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Posts from the Improv Exercises Category

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.

As improvisers, we put a lot of emphasis on words, and pressure on ourselves to “think of something funny to say.”

But think of all the amazing silent or almost-silent scenes you’ve watched. Tone of voice and body language say so much. As Del said, “No scene is ever about the words being spoken.” That’s one of the reasons I love this exercise.

To begin, two players sit or stand while two more stand on either side of them.

The Coach/Director takes a suggestion to start the scene: an object, news item, or geographic location, for instance. The first player speaks a line of gibberish, then his “translator” turns to the audience and explains what was said. The second player then speaks some gibberish, followed by her sidekick’s translation. For example:

Suggestion: Berlin

Player 1: Havortska dishnek plakken stap?

Translator 1: Hey Peter, have you seen my new boat?

Player 2: Skannik! Plerripps vooker shnaben.

Translator 2: Of course! The wall is down.

And so forth.

Gibberish “conversations” are entertaining because the players are often as surprised as the audience.

For a master class in gibberish, check out Second City’s “Twin Baby Boys Having A Conversation About Politics” video.

Chaqi da berrnizahn!

Photo © Kevin Thom

Deceptively simple, this is great for honing listening skills, patience, and building group mind.

Everyone stands in a tight circle, eyes closed. Take a couple of deep breaths to relax, then being counting. The idea is to count to twenty, one person at a time. If two or more people say a number at the same time, the group starts over.

When players first do this exercise the tendency is to rush, saying the numbers as quickly as possible. In fact this just creates tension and works against the point of the exercise, which is to slow down, listen and speak when your gut tells you.

Occasionally you’ll get to twenty the first time, in which case you can high-five each other at your incredible connectedness.

It can also be done with the letters of the alphabet, or counting as high as you dare.

“What goes around, goes around, goes around, comes all the way back around.” – J.T.

La Ronde is an exercise developed at improv Olympic, which evolved into a longform format. It’s named after a play by Arthur Schnitzler, in which one character enters the scene and beds another. That character moves on and beds another, and so on, until the final character beds the first character from the first scene. The improv version doesn’t involve quite as much sex (at least during rehearsal).

It works like this:

A and B do a scene together.

A exits or is tagged out, and B and C do a scene together.

B exits or is tagged out, and C and D do a scene.

This continues until everyone has played the same character twice, when A returns to play with the last character.

The idea is to explore different facets of each character. For instance, if A and B are high-powered megalomaniac brokers, when we see B with C, maybe C is his wife and we find out that B is actually meek and low status at home.

Like any long format, we want to see characters at Work, Home, and Play. While we’ll only see two situations for each character, keep these environments in mind when you’re stepping in.

Even with eight team members, a La Ronde plays out faster than a normal longform set. If you want to use it as a stage format, treat the La Ronde like an opening and use it to establish your characters. Once you’ve played through the complete circuit, you can reintroduce the same characters in different groupings and situations.

This is a montage format, similar to La Ronde.

Every scene begins with the same word. A team member gets a suggestion, then uses that word to begin the first scene.

Edits are made by a team member taking focus, saying the same word to begin a new scene. Each time it’s used, the word is given a different emotion or inflection.

There’s no need for characters to come back, but you’ll probably find yourselves calling things back naturally.

Word.

Like the Five-Minute Harold, this exercise helps you get focused, fast. Great for homing in on specifics, and sharpening your awareness.

One person (usually the coach/director) keeps track of time with a stopwatch or second hand, calling the scenes after each interval.

To begin, two people perform a scene as they normally would. They can get a suggestion or not. There’s no time limit; the coach/director calls the scene when it feels right.

The players then perform the same scene again, this time in one minute.

The idea isn’t to speed things up. Simply taking the things that stood out in the scene (words, relationship, physicality, emotion) and using them in less time will naturally heighten those elements.

Next, the players perform the same scene in 30 seconds.

Then in 20 seconds.

Then 10 seconds.

Then five.

And finally – just for fun – two seconds.

This exercise helps you distill scenes down to their essence, by identifying what’s important.

Joe Bill also teaches a version where you start with a scene and call it after one minute, then do the rest as above.

Photo © Kevin Thom

Note: Familiarity with the Harold structure is required for this exercise.

This is a variation on the One-Minute Scene. It’s great for getting players focused on strong initiations and characters, editing, and making connections.

Bonus: because of the fast pace, there’s no time for second-guessing, a.k.a. being in your head.

The premise is simple: your team has five minutes to do an entire Harold. It breaks down something like this:

Opening – 45 seconds

Beat 1A, 1B, 1C – 45 seconds each

Group Game – 30 seconds

Beat 2A, 2B, 2C – 20 seconds each

Group Game – 15 seconds

Beat 3A, 3B, 3C  – 5 seconds each

Of course, these are only rough guidelines. Your gut will tell you when it’s time to move on.

You’ll be amazed how quickly you can build characters and relationships, heighten emotion, identify patterns and bring them back.

If you find your team’s scenes are consistently dragging, taking too long to develop relationships, or not being edited fast enough on stage, this exercise can help. It’s also a lot of fun.

Like the One-Minute Scene, you can ramp it up by doing the same Harold again – in one minute, then 30 seconds, then 10 seconds, then five.