Raising the Curtains on… Improvisational Theatre

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

What is Improv?

Improv, a contraction of improvisational theatre, or simply, improvisation, is a form of theatre that values spontaneity and thinking on one’s feet. Performances, usually comedic, are unplanned, unscripted, and unrehearsed, with characters, dialogue, action, and story all created collaboratively and on-the-spot.

Types of Improv

Short-form Improv

Short-form improv, which consist of short performances that have the structure of a predetermined game or idea – sometimes driven by audience suggestion – began as games and exercises to help performers prepare and get excited about performing on stage, aptly named Theatre Games by their creator, Viola Spolin. There is a television series called Whose Line Is It Anyway?, based on the concept of short-form improv comedy.

A shot from the short-form improv comedy show, Whose Line Is It Anyway?
Image Source: BravoTV.

Long-form Improv

Long-form improv, as the name suggests, is an extended version of short-form improv, where performers create shows with a continual and connecting narrative or theme flowing through the scenes. These improv performances could take the form of any pre-existing theatrical performances, including plays and Broadway-style musicals. Middleditch and Schwartz is a Netflix Improv Comedy Special with long-form improv, sparked by audience suggestions. Off Book: The Improvised Musical features long-form improvised Broadway-style musicals in weekly podcast form.

A shot from the Netflix Improv Comedy Special, Middleditch and Schwartz.
Image Source: Monsters & Critics.

Non-comedic and Dramatic Improv Theatre

Although comedy improvisation is the most common, there are also performances that feature non-comedic and dramatic improv theatre. The improvisation styles of these vary from troupe to troupe, but what they share are techniques that are experimental and avant-garde, meant to tell stories in an unconventional way. Some improv troupes that fall under this category include Playback Theatre, Theatre of the Oppressed, and The Open Theatre.

Improv Skills

The concepts and techniques learned through improv can be used in classrooms and businesses. For example,It helps improve one’s communication skills, creative problem solving and ability to work as a team. This is called applied improvisation. It allows for people to “test-run” how to be a good leader and collaborator in a safe space while having fun. Hence, it is usually used for team-building events to boost team morale.

History

Improvisational theatre has its roots pre-dating the invention of writing. This was before scripts were written, stories were told, acted out and performed. However, the earliest documented use of improvisational theatre was in the Atellan Farce (391 BC). The improvised plays features exaggerated and absurd situation. This then led to commedia dell’arte (16th-18th centuries) who had performers improvise based on the outline of their over-the-top character caricatures. With such a silly and playful image, improv then later became a way for Viola Spolin to teach children acting, in the form of Theatre Games. Her son, Paul Sills, carried on her legacy by creating the first generation of modern American improvisers at The Compass Players in Chicago.

A painting of a commedia dell’arte scene.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Fundamental Principles of Improv

There are many qualities that make an improvised performance fun and enjoyable. So, here are some of the fundamental principles that contribute to a good improviser and an entertaining improvised performance.

Listen

Many beginners in improv find difficulty in knowing what to say next or are afraid of saying the incorrect thing. The improviser’s attention is taken away from what is being said by their stage partners and what is happening in the scene when they worry about this. In turn, they would not know how or what to respond. Therefore, an easy solution to this would be to actively listen to what is going on. Becoming a good improviser requires one to be present, and to be actively taking in information from the other improvisers sharing the stage.

Agreement (Yes, And…)

Perhaps one of the most popular rules of improv, the “Yes, And” rule is powerful because it keeps the conversation going while establishing new information and perspective. After an improviser has obtained the information about the scene, they would build upon that idea, expanding the world that a scene is set in. When adding new details, it is important to acknowledge the details that were said before, as it is agreement that helps a scene progress.

Who, What, Where, When, Why and How?

As part of being present and actively listening in improv, improvisers must ask themselves the 5Ws and 1H of what is being said. Thinking along the lines of those questions would help them find the next thing to say to keep the scene going without denying any previously established facts. Hence, the quickest way to add some depth and reality to a scene is to have characters call back to specifics of a made-up common history. It informs both the audience and the other improvisers a lot more about the scene and its characters, which may, in turn, contribute to the “why”. This means that in adding to a scene, it is also crucial for improvisers to get specific. Next, in giving their scene partners plenty of details, an improviser provides them with a lot more freedom to run wild with their “Yes, And”.

Conclusion

Though it is difficult to jump into improv right now with a global pandemic going on, there are ways to curb your enthusiasm. Tabletop role-playing games (TTRPGs) are games where participants describe their characters and actions through speech. These games give a small taste of the collaborative, off-the-cuff and attentive efforts that are required in improvisational theatre and is played online. However, if jumping in is not quite your style, there are plenty of entertaining videos and shows online that feature improv for you to enjoy.

Written by Vengyi Loke