Improv is a form of theatre in which the plot, characters, and dialogue of a show are made up on the spot. Usually this involves taking suggestions of words or phrases from audience members, but there are improvisers (such as Chicago’s TJ & Dave) who begin a show by simply looking into each other’s eyes.
Improv as a theatrical discipline has been popular in America for decades, but is now enjoying increasing popularity in the UK, too. It’s usually done onstage in front of a live audience, though improvising for camera is beginning to gain a following of its own. However, we’ll be focusing here on the live stage format.
There are countless improv games, structures, shows, groups, and disciplines to be found under the umbrella of improvised comedy, but they tend to fall into two main categories: short-form and long-form.
Put simply, short-form improv is a series of games or exercises that last a couple of minutes, each based on a new suggestion and not necessarily connected to previous scenes. Long-form improv involves structures that tie together multiple scenes to enable a full-length show to unfold from one singular suggestion. Think of it as a sketch show versus a play.
Short form improv
Short-form improv is a style in which quick and typically unrelated comedy scenes are played. Think of the classic TV show "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" for reference. The most basic version of a short-form scene involves taking a suggestion, then simply making up a scene. A more structured improv “game” might involve rules for the scene, or perhaps a competitive element.
An example of a short-form game is The Question Game—a challenge where improvisers can only ever speak in questions. A competitive version of this might include losing a life if you make a statement rather than ask a question, or hesitate too long between lines.
Long-form improv is harder to define, but in general, suggestions are taken at the beginning of the show, then the audience is left to watch them built upon, rather than continuously asked for new themes.
Arguably, the most famous long-form structure is the Harold—a format that begins with a game that associates around an audience’s suggestion, then typically involves three rounds of scenes interspersed with more games. Long-form shows tend to be more narrative-driven and have themes that are brought back throughout.
There is no single answer about improvisation's origins because each style of improv has its own rich history.
For as long as there has been theatre there has been improvisation, and forms such as commedia dell’arte—improvisation with stock characters wearing masks—have clear elements of what would become modern improv.
Viola Spolin played a major part in the birth of American improv with her theater games system. Her book "Improvisation for the Theater" is sometimes referred to as the “bible of improv” and has inspired countless practitioners across all disciplines of performance.
Del Close, who developed the Harold, is also considered a pillar of modern improv. His book, “Truth in Comedy,” co-written with Charna Halpern and Kim Howard Johnson, led the way for a new wave of long-form improvisation. Focusing less on gags and more on narrative and themes, long-form allowed improvisers to explore greater connections between characters and scenes.
As well as being a stand-alone skill, improv can make you a better actor in many ways.
- It helps you embrace spontaneity. The most obvious benefit is that it keeps you in the moment. From allowing yourself to take risks while you’re finding a character to keeping performances fresh every night, improv takes you out of your head, allowing you to discover truth and honesty in the moment.
- It builds collaboration skills. Improv is a team sport. It’s about going onstage with your fellow performers and trusting that together, something will happen. There’s nothing worse onstage than a selfish improviser—they can sink a whole show—and you soon realise the best actors serve the show as a whole, rather than concentrating solely on their own standout moments. Improvisers are cogs that keep the wheels of a show working and moving forward, and improv is great for curbing ego.
- It instills confidence. A lot of nonperformers use improv to build self-confidence. The discipline is increasingly used in corporate work to help companies embrace innovation and cultivate a supportive working environment. For actors, this mindset can also relieve fear and stage fright. When you’ve had to make up an entire show from scratch, suddenly having words to fall back on doesn’t seem so scary. Without the gripping fear of failure, the space that’s usually preoccupied with figuring out what’s going to come next is free to embrace the moment. It breaks you out of your comfort zone and not only helps you deal with being put on the spot, but enables you to actively embrace it!
And for those occasional moments when your mind genuinely goes blank, now you have the tools to improvise your way out of it!
Using improvisation as a tool in rehearsal can enable an actor to conjure up a more rounded version of the character they’re portraying.
And beyond the use of unscripted rehearsals, the skills you develop as an improviser can be invaluable in bringing a script to life.
Being stuck in your mind can greatly affect your willingness to take risks in a rehearsal room, and improv has the unique ability to get you out of your head. An improviser needs to be able to bypass fear to create full, believable, well-rounded characters out of thin air, almost instantaneously. Sometimes those characters work and sometimes they don’t, but a willingness to experiment with character and physicality—and to accept that failure is an important part of success—gives actors the permission to take risks. Think of your favourite acting performance. Was it safe or was it brave? Most likely it was the latter.
An element of play in rehearsal is also vital in creating a finished product that doesn’t feel forced. Being open to moments of realness in rehearsals—ones that can either be worked into the finished product or simply kept in the back of your mind—can provide joyous results.
Nobody wants to see actors just walking around, saying lines, and hitting marks. They want a play to breathe, and they want to see a version that’s unique. Improvisers know how to bring themselves to a part, creating something special and unique without ever taking over the show. We don’t want to see someone else’s performance—we want to see your take on the role. Improv allows you to see beyond the lines and breathe life into the written word.
As the popularity of improv grows, so do the options of where to see it, and there are plenty of productions that tour major venues around the UK.
