5 Improv Games for Ensemble Team Building

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When you’re cast in a new project, chances are you’ll be working with actors you’ve never met before. How can you build a cohesive ensemble in a short amount of time in order to effectively tell the story you’ve been hired to tell? Improv games are a great tool to help you and your fellow performers sync up and take the focus off of yourselves and onto each other—and have fun. Here are five team-building games from Matt Higgins, an actor, comedian, and improviser who teaches and performs at the Peoples Improv Theater (PIT) in New York City.

Sync up!

“There’s a game that comes from the PIT’s founder, Ali Farahnakian, that’s great to do on the first day of rehearsals. Everyone stands in a circle, then, one at a time, each person says their full name, where they were born, and two hobbies or things that they enjoy. After each person has spoken, everyone takes a deep breath in together, then on the exhale, says the person’s name. I like to start this way because it helps the group get to know and appreciate each other, while also practicing listening to each other.”

No winners, no losers

“I learned a game called ‘Buh!’ from Christopher Bayes’ book, ‘Discovering the Clown, or The Funny Book of Good Acting.’ Stand in a circle. One person says, ‘Buh!,’ loudly, to a person next to them and passes an imaginary ball from their chest. Whoever receives the sound and gesture then passes both either back to the original person or to the person on their other side. After this has gone a few times around the circle, you shift to ‘the speed of fun,’ which Bayes describes as ‘faster than your worry and louder than your critic.’ What we want in the rehearsal room is a sense of non-competitive play, where there are no winners and no losers.”

Yes, and…

“ ‘Yes, and…’ is the building block of improv. Do this with two actors at a time. Have one of them make an enthusiastic one-sentence statement to the other, like ‘The sky is blue!’ The other actor then replies with, ‘Yes and…’ and then adds another detail, as in, ‘Yes, the sky is blue and there is a bald eagle flying overhead!’ At this point, avoid asking questions. Playing with ‘Yes, and…’ helps us practice agreement and give-and-take, and helps us let go of our own ideas of how a scene should be going.”

Believe the hype

“ ‘The Hype Interview’ is another game to get people listening to each other and emphasize the positive. Set up three chairs. The person in the first chair asks a simple, not-too-personal question, like, ‘Where’s your favorite place to go on vacation?’ The second person answers honestly, maybe saying, ‘The Jersey shore,’ and briefly elaborates on why that is. Then the third person ‘hypes’ the second person’s answer—like they are that person’s public relations rep—saying things like, ‘Look at you, keeping it local! The Atlantic Ocean is so underrated!’ And so on.”

The eyes have it

“This last game focuses on eye contact, which is so important as a performer. Stand in a circle. Someone looks at another person and says their name. No pointing. That person says yes while maintaining eye contact, then chooses someone else and says their name. And so it goes. You pick up speed as you go around a few times, then you continue using only eye contact, not words. The connection between the players begins to feel like intuition, and that’s a good place to be as an ensemble.”

Katherine Wessling
Katherine Wessling is an actor, writer, and storyteller. Her acting gigs have run the gamut from playing a photon in an improv-based devised theater piece to playing Regan in “King Lear.” She has appeared on various stages throughout New York, and in indie and feature films such as “About a Donkey” and “Game Time.”
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