Everything You Need To Know About Improv

Article Image
Photo Source: Jesse Balgley

At its core, improv is the art of making things up on the spot—characters, song lyrics, situations, whole scenes. That sort of blank slate may sound intimidating, especially if you’re just getting started. But improv can serve as an important foundation for performers of all types, whether you’re an aspiring comedian or an actor hoping to up your audition game

So, what’s the best way to jump in? In this in-depth guide, we’ll break down the basic rules of improv, what to expect at your first class, and a list of improv exercises you can use to hone your skills.


What is improv?

Improv—short for improvisation—is a form of live theater in which all aspects of the performance are made up on the spot. 

Improv is often funny, but comedic acting isn’t necessarily improv. In fact, the vast majority of film and television comedies are scripted. Sitcoms (“The Big Bang Theory,” “Black-ish”), sketch shows (“SNL”, “Key & Peele”), and late-night shows (“The Tonight Show,” “The Daily Show”) all feature stories and jokes that are written, edited and re-written, rehearsed, and polished before they’re performed in front of a live and at-home audience. And while comedic film directors like Paul Feig and Judd Apatow may have actors deliver off-the-cuff quips, these are still in service to an existing script.

Improvisational comedy, by contrast, is created entirely in the moment. From there, improv can be divided into two main categories: long-form and short-form.

Long-form vs. short-form improv

Short-form improv

Television shows like “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” or MTV’s “Wild ’n Out” feature a specific style of improv known as “short-form,” in which actors create spontaneous comedy with the help of preset scenarios or “games.” If you’ve ever played charades or made up a song, congratulations—you’ve done short-form improv comedy.

Long-form improv

By contrast, “long-form” improv doesn’t rely on preset games or jokey one-liners. The basic unit of long-form improv is a “scene.” Though scenes usually feature two improvisers, a single person can improvise a scene (as could 20 people, although you’d need a big stage). When taken out of context, a successful long-form scene might be mistaken for scripted sketch comedy—but of course, everything is being made up on the spot (even costumes or props, which are mimed).

What is a Harold in improv?

Improv groups, or “teams,” usually begin by taking a one-word suggestion from the audience. That suggestion inspires a collection of scenes that comprise a “piece” or “form.” Think of a form as a 20-to-60-minute play with a set structure. Perhaps the most practiced form is the Harold. A Harold a structure used in long-form improv in which separate scenes are improvised, then revisited twice more. At its best, the Harold ends when those three scenes connect in organic and unexpected ways. Fun fact: Most “Seinfeld” episodes are structured like a Harold.


A brief history of improv

Though its roots go back to commedia dell’arte of the 16th century, the history of improv as we know it didn’t start until the mid-1900s. That’s when (now-iconic) ensembles like the Compass Players, Second City, and the Committee were formed. Viola Spolin’s 1963 book “Improvisation for the Theater” also helped bring improv to a wider audience with exercises and techniques still used by actors, educators, and even psychologists today.

“Though its roots go back to commedia dell’arte of the 16th century, the history of improv as we know it didn’t start until the mid-1900s.”

Around the same time, a man named Del Close was stretching the boundaries of short-form. His life was too full and complicated to explore here, but just know that he began his career as a fire-eater, helped develop the Harold, wrote a series for DC Comics, served as the “SNL” house metaphysician, struggled with addiction, and trained some of the funniest actors in show business history before his 1999 death. Read “Guru: My Days with Del Close” by Jeff Griggs for a closer look at the father of long-form. And if you’re interested in learning more about the broader history, philosophy, and execution of long-form improv, “Truth In Comedy” (co-written by Close) is a good place to start.

Basic rules of improv

The most basic rule of improv can be summed up in two words: “Yes, and.” No matter what your partner says during a scene, your job is to build on that, by agreeing with (“yes”) and adding to (“and”) their statement. To do improv successfully, you’ll need to establish characters and plot through collaboration (“yes, and”) rather than negation (“no, but”).

Of course, there’s a lot more to improv than just “yes, and.” Here are three more basic rules of improv to keep in mind: 

  1. Make choices. Before you can start “yes-ing” and “and-ing,” you have to establish what’s actually going on in the scene at hand. The key is to establish three pieces of information with your partner at the top of the scene: who (the characters you’re playing), where (the setting of the scene), and what (the central “conflict,” of the scene, which can be anything that causes tension between or for the characters and drives the scene forward).
  2. Listen actively. Listening is crucial in any style of acting, and it’s especially important when there’s no script. In improv, if you’re not listening to your scene partner, you’re missing most of the scene.
  3. Get physical. Use your body and really engage in the scene and in the space (even if that space is just an empty stage). Remember what your middle school English teacher taught you: “Show, don’t tell.” The more you can show what you’re doing—by interacting with invisible props or reacting to elements in the scene the audience has to imagine—the better the scene will play.

