Reinvigorate Your Improv

We recently began a new Wednesday Drop-In class at our theater, CSz Sacramento.  The class is open to all levels, features a variety of games, and has attracted new students who have previously only played or studied at other theaters.  I’ve really been enjoying the opportunity to play with these new folks; it’s been a great opportunity to make new friends, share laughs, and learn.  Overall, the experience has brought a certain reinvigoration to my improv, which has been now been part of my life for almost 25 years.

Often when people pursue a hobby or career for a long time, they might encounter periods of stagnation, loss of interest, burnout, etc.  So I thought I’d share some tips I think can help people avoid, manage, or overcome such down moments.

Get Out Of You Character Comfort Zone


I’ve observed over the years that many improvisers have a “comfort zone” of character types they endow frequently.  One way to freshen up your improv is to push yourself outside your character comfort zone by exploring character types you don’t often endow or have never endowed.  To figure out those gaps you can either engage in some self reflection or simply ask team mates “What’s a type of character you don’t see me play or have never seen me play?

Explore A New Type of Improv

There are many types of improv to explore, and trying other types can help you grow.  On a broad level, if you mostly perform short form, maybe explore some long form.  And vice versa (and maybe take a look at this blog entry first).  If you typically do story based, narrative long form, maybe explore pattern based, thematic long form.  And vice versa.

Invent Something New


Develop a new game or create a new long form format.  For the ComedySportz Sacramento Main Stage team I typically devote at least one practice a year just to inventing new games.  During shows we also have a game, Game-O-Matic, that requires the players to invent a new game on the spot.  Within our Shower Thoughts long form team we often try new formats, some derived from existing ones.  For example, our last show included a new format, Biopic, about the life of a made up famous person that we developed from our Mockumentary format.

Play With New People

Improvisers have different styles, visions, and skills.  Playing with new people is both enjoyable and rewarding.  Once upon a time I played racquetball.  If I played opponents who were equal or lower in ability, I grew bored.  But when I played opponents who were better or who played with a different style, I felt challenged and improved my own play.


Take Some Time Off

Sometimes it can help to take some time off.  Stepping away from an activity can sometimes reignite our passion for that activity and result in growth.  We often think that growth is a gradual, continual process.  But in some cases, growth occurs in discrete increases with interspersed plateaus.  Over the years I’ve observed several improvisers whose ability jumped suddenly after taking some time off.

S-I-M-B Squirrels In My Blog!


Trying to find a topic’s that new…
S-I-M-B Squirrels In My Blog!
So many choices, what to do…
S-I-M-B Squirrels In My Blog!
Better really think it through…
S-I-M-B Squirrels In My Blog!
Or else bad comments will ensue…

As you may have guessed I’ve decided to write about the use of rhyming within improv.  My little prelude is a paraphrase of a rhyming warm-up called S-I-M-P Squirrels In My Pants.

Tautology Club.png

The use of rhyming within improv mostly pertains to improv performance games involving rhyming (Holy Tautology, Batman!)  There are, of course, exceptions.  One might choose to play a character for whom rhyming is a character endowment.  And careful use of rhyme can enhance some genres type scenes like Dr. Seuss or Shakespeare.  In that latter case, for example, rhyming couplets are often used to indicate the exit or entrance of a character.  But at the end of the day the vast majority of rhyming within improv will occurs as part of a game that involving rhyming or another skill for which rhyming is an optional component, e.g., singing, rapping, and poetry.  Some relevant example games include:

  • Da Doo Run Run.  In this elimination game players rhyme with a one syllable audience member name within a repeating 1-1-3 pattern based on the titular song name.  Players cannot repeat rhymes; doing so (as well as hesitating or falling off the beat) results in elimination.  The beat increases gradually with each new name until one player wins.

  • New Rhyme! (aka Rhyme It!).  In this variant of the classic game New Choice, the emcee can signal a player to replace his or her last line with a new line that rhymes with the previous offer.  For example:  I just came back from the camp.  {New Rhyme!}  Hey, our tent got a little damp.  {New Rhyme!}  Boy, that hike really gave me a cramp.

