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How to improv: a guide for performers

By BBC Maestro

If you’re starting out as a stand up comedian or studying acting, you’ll soon come across the art of improv.

At its simplest, improvisation (to give it its full name) is performing without a script. This already sounds terrifying to most beginners; however, there is so much creativity and honesty to be found in this form of comedy or drama, that most performers find it incredibly liberating. 
 
In this article, we’ll look at how to improve your improv. 

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What is improvisational comedy? 

Improvisational comedy is a sketch, play, song, dialogue or stand-up routine without a script. In improv, you’re making things up as you go along, which sounds intimidating at this early stage, but  comes naturally with practice. 
 
An improvised stand-up routine often starts with a suggestion from the audience, which the comedian then picks up and runs with. Improv might just be a small part of the set, which occurs when the routine naturally takes a new turn or the performer responds to something from the audience.  
 
In live comedy, audiences expect at least some improvisation. If there isn’t, why go to a live show? Those unique segues and jokes are part of what makes live performances so special. Improvisational comedy isn’t just for the stage, however, and we’ll look at some other types of improv humour as we go along. 

A brief history of improv

Improv has a long history, as bold souls have been standing up and riffing on a subject for centuries. The “Atellan Farce” was an improv show performed in Ancient Rome, where at least the cast had the advantage of being masked. Staying with Italian theatre, the commedia dell’arte of the Renaissance also relied on improvised performances. 
 
Modern improvision grew in America in the mid- to late-20th-century, in New York, Chicago and LA. This period produced the legendary manual of improv, Keith Johnstone’s Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre, which introduced “Theatersports.” This is the idea of developing improv skills through competition, something we’ve seen more recently in panel game shows like Whose Line Is It Anyway? and BBC’s Mock The Week.  

Sir Billy Connolly’s own history of improv

Sir Billy talks about his first experience of improv – which happened completely by accident. At this time, he was still a banjo player, performing at a gig in Paisley. Billy was playing a folk song called St Brendan’s Isle (about medieval monks and America), when he completely forgot the words. 
 
I didn’t know what to do and I stopped playing, and I said to the audience, ‘I’ve forgotten the words’ and they started to laugh. I said, ‘It’s about monks that lived in Ireland and they built these leather boats’, and the more I explained it, the more they laughed, until they were in hysterics and I went down a storm. And I thought that was brilliant. I like the sound of that. I like how that feels. And it was the first time I had improvised. I didn’t know I was doing it. 
 
This first, accidental improv had a huge effect on the young performer. As he later reflected, “It was like a drug – I couldn’t get enough.” The rest, as they say, is comedy history. 

What are long form and short form improv? 

There are two main categories of improv: short form and long form, and they’re pretty self-explanatory. Short form is made from quick and snappy sections, like you’d see in a game show, while long form could be as expansive as a whole play.  
 
For a good example of (extremely) short form, take a look at the “Things you wouldn’t hear” section of panel show Mock The Week. In this clip, the contestants are coming up with one-liners and rapid-fire jokes on the subject of “Things you wouldn’t hear in court.”  
 
Short form is popular with audiences, and keeps cropping up in different formats. The panel guessing game Fast & Loose was made up of improvised games and sketches, and featured a musical round. Here’s David Armand improvising signing to Careless Whisper. Once seen, never forgotten. 
 
Long form can start with a single suggestion from the audience, then take flight into a whole creative world of improvising dialogue and action. This was a feature of the renowned US improvisation theatres and groups during the 20th century. 
 
The best-known type of long form improv in theatrical circles is the “Harold”. In this, separate scenes are improvised, then ideally come together in unexpected but complete ways. Its name derives from a US improv drama group in 1960s called The Committee, who, when asked what they should call their piece, someone shouted “Harold!” and the name stuck. 

Improvised comedy dialogue 

There can also be elements of improv in formats such as TV shows and films, where the actors are given a framework and asked to improvise their dialogue. British director Shane Meadows recently introduced improv to BBC period drama with his groundbreaking Gallows Pole. The pithily dry Yorkshire speech that comes from this gives the characters a sharp, funny and relatable edge. 
 