How to learn improv

If you’re hoping to learn improv through formal instruction, there are a number of improv schools that offer high-quality classes. Below are some of the most famous and prestigious schools in the country’s three improv hubs: New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles. (And, even if you live elsewhere, a quick Google search for improv classes in your city should turn up some options.)

NYC Improv Schools 

  • Upright Citizen’s Brigade (UCB): Founded in the early aughts by four Del Close disciples—Amy Poehler (“SNL,” “Parks and Recreation”), Matt Walsh (“Veep,” “Hung”), Matt Besser (“Reno 911!” “Comedy Bang! Bang!”), and Ian Roberts (“Key & Peele,” “Playing House”)—UCB has served as a training ground and launch pad for dozens of writers and performers, including Aziz Ansari, Ed Helms, Donald Glover, Aubrey Plaza, and Kate McKinnon.
  • Magnet Theater: Armando Diaz (another Del Close mentee) created Magnet Theater in 2005, along with other Chicago improvisers like Ed Herbstman. Diaz and co-owner Sean Taylor still guide the theater to this day.
  • The PIT: The PIT (which stands for “The People’s Improv Theater”) was founded by Ali Reza Farahnakian in 2002 and quickly outgrew its original home in a small blackbox theater. Notable alumni include Kristin Schaal, Ellie Kemper, Hannibal Buress, and Lin-Manuel Miranda. 

Chicago Improv Schools 

  • Second City: The legendary Second City is one of America’s oldest sketch and improv institutions. Since opening its doors in 1959, the Second City has trained a steady stream of comedy superstars, including John Belushi, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Tina Fey, Keegan-Michael Key, and Steve Carell.
  • iO: Formerly known as the ImprovOlympic, the iO Theater was co-founded by Charna Halpern and Del Close in the early ’80s. iO alums include Chris Farley, Tim Meadows, Aidy Bryant, Jason Sudeikis, Seth Meyers, and Jordan Peele. 
  • The Annoyance Theater: The Annoyance “uses improvisation to create new and original plays, musicals, sketch-comedy and more in a vibrant, creative atmosphere.” The space was opened under Mick Napier, whose two books, “Improvise” and “Behind the Scenes,” are great guides for both aspiring and practicing improvisers. 

L.A. Improv Schools

  • UCB: Beyond NYC, UCB also has a strong presence on the west coast, with a pair of theaters and a training center in L.A. 
  • Second City Hollywood: Second City’s west coast theater and school.
  • The Groundlings: If you’re looking for a more uniquely L.A. offering, the Groundlings is known for its focus on character-building. Graduates include Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, Paul Reubens, and Maya Rudolph.

What to expect from an improv class

Improv classes can vary a lot depending on where you study, but in the major improv hubs, most courses are capped at 16 students and include eight three-hour sessions plus a graduation show.

Wherever you study, there will likely be several tiers of available classes. Here’s a quick breakdown of what to expect in each level: 

  • Introductory improv classes: Think of these as improv for beginners. Introductory classes focus on exploring the joy of playing make-believe and then drilling in the basic rules of improv (like “yes, and” and basic scene-setting). 
  • Intermediate improv classes: Once you’re familiar with the basics, you’ll be expected to settle in for at least one (or several, depending on the school you choose) intermediate classes. This is where you’ll truly master the basics and start to explore longer scenes—and begin to touch on advanced forms and structures. 
  • Advanced improv classes: If you decide that you love improv enough to stick with it long-term—or if you have aspirations of joining a “house team” at your school—you’ll probably need to take some more advanced classes. This is where you’ll work on more advanced concepts and forms, like the Harold. 

Most theaters require that you complete at least four courses, or levels, before you’re eligible to audition for house teams—a recurring but usually unpaid performance opportunity. Even UCB’s biggest alums didn’t get compensated for performing in ASSSSCAT 3000, once the theater’s marquee show. They did it for the love of improv.

Improv has traditionally been dominated by young, straight, white men. More and more, theaters and training centers are working to increase their diversity of age, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, gender identity, and disability. If you wish to study at a specific school but feel your background is underrepresented, look into diversity scholarship opportunities before registering.

What to expect at your first improv show

When it comes to your first improv show, expect it to be both nerve-wracking and exhilarating. “Right before an improv or standup show, I pace back and forth nervously,” explains actor Alex Malaos. “Can’t eat, can’t relax. I get the jitters. I start to wish this was a ‘proper’ show with a ‘proper’ script. And then every time it’s over, I return backstage, exhale a sigh of relief, and say to myself, ‘That was fun, I wanna go again. I can do better. I wanna go again.’ Every. Time.” 