  • Word Up From Our Sponsor.  During breaks from interviewing an audience member, players appear from backstage to rap a series of rhyming couplets as advertisements based on audience suggestions.

Can Rhymes.jpg

I made the decision to become stronger at rhyming early into my ComedySportz career after choking at the Austin based 2000 ComedySportz World Championship (then more often called Tournament or The Tourney in the local dialect).  Early into a game of Da Doo Run Run I failed to rhyme with can.  My friends Patti and Alison, visiting all the way from San Diego to support me, playfully provided me with a list of 100 words that rhyme with can after the show.  I mean, I was already a decent rhymer; the nerves of being a newbie at Championship definitely got the better of me.  Nevertheless, I vowed to improve.

Since that moment I regularly practiced rhyming and paid close attention to any moments when an improv instructor offered learning.  Here are some tips I’ve picked up over the years from those coaches, from observation, or on my own.

One - There are five words that rhyme with miss:

  • The word itself

  • A real word that actually rhymes with miss, e.g., sis, this, Swiss, etc

  • A so-called slant rhyme, i.e. a word that almost rhymes with the word and sounds close, e.g., cyst, hissed, etc.

  • A made-up word that actually rhymes, e.g., chiss, fliss, etc.

  • A word that doesn’t even remotely rhyme with the word, like chimichanga.


Note that pulling off these two last cases typically requires a great deal of commitment, a generous or flexible audience, and an emcee willing to play along.  For example, the emcee might ask you to define the made-up word.  If the audience enjoys the bit, she might let it slide because most emcees don’t want to invalidate positive audience reactions.  Even with the chimichanga scenario, the audience might laugh enough that the emcee doesn’t interrupt the game play.

Two - You don’t need to rhyme when singing, rapping, or doing poetry as part of a scene or as part of a game.  While rhyming is a frequent component of those other skills, it is an optional one.

Three - When playing a rhyming based game for which the players are working through an exhaustive list of rhymes (meaning players cant’ repeat rhymes, e.g., Da Doo Run Run), consider words that start with consonant blends and multisyllabic words.  Often other players go for the simple or easiest rhymes.  For example, if the base word was Jane consider words like grain, strain, complain, disdain, entertain, etc. vs. a quickly vanishing basket of low hanging fruit like lane, mane, cane, etc.


Four - When playing a game involving sequential rhymes, it’s a nice bonus to continue a theme or tell a little story via the rhymes.  For example with Da Doo Run Run:

Player A:  I met him on a Sunday and his name was Pat…{da doo run run run, da doo run run}

Player B:  He drank lots of milk by the vat…{da doo run run run, da doo run run}

Player C:  {da doo da doo} So did his cat… {da doo da doo} It got really fat… {da doo da doo} Broke a chair when it sat {da doo run run run, da doo run run}

Four - It is also very important to pay attention to meter. Try to keep the same number of beats in consecutive lines that rhyme. In some cases keeping consistent meter might require eliminating or adding filler words. In other cases, for example, you might need to equate a four syllable word in one line with two, two syllable lines in the next line. And as with all “rules” there are exceptions. Purposely breaking the meter can be an artistic choice used to punctuate a particular offer.


Play!” calls the Blogger.
He writes something down.
It’s an Improv Seed.
One of many around.
You’re in charge of your own Improv Seeds.
And Improv Scenes are what everyone needs.
So create a new scene.  Treat it with care.
Make a few offers.  Say “yes, and” in a pair.
Grow a whole show, protect it from denials that hack.
The audience
and all your friends
may come back.

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.


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.

I Promise It's Not A Shameful Plug: Choosing An Improv Class

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Wait, don’t run!  I promise this entry is not an advertisement about why our improv classes are better than the alternatives.  In fact, I will agree that in some cases certain students might be better off with improv classes offered elsewhere.  Instead, this article describes some of the key factors a student should consider when choosing an improv class.  The unfortunate fact is that anyone, regardless of experience and qualifications (both improv and teaching) can call herself or himself an improv instructor, rent a room, and offer so-called improv classes.  But as the Romans were fond of saying: caveat emptor (buyer beware).  So here are some of the key factors a student should consider.