- Olivier Award-winning "Showstopper!" is often touring and is great if you love musicals!
- "Austentatious" is an improvised Jane Austen novel, boasting performers such as Andrew Hunter Murray (No Such Thing As a Fish) and Rachel Parris (The Mash Report).
- In "Notflix: The Improvised Musical", the performers improvise a full-length musical based on your favourite movies—even if they haven’t seen them! They also tour the UK, so look out for their upcoming gigs.
- If short-form is more your thing, you’ll love "BattleActs!", some of the fastest-thinking improvisers in the UK. Can’t get to a show? They also have a podcast with the BBC.
- If you’re not bothered about big theatres and just want to catch some local shows, most local comedy venues have at least one improv night, and some even have house teams. Bristol has its own Improv Theatre, and London’s improv scene has shows going on all the time. A quick Google search will find your nearest nights.
- If you ever find yourself at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, it’s probably the best place in the world to see improv from around the globe.
- If you want to train in London, the three main companies are The Nursery, Hoopla! and The Free Association. If you’re specifically interested in musical improv, the "Showstopper!" team also runs courses on its techniques. But London is not the only place you can study improv.
- If you’re based in the South, The Maydays is a hugely popular company, and in addition to its London courses, it also has a base in Brighton.
- Kent-based creatives can find an improv home in Folkestone, where Improv Gym runs drop-in sessions, jams, and shows at the Folkestone Quarterhouse.
- Out west, Bristol is a hub of off-the-cuff talent, with Bristol Improv Theatre’s Discovering Improv course aiming to help you increase confidence, creativity, and spontaneity.
- Heading up the country, MissImp runs courses and drop-ins in Nottingham, and Liverpool’s Liverpool Comedy Improv offers drop-ins and courses.
- Newcastle’s The Suggestibles teach as well as perform, and Manchester-based ComedySportz runs particularly cool intensives.
- It’s no surprise that Edinburgh is a hub of improv, so for Scottish readers, tbc…Improv might be the company for you. As well as running its own workshops, it also regularly invites practitioners from all over the UK to teach.
Not found anything near you? This list is by no means exhaustive, and it’s always worth a quick Google search to find other options in your local area. Sometimes local theatres run courses, and you can often find drop-ins in community halls.
Here are a few important terms for improv newbies:
- Yes, and…: Considered the cornerstone of improv, “Yes, and…” means two things:
- “Yes”: Accepting the offer that another improviser has given you: If someone says you’re in a space station, you’re in a space station. Don’t suddenly say “No, we’re not, we’re in a swimming pool!” It belittles the world of the scene and tells your fellow improvisers they can’t trust you.
- “And…”: Adding and expanding on a line of thinking to move a scene forward. This means not only agreeing with other improvisers, but also adding to the scene, the world, and the relationships in it.
- If you follow the basic tenet of the “Yes, and…,” you’re off to a great start!
- Blocking: This is the opposite of “Yes, and…,” and means rejecting the ideas of other performers. It’s a common fallback for nervous improvisers, as it can generate a cheap laugh, but it undermines the scene and trust between players.
- Endowing: Improv is a team sport that relies on players making decisions for others as well as themselves. When you endow, you give another improviser attributes to help flesh out their character. When done well, this is what makes a relationship fly.
- Callback: A general term in comedy, a callback is when you bring back an idea from earlier in the show. These can be very impressive when done well, and audiences love them, but pick your moment carefully.
- Striking: If a scene is going on too long or someone has just said a line so spectacular it couldn’t possibly be topped, another player can strike the scene. This is usually done by running across the front of the stage. Improvisers can, of course, end scenes themselves, but this offers an option for an outside eye.
- Rule of Three: For some reason, things are just funnier in threes! It’s worth keeping the rule of three in the back of your head, not only to allow you to explore ideas further, but also to stop you from taking a joke too far.
- Bulldozing: Something you must let go of during improv is the idea that the way you saw a scene going at the beginning is the “right” way, and it’s something every improviser grapples with. Bulldozing is when a performer hijacks a scene (or show) and pushes it toward how they want it to go rather than where it’s heading organically. This will not only make you an unpopular player—it also stops it from being improv!
It’s entirely possible to make money off improv, and there are many performers who do, but it isn’t easy to make it a full-time career. Most professional improvisers supplement their live shows with other acting pursuits or with teaching and corporate work.
It’s always worth stating that if your main goal is to make lots of money, a career in performance is probably not for you. That said, it’s totally acceptable that as a professional you should expect to be paid for your expertise. We wouldn’t expect a plumber to work for free, so why would we presume the UK’s top improvisers should perform on the West End for pennies?
The key is to be realistic. Do you genuinely want to pursue improv as your main profession—or is it a part of your skill set that supplements the money you make off other areas of the industry? Perhaps it’s just another way to improve your general skills as an actor.
Above all else, improv is a sure-fire way to find community, build confidence, and gain skills in communication and performance. Even if you never make a penny from doing short-form sketches at your monthly comedy night, the skills you’ll cultivate will 100% make a difference in your professional life.
For more from Backstage UK, check out the magazine.