Posts tagged improv scene work


Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © People and Chairs

Photo © People and Chairs

How many times have you felt an unmistakeable emotion from someone – sadness, fear, joy, rage – without a word being uttered? Vibrations are powerful. Before you open your mouth on stage, try listening with your whole body and tune in to the feeling that’s already there.

Here’s an exercise Cameron uses that’s great for “yes, and”-ing.

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

If you listen to Comedy Bang! Bang!, you know the Andy Daly characters get really fleshed-out, in part because Paul F. Tompkins, Jason Mantzoukas and Scott Aukerman ask leading questions.

You can do the same in scenes. When you ask leading questions, your scene partner now has to accept that reality and build out from there.

It’s like the press conference game. You’re basically endowing the character, and you just keep endowing them. For example:

Player #1: So, John, you wrote a book called Starting when you started drinking. I noticed the last chapters are just random type. Do you really feel like this has helped your life?

Then the person has to respond. It forces them to realise that those are true things now, because the other person said them. So it’s “yes-ing” and it’s “and-ing.” It’s forcing you to go, “Yes, this is fucking real, so just accept it.”

When Player #1 says, “Oh and there’s a whole chapter on how to start embezzling,” that feels like the wrong path, and you’d have to explain why, in your book, it’s a valuable thing to start doing.

Where it gets fun is, it’s really about surprising the other person. So like, “I notice you wear a live raccoon as a hat. Does that help with writing, or are you also into fashion?” And then they can be like, OK, I wear a live raccoon, how do I explain that? Or, “I see you’re not wearing pants.”

What you want is for them to almost laugh the word “Yep,” and then follow up with “Here’s why, and here’s how that happened…”

Player #1: Today’s your birthday.

Player #2: Yes, I share a birthday with…

Player #1: Tom Selleck?

Player #2: Yes. The man and the moustache.

Player #1: For your birthday gift, on twitter you said that you wanted people to send you their used Kleenex. For eating. Was that a joke, or do you actually eat tissues?

Player #2: I do. I feel like the fibre market is expanding…

Player #1: Why do they need to be used?

Player #2: Well, people are germophobes now. Everyone’s carrying around their little bottle of Purell, and it’s actually leading to a very unhealthy and more dangerous society. We need to get more germs into our bodies in order to be healthier.

…or whatever.

To get started, you might endow someone’s character, but then as they “yes, and” it, they’re going to say things that in turn you can feast on.

So if you say you’re into Paleo, I’ll think, to what extreme are you like a caveman? You know what, I’ll test this out by saying, “I notice you slaughtered the neighbours’ dog and ate it, and you also drag your wife around by the hair.” I’m not making you say those things; you said you were big on the Paleo thing, now let’s really go 100% on it.

Try it at your next rehearsal.

Sometimes in improv, we try to force a storyline so that it follows the rules of “the real world.” And while grounded scenes can be very entertaining, there’s something to be said for great acting married with crazy circumstances.

Case in point: The Avalanches’ Frontier Psychiatrist. The characters and their surroundings may look nutty, but their performances are very natural. Which makes the complete package weird as shit…and utterly wonderful.

Click here or below to view the video.


(For further reading, see our post on letting go of expectations.)

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

For decades, TV shows had the same structure: an opening montage or story synopsis, typically sung or narrated, so newer viewers could understand the story and characters right away.

Meanwhile, regular viewers had to listen to how The Brady Bunch got together. Every. Goddamn. Episode.

As the internet grew and attention spans shrank, intros got shorter. Scrubs‘ intro was just 20 seconds long. By the fourth season, it was five seconds. And Louis CK’s Louie got right to the point this season with no opening whatsoever.


Modern audiences are story savvy. We’ve become really good at making assumptions, jumping in midway and figuring it out.

When you lose exposition, you focus on now. And that’s where great improv lies.

A Harold traditionally has some kind of opening (the form, after all, was modelled after TV and film) but even that’s changing. More and more long-form shows start with scenes. And dynamic scenes start in the middle.

Even if you just have a fragment of something to begin with, that’s OK. Make assumptions. Decide to know each other. Make bold choices, and you’ll figure it out as you go.

Another way to think of it is like an Oreo cookie.

In Canada there’s a brand called Eat The Middle First. The boring outer layer is like all those scenes that start with “Hey,” “Hi,” and other timid offers. Feel free to ditch that and dive right in to the fun part.

Don’t wait to get to the good stuff.

Carpe Cookie

Carpe Cookie

1. Nobody forgot their medication. They’re always like this.

Photo © Kevin Thom

2. You don’t need to look for it. It’s right in front of you.

Photo © Kevin Thom

3. You have a surprisingly strong opinion about what your partner is doing.

Photo © Kevin Thom

4. If you really don’t want to do something, do it.

Photo © Kevin Thom

5. Yes, you should have edited there.

Photo © Kevin Thom

6. If you do it twice, you have to do it three times.

Photo © Kevin Thom

7. No house painter has ever had an amazing new house painting technique.


8. You’re never just doing stuff. Figure out why you’re doing it the way you’re doing it.


9. We don’t care about what you don’t care about.


10. Why you do what you do is what you’ll do next.

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All photos © Kevin Thom

Doug Sheppard is a Web developer by trade, and a writer and improviser by vocation. He lives in Toronto and considers it one of the finest places in all of Canada. You may also be amused by his twitter, or you can see him perform live improvisational comedy without a net with the Tomes Adventure Hour.

“I think of it like dance, or like a basketball team. A good basketball team has practised so much and knows each other so well that they know where they’re gonna be at any given time, or they understand the rhythm of each player. And they’ve worked so long putting it together slowly that it’s effortless, or it seems effortless.”

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