Improv Experience.  How long has the instructor been performing improv?  What types and styles?  Is she active now?  When was the last time he performed?  And if an instructor lists experience with a particular theater, you might want to double check how long that person actual performed at the theater.  Some people will pad their resume by joining a group for just a few months before moving onto another project. 


Teaching Experience.  Is this the instructor’s first time teaching, or has he been teaching for 10 years?  Doe the instructor have any other teaching experience such as leading Applied Improvisation workshops or working in schools?  There are differences between doing improv and teaching improv.

Focus.  Does the class focus on a specific style or does it cover fundamentals applicable to any form of improv?  Don’t assume that the class is geared towards the main show offered at the theater.  For example, CSz Sacramento’s main show, ComedySportz, is so-called short form or games based improv.  But our Beginner Class covers improv fundamentals and introduces several types of improv, not just short form or games.  Another consideration:  Is the class focused on a specific segment, e.g., actors, improvisers, or everyday people interested in adding a fun, useful life skill?  Some one off classes also focus on specific skills, styles, or forms.  These specialized events can be especially useful to students seeking to fill out his or her improv education.

Class Size.  Bigger classes offer the advantages of meeting more friend and playing with a diverse set of people.  Smaller classes offer the advantage of more individual attention and coaching.

Price.  Most improv classes costs between $10-$20 per hour.  Classes are typically 2 hours long and organized into 6-8 week sessions.  Ask if you’re allowed to make up missed classes during future session in case you get sick or have work conflicts.  If you’re financially challenged, ask if the theater offers any work study or scholarships for members of underserved and underrepresented communities (CSz Sacramento does, for example).  If you are really broke, consider drop-in classes or jams often offered by theaters in any given city.

Yes, and No: It's not so simple...


Every few weeks or so I see another article discussing the benefits of improv.  Some of these article summarize the overall appeal and usefulness of improv, while other articles focus on specific applications, e.g., business, therapy, creativity, and so on.  I appreciate these articles for several reasons.  First, I often learn something new.  Second, they rise awareness of improv in general.  Even in today’s super connected world, I still find myself explaining improv to the occasional guest calling to ask what exactly we do at the theater.  Finally, they help drive students to classes.  That last point includes a both a noble component, i.e., it makes me happy when more people discover and enjoy improv, and a practical component, i.e., classes serve as way to develop future performers and help keep the lights on at the theater.

I have observed, however, that some of these articles mislead the reader by stating that the fundamental rules of improv say "you always have to say yes" and "you can never say no.” Improvisers at all levels will no doubt recognize such statements as oversimplification or misinterpretation of the Yes, and principle we cherish.  But since the New Year typically brings a wave of first time improve students, some of whom might actually stumble upon this blog, I thought I’d take a few moments to address this issue.


First, let’s look at Yes, and…  There are two parts: accepting an offer, and building upon that offer.  I sometimes use a Lego based analogy to explain improv to beginner students.  Imagine each Lego is an offer.  One improviser makes an offer, i.e., she places a Lego brick down.  Her scene partner then makes an offer that builds off the first offer, i.e., he attaches a second brick to the first one.  The two improvisers go merrily back and forth until they’ve built a simple scene, e.g., a small Lego object like a house, car, etc.

Now, when authors writing about improv say that improvisers aren’t allowed to say no, what they mean to discuss is how improvisers should avoid denial, which is not about saying no per se (more on that distinction in a bit), but about rejecting offers.  Denial is when the second improviser removes or ignores the Lego brick placed by the first improviser.  The second improviser either removes the first brick or just places a second brick separately and unattached to the first.  Consider these two examples:


First Improviser: I brought you a pie.

Second Improviser: That’s not a pie.


First Improviser: I brought you a pie.

