Making It Up As You Go...
Improvisation's most simplified definition is "acting without a script". In other words, actors in an improvised scene must create an original scene, complete with character, setting, conflict, as well as all the other dramatic elements, "off the top of their heads".
Improvisation in Western Theatre has a rich history, stretching as far back as the ancient Etruscan civilization. However, it was during the Renaissance that the form became popular in the form of traveling Commedia dell'Arte troupes. Commedia troupes would travel from town to town and perform plays based on the interactions of stock characters. Though certain narrative elements were outlined and planned ahead of time, the dialogue and comic "bits" (or lazzi) were often improvised.
In the 20th century, improvisational forms of theatre became very popular. Viola Spolin, considered by many to be the founder of modern improvisational techniques, was a very influential director and improv teacher. Her son, Paul Sills, was the original director of Chicago's The Second City: a sketch and improv troupe that has nurtured many popular comedic actors whose performances we enjoy today.
Words to Know
platform -- refers to the "who", "what", and "where" of a scene
offer -- any verbal or physical suggestion made by another actor
explore -- refers to the act of accepting an idea offered by a fellow actor, and then exploring the natural consequences of that idea
blocking -- refers to the act of rejecting information or ideas offered by another performer (a "no no")
canceling -- the act of one performer making the actions of another performer irrelevant (another "no no")
focus -- the act of making sure that the audience's attention is only in one place at any given moment.
Click Here for your Improv Performance Rubric!
The "Rules" of Improv
In his book Improv for Actors, author Dan Diggles lays out three big rules for improvisation.
Say the first thing that comes to your head. (Of course, we have to stay school appropriate, but with a little practice, you can learn to be spontaneous and appropriate.)
Say "Yes! And..." to all of your partner's offers. This is covered in more detail below.
Make your partner look good. This is not to be confused with having no conflict in the scene. But, if each member of the ensemble is working to make each other look good, then much of then blocking and canceling are minimized.
According to Suzi Zimmerman in Introduction to Theatre Arts, actors should follow the following guidelines when participating in an improvised scene:
Define your character.
Take the director's instructions and do a quick character analysis before taking the stage: How do I walk and talk? How old am I? Do I have any odd habits?
Be a good listener.
Listen to the other actors on-stage, because their lines are your cue lines, and if the scene lacks good ensemble, it will not be a success.
Know where you are.
Is your character at the mall, the zoo, the beach, or any other place that would enhance the scene? If there is not enough time to establish the location before the beginning, work it into the skit as close to the beginning as possible. Then, the imaginary location can become a part of the scene, giving the actors more to go on.
Know the conflict.
Almost all scenes revolve around a conflict, and if improvisational actors are not clear on what it is, their scene will be confusing to the audience.
Whether playing a game or improvising a scene, remember the instructions: If there is a goal (and there almost always is), keep the goal in sight.
If relationships are not established by the director, clarify them early in the scene. This will help to clear a path for the conclusion.
Include plenty of action.
Because the audience expects little scenery or props, the actor has it within his power to "pretend" to possess anything he wishes! Good actors can use pantomime to make the audience believe they see a light saber or giant clown shoes.
Try to keep the scene in the positive rather than the negative.
Avoid using responses such as "no". They bring the scene to a sudden halt, whereas responses in the positive, "yes," keep the scene moving toward the goal and tend to be more funny. Work with your partners instead of against them.
Every improvisation must have a conclusion.
...but when you are on the spot, it can seem pretty hard to do. Many improv troupes use bells and buzzers to end scenes that actors cannot seem to end on their own. You do not want to be buzzed out every time, so practice ending your own scenes.