating trust falls. No pause. As fast as possible.

Station 4

Two 15-second scenes. Must establish proper names, who, what, when, where, emotional state, and commit to an action in the environment as early as possible in the scene. Player 1 initiates first scene, player 2 initiates second.

Station 5

Both players put both hands over the centre of their chests and stand four feet apart. Breathe in deeply and slowly three times. Slowly open your eyes. Keep breathing. Focus on breaths and maintain eye contact.

Station 6

Player 1 makes faces at Player 2, as many as possible, for 15 seconds. Switch.

Station 7

Both players face each other and rotate hips in a circle, keeping upper body still. Speak at the same time (i.e. “two-headed expert”). Nobody may lead. It may not make sense, that is fine. Keep rotating hips throughout.

Station 8

Player 1 is given an emotion by Player 2 and must do a 15-second silent dance routine based on that emotion. Fully and seriously commit. Switch.

Station 9

Player 1 gives 15-second monologue to Player 2. Player 2 consistently gives notes on posture and facial expression to ensure Player 1 looks as actorly and kingly/queenly as possible. Switch.

Station 10

30 seconds of Shakespearean dialogue with accents (accents may be whatever). All while doing squats to the best of your ability. For squats, keep arms straight out in front of you. Tighten abs and core, chest out, head up. Bend knees and lower until you are at least at a 90-degree angle. Should dip straight down, and feel it in your quads and butt.

Back to Station 1

 

The Larry Sanders Show was the first time I ever heard “fuck” on television. It was also the funniest, most honest goddamn show I’d ever seen.

Every character was emotionally broken in some way:

Larry keeps people at arm’s length, hoping to get through life without getting hurt. In reality, he’s a walking, open wound.

Hank is six feet of insecurity in tap shoes. (“Hey now!”)

Artie drowns his pain in salty dogs.

Even Phil, the show’s wisecracking writer, eventually falls in love after seasons of playing the hardened cynic.

Larry, Hank, Artie, Phil, and Paula weren’t just glib caricatures. They were fully-realised human beings, complete with faults and foibles.

The show’s guests were flawed as well. Real celebrities appeared in episodes dealing with real-life crises: Burt Reynolds’ divorce from Loni Anderson, Chevy Chase’s epic talk show failure, Ellen Degeneres’ coming out.

While every script was tightly written, the cast often improvised on set. Shandling also made copious notes on scripts. Beside a line of Larry’s dialogue, one of his notes reads:

“Feel it. Then say it.”

In improv, we have a tendency to talk, not feel. And being deadpan can get you laughs, no question.

But how many times have you been in a scene where someone dies, or wants a divorce, or gets fired, and no one reacts?

Expressing emotion can be scary in real life. But what better place to explore it than onstage? Instead of being unfazed by everything, try overreacting for a change.

Scream with terror when someone mentions asparagus.

Tear your boss a new A for saying “Good morning.”

Cry when your scene partner sings the Care Bears theme.

Feel your response, then speak it.

One way to get out of your head and into your emotions is to move. David Razowsky teaches an exercise that’s incredible to watch, and a revelation to perform:

Two people go up, and exchange five lines of dialogue with no emotion or inflection; they just say the words in a monotone.

Person #1: Hi.

Person #2: Hello.

Person #1: How are you?

Person #2: Fine thanks.

Person #1: Glad to hear it.

Before a line is spoken, the actor has to move. They can move wherever they like in the space. Once they come to a natural stop, they say their line.

Their scene partner then has to move before they respond. Again, they can move wherever they like, but they can’t say their line until they’ve come to a stop somewhere in the space.

It’s always surprising to see where people feel compelled to move. It could be a few steps closer, very close, or far away from their scene partner. They could end up facing towards or away from the other person.

It sounds incredibly simple, but having done it myself, it’s easy to hear your partner’s line and start to speak before moving. The important thing is to let your body decide where you’re going to move. Then say your line.

Even though the words are delivered monotone, the scenes are inevitably infused with all kinds of emotions.

As Razowsky says, “Dialogue is informed by movement.”

If you find yourself “stuck” on stage, try moving, then speak. It doesn’t have to be big or frenetic. Just let your body take control. It’ll stop your brain from overthinking and let your feelings respond instead.

(For more great moments from The Larry Sanders Show, click here.)

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 195 other followers