Second Improviser: This is my pet horse, Steve!


So again, when well meaning authors writing about improv say that improvisers always have to say yes, what they mean is that improvisers should, by default, accept offers (What?!  By default?  Not always?!  More on that later.  It gets complicated…)


Now, here’s where it might seem a bit tricky: you can accept an offer while saying no.  I still recall one of the first explanations I ever heard about the distinction.  While attending the 2008 CSz/ComedySportz World Championship in Portland, I took my first class ever from one of my favorite improv teachers, Chicago’s Matt Elwell, who, as of writing, is now serving as President of CSz Worldwide.  Matt’s simple example:

First Improviser (sniffing): Do you smell gas?

Second Improvser: No, I don’t.

The second improviser isn’t denying the offer.  Such a denial might take forms like “There is no gas” or “No, I don’t.  And you don’t either.

Now I realize some readers, particularly beginner improv students,  might now instead be somewhere between confused and up-in-arms because the First Improviser asked a question.  But they told me in my improv class that I’m not allowed to ask questions...

Well, maybe they did.  What they should have suggested instead was for beginner students to avoid or limit questions.  The fact is, questions are part of human speech and thus part of improv as well.  That being said, there are reasons to encourage beginner students, or even more experienced improvisers, to favor statements over questions.  But I’ll discuss that topic in a future entry.

Here’s another non-question based example that’s a bit trickier and closer to the border of denial-ville:

First Improviser:  We should break in through the roof.

Second Improviser:  No, there are security cameras up there.  We should tunnel from below.

One might immediately sound the denial alarm since the Second Improviser has not accepted the First Improviser’s offer.  And certainly if these two improvisers keep arguing ad nauseam about the better break in plan, it will likely result in a weak, unappealing scene.

But suppose the scene continues along these lines:

First Improviser:  You’re right about the cameras.  That’s why I’m bringing in Wobbler.  He says he can hack in to make the cameras loop on nothing.


Second Improviser:  Really?  I love Wobbler and his goofy little accent.  OK, roof it is.  I hate tunneling anyway.  Too many rats.  Creep me right out.

The scene still moves forward, and we’ve got some new little offers that might pan out later, e.g., meeting Wobbler, having the Second Improviser encounter a nasty rat on the roof, etc.  Some critics might argue that the conflict slows down the scene, particularly if the improvisers are performing a time limited format or game.  Supporters will counter that a little conflict an enliven a scene or make it more authentic.

Your mileage will vary.


Some Takeaways From The ARC Improv Final



I don’t have a lot of time today to blog for two reasons.  First, I spent a lot of time on the phone trying to navigate the health care system in search of a doctor who takes my new insurance.  It is one of two times I felt I had a glimpse into what life might have been like under the old Soviet bureaucracy (the other was when I went to the Prague airport to recover a suitcase that had arrived late after being lost at the Amsterdam airport.  After leaving the snazzy, modern area used by actual passengers and going through an employee only door, I found myself in large cavernous, dusty room where a 100 year old man keeps a handwritten log of every bag in what was clearly 1,000 page giant book that predated human flight by as many year.  I wrote keeps because I bet he’s still there…)


The second reason is that I spent a couple of hours watching the Improv Class final at ARC (American River College), a popular community college here in Sacramento.  Quite a number of wonderful CSz Sacramento players started at ARC, and the improv instructor often asks me to help judge the final.  So I thought I’d list some quick takeaways based on today’s final, which consisted of some each team playing two short form games before performing a Harold. 

But first, good job to all the students and supporting alumni who played.  There were many wonderful moments, and I liked that everyone seemed to be having a good time.  It was also nice to see that improv is accessible to everyone regardless to gender, age, culture, and physical ability.  And now, some takeways.