Sitcoms also use this device, with US shows Curb Your Enthusiasm and Home Movies famous for their unscripted speech. In the UK, BBC’s Outnumbered gave its child actors last-minute instructions rather than a script, which captured the (often unintentional) comedy of family life perfectly. To see the results, treat yourself to five minutes with the Brockman kids in a Spanish airport (and be thankful that you’re not with them for longer). 

comedian on stage

The 5 principles of improv

The 5 principles of improvisation can vary slightly, but if you’re asked “what is the number one rule of improvisation?” the answer is always “Agree”. The golden rules for how to do improv are all about keeping things flowing: here’s a closer look. 

  1. Yes…and 
    If you’re improvising with other actors or comedians, a negative response will shut the scene down immediately. Agree (called “yes and” in improv terms) and the collaboration will flow. 
  2. Add new information 
    After you’ve agreed, develop the idea by adding more information. “Do you think you saw the lost dog?” “Yes, he was riding a bicycle”. OK, that’s just taken a bit of a surreal turn, but you see the point. Expanding on the agreement moves this forward.
  3. Don’t block 
    It’s very easy to shut down the direction of the action or dialogue with a negative response (and if you’re about to have to riff on a cycling dog, that’s understandable). However, don’t play it safe, because that could grind everything to a halt. Keep remembering to agree!
  4. Don’t ask questions to pass the buck 
    Questions can be really helpful, but they’re also a way to put the onus on the other player and step out of the spotlight yourself. Think before you question.  
  5. Be in the moment 
    During an improvisation, don’t be tempted to let your mind run far ahead. Focus on what is happening right now and respond to that. You’ll achieve a more engaging result. 

There’s a scene in the BBC sitcom Ghosts where scoutmaster Pat attempts to teach his housemates how to improvise. He explains agreeing (“In improvisation you say ‘yes…and’.”), blocking and how to build on a scene. His pupils may not be grasping his lesson but if you want an enjoyable two-minute introduction to the elements of improv, there are much worse places to start than Button House. 
 
So far, we’ve looked at improv humour as part of an ensemble: can you apply the same principles to stand-up comedy? With stand up, the relationship is simply between you and the audience, so you don’t have that other person to improvise with. This can make things seem both harder and easier. Sir Billy Connolly advises stand ups to: 
 
Listen to your mind. It will suggest things on its own, in the middle of something else… Whoosh – it takes another direction. 
 
In other words, don’t be your own block. 
 
For other tips about performing stand up comedy, read our article, which is full of wise words from Billy Connolly. 

Tips to become a better improv performer 

Sir Billy Connolly is famous for striding onto the stage and seeing where his thoughts took him: in fact, his digressions and free-flow style are part of his signature delivery. However, when you’re starting out as an actor or stand-up, that feels pretty daunting.  
 
Here are some tips for beginners on how to get better at improv. 

  • Remember improv is meant to be a challenge and we all know this. The audience, as Billy Connolly points out, wants to enjoy themselves, and they tend to appreciate improv as both a comedic skill and also because it makes their experience unique. Once you realise that, it all seems a lot less intimidating.
  • Look out for “suggestions”. This is sometimes called “Going from A to C”. You can immediately see how you can segue the improv topic into a familiar routine, but so it’s not too clumsy, you take an indirect route.
  • Give yourself a safety net, in case your improvisation runs out of steam (it happens). Have what’s called a “dismount”, a ready-prepared punchline that you can roll out if your improv starts to falter.
  • Have prompts. Even the Big Yin has a list of topics on a sheet of paper, which he keeps on his stool. He doesn’t always use them but they’re there should he need inspiration.
  • Practice. If you’re a beginner, this could mean joining an improv drama group, or taking a deep breath and stepping up to the open mic.  
  • Watch others. Go to comedy clubs, or watch performers like Billy, Rachel Parris and James Acaster.  

Do hecklers ever provide a way into improvisation? Billy Connolly sees improv as the only way to deal with a heckle. 
 
I used to have lines that dealt with them, but you get bored doing it. You get bored with the same old line. And so do your audience. If they’ve seen you before. You have to deal with it as it comes. 
 
Much as blocking your colleagues during an ensemble improvisation, shutting down a good-natured heckler can be counter-productive, so being able to play along for an appropriate length of time is a useful skill.  

How do you introduce improv to your stand-up routine, and learn how to go with wherever your mind leads you? In his BBC Maestro comedy course, Sir Billy Connolly takes you through topics such as preparing your routine and how the comedy brain works, as well as giving us insights into his early days as a stand up comedian. And of course, his words are interspersed with illustrative clips from his most-loved routines. 

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