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Improv comedy performance

It might come as a surprise to some here on Frih that I'm a bit of a comedian and am involved in theatre. One of my favorite media for comedic performance is improvisational comedy/theatre (improv). It's an open, free form of performance requiring a robust skill set of theatre skills, a wide understanding of contexts from which to draw information, and a quick wit… it's a constant challenge. Now, I'm not saying I am a particularly good improv comedian, but, I do greatly enjoy it. In essence, improv is unscripted theatre. The players come into a scene, situation, or theme without prewritten material; they're thrust into what they need to perform cold and have to develop the scene and keep it moving on the fly.
I've participated in two amateur improv comedy troupes (Improv U (Facebook) and The Danger Zone? (Facebook, Old messageboard)), both are now defunct, unfortunately. We even had weekly gigs at local bars for a couple years, doing 2-hour shows every week. It was a lot of fun... most of the time Wink

Improv comedy tends to come in the form of "improv games"; rule sets or themes that must be followed to create the scene. This is the format of popular improv shows like Who's Line is it Anyway? and the like; a game is decided, then a setting, object, feeling or what have you is attained from the audience and the players have to create within the given contexts. If you've watched these shows, or have seen live improv, you know how amusing this can be, and how absurd it can become. These shows tend to focus on short form improv games, the games are quick, to the point and kind of operate as gag generators, capable of firing off game after game to keep the motion going. A less popular TV format is long form; the rules aren't as obvious and the scenes take longer to develop. Long form tends to be more character or situation driven, building elaborate or convincing scenes over a long period. Short and long form improv are both rewarding and funny, but use different skill sets.

The {Insert Something Funny} Players Improv Handbook is a fantastic resource for improv skills and games development. Some of the content is specific to that group and just doesn't apply, but the broader scope of the material is widely applicable and super handy.

"Make sure that you don't stop, just keep going, because the whole idea behind improvisation is motion; it's just the courage to keep going…" - Bobby McFerrin; while referring specifically to musical improvisation, it applies equally well to any form of improv and, really, just about anything in life. Just keep going, don't be afraid of failure.

One of the big skills required for improv is learning to agree with your fellow players… agree and build upon what they created. It's very tempting to try and steer scenes to your desired direction, but more often than not, disagreement will cause failure, and no one has fun. Disagreement is a common rookie mistake and can take serious effort to overcome it. I think this is in the ISFP handbook above, but, one of the exercises we used to do was play a game called Yes, and…. This is usually a 2-player exercise, but can involve more; basically it proceeds that a player starts a scene developing some idea, the other person responds with agreement, then builds it further, for example:
1 - Did you see that advert for shave cream on the bus?
2 - Yes, and I was quite offended by the shameful display of cleavage!
1 - Yes, so was I. It's as if you can't sell shave cream with pictures of butts anymore!
It's easy to fall into a trap of disagreement that will stop the motion of the scene altogether, e.g.
1 - Did you see that advert for shave cream on the bus?
2 - Nope.
1 - …

Of course, like anything else, following the rules can only take you so far. Occasionally, breaking the rules will make a scene far better… but you have to understand how the rules apply, why they're there and when breaking them will produce a better scene. It takes some experience and intimate familiarity with playing by the rules to get right.

2 blog comments below

Improv is great fun for me to watch but I don't think I could be quick witted enough to preform it.
standready on Thu Dec 08, 2011 11:04 pm
Most people can do it, really... but it is a skill. As such, it needs to be cultivated and maintained, and takes some effort to develop. Once you get your mind working in the right context, it's surprising how easy it can become and how quickly you can move things along! It really does come down to removing your fear of failure; it sets you free to surprise yourself Wink Sometimes, you will fail, it's inevitable, and we have to accept that possibility, learn and move on when it happens. Dwelling on the possibility, or what went wrong is poison.
Ankhanu on Thu Dec 08, 2011 11:21 pm

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