Warming Up To Warm-Ups

I just joined a helpful new Facebook group dedicated solely to sharing improv warm-ups.  I’m always astonished when I hear some improvisers say that they never or don’t like to warm-up before a practice or show.  I value warm-ups as a way to prepare you body, mind, and spirit as well as well a way to connect with your fellow performers.  Plus, they’re often fun!

The term warm-ups is a bit of a misnomer because many so-called warm ups are in and of themselves effective exercises that teach or reinforce specific improv craft.  Even deceptively simple games like Zip-Zap-Zop have an analog to scene work, i.e., making strong, clear offers.  Plus, did I mention they’re often fun?

 Many well known warm-up games are, or are derived from, children's games (from school, camp, scouting) and drinking games.

Many well known warm-up games are, or are derived from, children's games (from school, camp, scouting) and drinking games.

There are many types of improv warm-ups designed for various groups sizes, from just pair to giant circle of 20 or more performers.  I think in many cases it’s important to play these games with speed and commitment vs. worrying about getting the rules right.  It’s a reminder that failure is a wonderful and important component of improv (even so far as I’ve encountered some audiences that were otherwise stone faced until the performers began making mistakes with scene work and games).

For example, consider the warm-up Zoom-Schwartz-Profigliano, a game reknowned for having an extensive, rich set of commands often differing among different improv groups (for example, while visiting ComedySportz Portland last week, I discovered they did not know the command bork, which is routine in both ComedySportz Sacramento and ComedySportz San Jose).  When I observe performers getting too caught up in the rules, I suggest a morbid mind scenario to encourage them to play faster and fail.  I tell them to imagine machine gun armed enforcers are standing around the circle.  The enforcers won’t shoot you if you get a command wrong, i.e., fail.  They will shoot you if you go too slowly and don’t commit to your choices!  Another technique is to limit the command set to a core set (maybe 5 basic commands) to encourage speed and commitment.

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My general love for warm-ups being said, I should also point out that I think that there is such a thing as warming up too much.  I’ve particularly observed this when coaching zealous high school teams who want to warm up for 45 minutes before a show.  The problem with an overly long warm-up is that it might take away from the energy and freshness available for a show.  I personally find 20 minutes is the sweet spot for warming up a group of 6-8 people.  You can adjust depending on groups size, i.e., a little shorter for a smaller group, a little longer for a larger group.  Of course, it also depends on the mix of exercises and games.