As with everything improv, your experience will vary depending on your teammates, the school you’ve studied at, and other factors. But here are few improv acting tips that may help you navigate your first show: 

  • Don’t second-guess yourself. Many improv shows feature large casts of performers who go up in smaller groups to perform scenes throughout the show. If you have a great idea based on an audience suggestion, take the plunge and run out to center stage—or you might miss your chance to be a part of the show. 
  • Be flexible. Going into a scene with a nugget of an idea is great, but going in with a full roadmap? That’s a death sentence. Be prepared to change your direction (and sometimes your whole idea) at the drop of a hat, depending on what your partner adds to the scene. 
  • Expect to bomb. There’s no such thing as an improv show without a single joke that falls flat. Inevitably, you’ll add something to the scene that was funnier in your head than out loud (or maybe just doesn’t resonate with that night’s audience). Don’t get hung up on the “bombs.” Just keep going and trust that you’ll find the scene—and the jokes that hit with the audience—as you go. 
  • Collaborate. They say teamwork makes the dream work and this is extra true in improv. You can’t single-handedly put on a stellar improv show, so learn to trust your team.


Classic improv games and exercises

Improv exercises

If you’re looking to practice improv at home, you can try some basic improv exercises—either by yourself, or with a partner or small group. These exercises can serve an alternative to a formal improv class, or can help cement the skills you’re already learning:

  • Object work: A great solo improv exercise is object work—that is, practicing how to interact with an object that isn’t actually on stage with you. Maybe your scene involves your character playing an instrument or preparing a meal. Object work is the exercise that prepares you to believably play an invisible guitar or chop invisible carrots. To practice, pick an activity that involves an object and mime the behavior, focusing on what the real object would feel like in your hands—its weight, its shape, etc.—and trying to make your mime work as realistic as possible. 
  • Mirror: Face a partner like you’re on opposite sides of a mirror. Try to move together, matching movements and speed like you’re actually one another’s reflection. This is a great way to practice groupthink, the skill of getting on the same “wavelength” as your partner. It’s also a great way to improve active listening. Even though you’re not listening with your ears, the game forces you to focus on your partner’s movements and to try to get in their head. 
  • What Are You Doing?: You’ll need a few people for this improv game. Line up and have the first person in the group start miming an activity like brushing their teeth or dribbling a basketball. Once it’s clear what they’re doing, the second person in line asks, “What are you doing?” and the first person answers with any behavior or activity other than the one they’ve been doing. The second person then mimes the stated behavior and is approached by the next person in line who asks, “What are you doing?” and so on. 
  • Word at a Time: This is another group game. Form a circle and attempt to tell a story, with each person contributing just one word at a time. See how long you can go before you get stuck or someone accidentally says more than one word on a turn. 

Improv games

If you’re interested in short-form improv practice, here are some classic “Whose Line Is It Anyway”-style improv games you can try at home: 

  • Scenes from a Hat: Write down scene topics on slips of paper and take turns selecting one at random and acting it out very quickly. 
  • Props: Gather a variety of props, the weirder the better. Take turns picking up a prop and creating a mini-scene or one-liner inspired by your choice.
  • Helping Hands: Working with a scene partner, choose one of you to be the “face” and one to be the “hands.” The person who is the “face,” should clasp their hands together behind their back while the “hands” snake their own arms through to act as the “face’s” arms. The “face” will then narrate the scene while the “arms” try their best (or worst, depending on the kind of scene partner you are) to comply.
  • Let’s Make a Date: Three improvisers act as the potential suitors on a dating show—each with different, very specific, personality quirks. The fourth player is the contestant on the show, asking questions of the hopeful suitors and trying to figure out their quirks based on their answers.

Can improv make you a better actor?

Whether your focus is comedy or drama, improv can definitely make you a better actor. Improv incorporates several skills that are essential to delivering a good performance as an actor. Here are a few of the biggest benefits improv training can offer to your acting career, according to experts:

  • Improv practice prepares you for auditions. No matter how much you prepare ahead of an audition, there’s always a chance that the casting director will throw you a curveball. This is where improv training can come in handy—even for roles that have nothing to do with improv or comedy. “If you have done any serious acting training, you are comfortable with having time to come up with choices, do your crafting work, have plenty of rehearsal time with partners, and work your scenes several times with your teacher in class,” audition coach Carolyne Barry says. “When you start auditioning, that kind of time is never available to prepare, so most auditioning actors don’t feel as confident or strong as when they have more time (at least when you first start).” That’s why she recommends improv classes.
  • Improv boosts your confidence. Acting teacher Mae Ross explains that first impressions are the most important—especially for actors. Improv helps teach you confidence, both in your performance and in your take on material. “Imagine you are suddenly at the top of a circus tent, on one of those little bitty acrobat platforms used to leap to the swings,” Ross explains. “Now, what if, instead of shrinking away in fear, you take the risk and simply leapt forward. Now, instead of falling flat on your face, you catch the swing and perform beautifully. That’s what improv will teach you to do. Improv takes you to the ledge of the script and gives you the confidence to leap off.” 
  • Improv forces you to be present. Remember the active listening rule? That skill is, at its core, about being present in the scene—listening to your partner and reacting, instead of just waiting for your cue to speak. Improv training helps you master the sometimes nebulous skill of being “in the moment.” 

Check out Backstage’s comedy audition listings!