This is a great topic, don’t you think? What You Know About Improvisation In Theater And What You Don’t Know About Improvisation In Theater.
Improvisation. Fun stuff, huh?
I was a child of the late 1960s and early 70s. I didn’t study theater until I attended high school and even then, I barely got started. My teacher never taught or used improvisation and consequently, I was sorely behind when I began my studies in college at Stephens College in Columbia, MO.
The first time my college acting teacher, Jean Muir, sat quietly in our classroom studio and said, “Today, we are going to use improvisation to study characterization.” I was a nervous wreck. I had no idea what she meant. Being a quick learner, though I soon loved it.
The History of Improvisation
I searched around on the internet and found this description on wikipedia.org:
“The earliest well-documented use of improvisational theatre in Western history is found in the Atellan Farce of 391 BC. From the 16th to the 18th centuries, commedia del arte performers improvised based on a broad outline in the streets of Italy. In the 1890s, theatrical theorists and directors such as the Russian Konstantin Stanislavski and the French Jacques Copeau, founders of two major streams of acting theory, both heavily utilized improvisation in acting training and rehearsal.”
Wow! I had no idea of its history, did you?
What You Know About Improvisation In Theater
I think it’s fair to say that most of theater educators know improvisation’s basic rules:
- Live in the moment–If the actor plays the moment, they will have plenty of ideas of which to choose.
- Employ active listening--This is absolutely vital in improv.
- Seek and nurture connection and interconnection–Humans experience many moments universally–a birthday, a loose tooth, losing a pet, getting in trouble with a parent. Use these moments to you advantage.
- Always say ‘yes’–The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES. When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. This keeps the scene going and doesn’t stall out.
- Continue the improvisation as much as possible--You should agree and then add something of your own. If I start a scene with “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you just say, “Yeah…” we’re kind of at a standstill. But if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “What did you expect? We’re in hell.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “Yes, this can’t be good for the wax figures.”
- Make statements--Whatever the problem, be part of the solution. Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles.
- Give trust before it is earned–This helps everyone involved. To know that your scene partner(s) has your back and will help you if you get stuck means everything.
- There are no mistakes, only opportunities–Make big ones! Our instinct when we make mistakes is to minimize them as much as possible, and that shows in how the average person responds to those situations. I say go big or go home.
Different Ways I Use Improvisation in Rehearsal
Improvisation can be used in a variety of ways. I’m most comfortable with using improv. to develop a character. Spending time during a rehearsal acting as the character (though not rehearsing the production) is an excellent way to explore characterization. So, today I’m speaking different ways I use imiprovisation in rehearsal.
When blocking large groups of students, I use improvisation to create blocking for a particular moment. For instance, in the scene where the Cossacks rampaged the wedding in Fiddler on the Roof, I instructed students to respond as their characters to the moment.
Generally, I encourage them to say whatever came to mind for them, to exclaim, weep, etc. In this particular situation, there were a lot of giggles, frozen stances and wide eyes from my students. However, after several times of improv. everyone felt more comfortable with the violence. (What a strange thing to write…)
This improv. was challenging for my home school students who were sheltered from anything violent (books, movies and television). Through trial and error, we came to an agreement about what we could demonstrate through the violence that we couldn’t with dialogue. By doing so, it gave them permission to act out their negative emotions and made for an thought- provoking moment.
Use Improvisation in Your Blocking
A fun way to use improvisation is when blocking entrances and exits of characters. Let’s face it–sometimes it’s just difficult to exit the stage without looking like a robot. The script merely says, “exit.” My questions are always–How? When? Doing what? Going where? Sometimes I use improvisation as a way for a character to make an exit believable rather than looking programmed.
It has been my experience that students under the age of fifteen have a difficult time blocking a scene without my help, unless they have years of past stage experience from which to draw. With experienced actors, I can say, “How about you move around the stage as you feel the character would and we’ll see if it works?”
The only problem I find with experienced actors is they don’t always remember what they did the last time they rehearsed the scene and this makes for problems. Even if my stage manager writes it down, somehow my experienced actors can’t get out of the habit of changing their blocking.
Usually, I pre-block scenes for novice actors because it’s tough enough just to learn the lines much less block yourself in a play. But I can give novice actors an opportunity to try a bit of improv. if they are so inclined. Some students ideas are much better than mine.
The Second City-Chicago Illinois Improvisational Theater Company
One of the most popular and certainly the most centrally located improvisational company in the United States is The Second City.
Improv comedy ended up on the map thanks to The Second City. Along with launching the careers of famed comics like Tina Fey, Keegan-Michael Key, Stephen Colbert, Chris Farley, Steve Carell, and Amy Sedaris, it also offers classes to aspiring improv performers.
You’ll find improv shows seven nights a week, spread across the three available stages. It’s a genuine staple of the Chicago comedy community. Second City offers classes for all ages, workshops and the like.
Five Different Types of Improvisation
I think it’s important to note that there are five different kinds of improvisation in theater.
- Basic Performance Improvisation–This type of improvisation is used to introduce improvisation to students, or to create comedy sketches which will be performed for a formal or informal audience.
- Devised Theater–This type of improvisation is used to create longer works of original theater. This work can be used for classroom sharing or can grow into works for performance in front of an audience.
- Applied Theater--This type of improvisation is not focused on entertainment, but rather facilitates the exploration of an idea, theme, conflict, or question by a group of people. The purpose is communication among the participants. Drama therapists use this type of improvisation.
- Drama in the Classroom (Devised Drama)–Whenever students are acting a story without a script, or making up their own stories based on history, science, or a favorite book, they are improvising. Think drama integration! (Check out my FREE drama integration lesson here.)
- Improvisation as a Scripted Theater Rehearsal Technique–As I mentioned above, this is the method I’m most familiar with and use frequently.
What You DON’T Know About Improvisation
Too many times, I read of theater teachers suggesting to a new teacher that they should, “Do improvs.! They love it.” as though improvisation is a great time filler or baby sitter. Oh please, do not do this! Improvisation is just as important to studying theater as anything else. Let’s not cheapen it and throw it out when we don’t know what else to do with our students. Long term, if you begin with improvisation students may think that theater is all fun and games, rainbows and unicorns. We know that theater is an art form, a very important and useful one at that!
Improvisation Can Be Scary to Some Students
Not every new theater student feels comfortable standing in front of their peers much less saying something. In fact, I think even the most experienced theater student will not want to jump right into improvisation. Not everyone wants to feel vulnerable the minute they enroll in a class they’d never studied before. You have to give them time feeling safe in your classroom and that “safe” is whatever they might be concerned about.
Are they concerned about others laughing at them and not with them? Or they aren’t comfortable speaking spontaneously? Or they are afraid of being judged by the clothes they have to wear? Throwing them on the stage and expecting them to turn out a school version of “Whose Lines Is It Anyway?” is not the answer when you have time left over at the end of your class.
However, if you really want to use improvisation check out Viola Spolin’s Improvisation for the Actor or Theater Games in the Classroom. Both books will help you immensely–give you pointers, tips and even side coaching scripts!
Improvisation should be treated like any other element of theater. It should be studied, practiced and perfected until its commonplace for a student. My advice is to teach your students the rules of improvisation first, then graduate to structured improv and then to devised theater. Check out my FREE storytelling improvisation ice breaker warm up here.
How do you use improvisation in your classroom? I’d love to hear about it. Contact me at DhcBaldwin@gmail.com. Let’s connect!