  • Delight In The Absurd.  At one point the emcee (CSz Sacramento player extraordinaire and ARC alum Kameron Schmid) asked for an unusual activity to go with the location of freeway.  I offered Easter Egg hunt.  The crowd reacted with a mixture of shock and concern, as if the players would struggle with such an absurd combination.  Later when I offered hydroelectric dam as an object for Dating Game, a concerned audience member tried to over ride my suggestion by yelling How about a wig instead?  Now, keep in mind that I was not trying to give these performers tough suggestions.  I was trying to give them fun suggestions (and also keep in mind that I waited for otherwise dead audience times to yell out my choices).  And in both cases, the scenes and games turned out to be a lot of fun.  As some one once suggested: You can do improv about whatever you want.  But it’s probably going to be more fun for you and the audience when you do improv about things that happen seldom or never in a lifetime.
  • Obvious Can Be Funny.  Creating a fun character or delivering a line a certain way can transform an otherwise simple or confirming offer into gold.  Yes, the ski lift does go to the top…
  • Watch The So’sSo is an overused, infectious, and often unneeded word that can become annoying repetitive when over injected into story based monologues.  Explore different ways to starts and advance stories.
  • Inspiration vs. Reenactment.  Again, performers are free to choose their Art, e.g., what a scene is about.  But I believe that monologue based long form is more fun for everyone when the performers utilize monologues for inspiration rather than merely reenacting the stories told by the monologists.  For one, the audience has already heard the story; seeing it acted out doesn’t add much.  But applying elements of the stories to new and different situations often delights the audience and challenges the performers.

Anyway, thanks to Pam Downs, ARC, and today’s performers for a fun time.

Costumes In Improv: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly



Since weekends tend to be very busy for me with shows and workshops, I often try to make Monday a day off.  With that in mind I’m going to be a bit lazy for today’s entry.  Instead of writing something wholly original, I’m going to dust off an old piece I wrote about the use of costumes in improv.  My inspiration to post this piece was not actually laziness, it was player Gary Weston’s awesome portrayal of a dragon during Saturday’s ComedySportz match.  And to the past!
                             .           .           .
During a recent show I saw a very inventive use of costumes during Dance Party.  In this game players make up dances based on random words suggested by the audience.  Two players showed a ketchup dance.  One player used a trench coat and other items to portray a bottle while the other player used a large red scarf under a coat to show spreading ketchup.  The resulting effect was clever and fun.

So I thought I'd talk a little about costume use within improv.  It's a subject that sometimes evokes strong opinions.  Some performers decry any use of costumes while others believe that costumes are near essential for certain games.

My feeling is that costumes, while not needed per se for improv, can at times add nice accents.  That being said, I think it's also very important that performers never rely on costumes.  Any given improv scene or game should be able to stand on its own with or without costumes.  For example, during that same Dance Party, a third also dazzled the crowd with a costume-less owl dance. 

Over the years I've seen two main problems resulting from performers relying on costumes.  First, they sometimes put less effort into the other key components of character creation, e.g., voice, emotion, posture, etc.  Second, I've seen players delay entry into a scene because they wanted to put on a costume.  Such delays have caused awkward pauses or worse, bare stage moments.

But with careful use, costumes can be a fun, extra component though which the performers can express their ideas and delight the audience.  Character centric games like Advice Panel and Dating Game are particularly costume friendly.  I've been amazed at clever uses of simple costumes to simulate historical outfits, animals, objects, cartoon characters, and more.  Costumes can also be helpful for scenes featuring a specific genre or historical period.  And certainly some genres and/or games like Shakespeare or Gibberish Opera are natural fits for costumes.

Costumes also seem to make many audience volunteers less nervous in games like Foreign Movie and Gibberish Opera.  I don't know the psychological explanation.  But for some reason most audience members relax more when outfitted with a fun costume if they have to perform in an actual scene.

Finally, a few thoughts onchoosing costumes.  I've found that generic pieces are often more useful than specific items.   For example, I've seen our very large silver poncho become armor, a cape, the outside of an anthropomorphic appliance, and much more.  Likewise, a tan trench coat has doubled as a book, camel, bottle, dirt road, etc.  By contrast, a loud plaid jacket would have relatively limited use.  Generic pieces are also good because available space for costumes is often limited.