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Posts from the Warm-ups, Games & Exercises Category

This warm-up is very physical and a lot of fun. It requires a good-sized floor space for maximum efficacy. It also requires an odd number of players.

Begin by walking around the room, imagining you are all ants, walking on the top of a giant graham cracker that’s floating in a glass of milk.

The object is to keep the cracker balanced at all times. In order to do this, players must try to fill the negative spaces between them evenly.

Start by walking slowly at first, then gradually get faster. The Director may coach people “There’s a space! Somebody fill it!” etc., to keep the cracker from tipping over.

When everyone is almost running across the surface of the graham cracker, the Director tells players to partner up.

One person will be left without a partner. The group is then told to move away from that person and look at them.

The Director asks the lone person how they feel. The answer may be “bad,” “lonely,” “left out,” “stupid,” or something along those lines.

The group then runs the exercise again. This time when the Director says “Grab a partner,” people will tend to do so faster, because they don’t want to be left alone.

The third time around, everything will be faster still, and people will practically claw each other to get a partner.

The Take-away:

• We begin to become more aware as the game progresses – there is no phoning it in.

• Despite silly circumstances or rules, we begin to play the game (scene) more seriously and with real emotional attachment, both to the balance of the cracker, and to not being left alone.

• Because we started to feel something real (tired, frustrated, giddy, joy, etc.) during this, we then have to trust we can do the same things on stage if we take the scene and let it affect us.

(Thanks to Greg Hess for his help with this post, and to 500 Clown for the exercise.)

CamDevKnives1

This is a fun, fast, physical warm-up that’s good for building awareness and responsiveness.

Important Safety Tip: Always use a mimed knife.

To begin, everyone stands in a circle. One person throws a knife to someone else. As they throw it, they make a “Shhhhhht!” sound like a knife blade whizzing through the air.

The receiver claps their hands together to stop the knife from killing them, and to let us know they caught it. They then throw the knife to someone else in the circle.

You can practice your mime skills to make the knife as real as possible: unfold the blade from its switchblade handle before throwing, for instance.

The pace should be fairly fast. If you have a large group, you can add more knives.

Once the first knife has gone around the circle a few times, the Director/Coach taps someone on the shoulder and hands them a second knife. Once both knives have been thrown around the circle, add a third. Finally, you can add an armful of puppies to the mix. Be careful not to let the puppies get knifed.

The knives and puppies get passed around for a few minutes, then the Director stops everyone and asks who has each item by a show of hands.

CamDevKnives2

This is an exercise in listening and, just as important, in communicating clearly.

Speed is not the point here. You want to make sure your message “lands,” not just that the email was sent, so to speak.

To begin, everyone stands in a circle. The Director/Coach mimes holding a ball, which they pass to someone else in the circle while making eye contact and saying “Red ball.”

The person receiving it repeats, “Red ball” as they take it. They give it to someone else, saying “Red ball” and making eye contact as they pass it. That person repeats “Red ball” as they receive it, and so on.

This continues until everyone in the circle has had the ball a couple of times. The Director then gives someone a mimed bowl, saying “Red bowl.” That person repeats “Red bowl,” and passes it on to someone else.

Once the red bowl and red ball have gone around the circle, the Director can add a bread bowl, a Red Bull (miming a can), a red shawl, and something else just to mix it up: a lemon meringue pie, a copy of Hustler, or the flaming skull of Del Close, for instance.

When all the items are in play, the Director stops everyone and asks who has each item by a show of hands.

Variation: This game can be played using only mimed balls of different colours (red, yellow, green, etc.). Instead of passing the ball, you can throw it around the circle.

red ball

“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

 

Starting today, we’ll be featuring favourite warm-ups from some of our favourite improvisers.

This one comes from Vancouver’s The Sunday Service, courtesy of Craig Anderson and Taz VanRassel, who thinks he stole it from a workshop with Rebecca Stockley. (Your secret is safe with us, Taz.)

To start, face another team member and put your right hand on their left shoulder.

Make eye contact.

Touch each other’s right cheek, making eye contact.

Hug.

Then do a “finishing move” of your choice.

Do the same with everyone on your team.

My team did a slight variation at our last rehearsal, and it was awesome. Even more awesome was when one of our members arrived late, and we swarmed her without telling her what we were doing or why. If you wanna see someone beam with happiness, this is how to do it.

Stand and face the other person, then touch them (where depends on your comfort level with each other).

Then hug.

Then kiss.

Then do a “finishing move.”

In other words, you can improvise.

However you do it, the results are guaranteed to make  Mr Roarke proud.

Photos © The Sunday Service

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.