Finding the Game in Improvised Theater

Finding the Game in Improvised Theater

Tim Uren

Tim Uren argues that each improvisational theater scene functions as a game that generates its own rules within a few seconds of its inception, rules based on each performer’s observation of the audience and/or other actors.

Improvisational theater presents the challenge - equally delightful and dubious - of creating stories spontaneously as they are being performed. These stories are not created by the quick thinking of improvisers on stage, attempting to invent the characters and plot as they go. Rather, the stories are created by playing a game. As each story is unique, so is the game that creates that story. The rules of such a game do not exist until the story begins.

Countless skills go into a successful improvised performance: the ability to use one’s voice well, the ability to move well on stage, and the ability to successfully portray objects and environments through mime, to name a few. But two skills are crucial for playing the story’s game. The first is the ability to observe, the second is the ability to react.

For improvisers, observation is the ability to recognize fully the words being spoken, the events unfolding, and the subtle signals of body language, both in one’s self and others. There are not wrong things to observe or right things to observe. But whatever the improviser observes becomes a rule of the game.

A simple example of something that happens easily is when someone stutters while introducing him or herself. If a performer hears someone say, “I’m, uh … Steve,” then what was observed might become the rule: that character’s name is not “Steve,” it’s “Uh … Steve.”

This is the way the rules that govern the story’s game are discovered, and it works for every aspect of an improvised scene. To the audience, it may seem that a character at the beginning of a scene has come purely from the imagination of the improviser. In truth, the people on stage are deluged with signals providing inspiration for the characters they are portraying.

An improviser’s own body will provide them with vast amounts of observable starting points for a character. Once noticed, slight variations in posture can be exaggerated into, for example, lips pursed together tightly, a chin thrust forward, or shuffling feet - any of which can provide the foundation for a character. A hip swung wide to one side may create a cocky swagger, which in turn informs the improviser that this character is an authority figure, a sheriff in a small town.

Again, there’s not a right way or a wrong way to extrapolate ideas, but it is always easier and better for the performance if these ideas are based on something real. In this case, every time this character moves, the hip swings wide, because it’s become one of the rules of the game. If that rule is broken, it means the character and the whole story has fundamentally changed. In this same way a character may be based on a person’s subtle emotional state, proximity to other improvisers, or any happy accident the performer is lucky enough to observe.

The same idea applies to other aspects of the story. Anything could potentially be a rule of the game. Perhaps a character is angry about the results of a boxing match; then everything that character sees or hears only makes his anger worse. Perhaps in this scene there’s always leftover egg salad, or every handshake is held slightly too long, or all children need extensive dental work. These rules get established early, and the rest of the scene is spent playing the game according to those rules.

In improvised performance there is no time to stand back and gather these kinds of observations. The process of observing rules and implementing them must be nearly instantaneous. Additionally, improvisers must be able to take in what’s going on around them even as they are performing.

One exercise used in rehearsal to strengthen this skill involves two improvisers simultaneously talking to each other about any given topic. As they talk, they are also trying to retain the details of the story they’re being told. It is a simple-sounding task, but shockingly difficult.

Figure 41.1. The author improvises an eerie monologue in Huge Theater’s Creature Feature. Photo by Jen Scott.

Another fundamental exercise used in teaching improvisation is called Mirror and is ideal for developing observation skills. It starts with two improvisers facing each other. To begin, the first person begins to move and the second person tries their best copy the movements as if they were a mirror image. The leader must keep their movements smooth and evenly paced enough for the observer to keep up. Then the roles are reversed, with the second person leading and the first following. After each person has had a chance to practice recreating the movements they see, they begin mirroring each other without a set leader. As each improviser makes the subtle adjustments to match their partner, it creates a new small movement for the other to try to match. The back-and-forth process of constantly trying to correct what can never be a perfect match provides the dynamic action that keeps both improvisers in constant fluid motion. When one person or the other is leading, it is difficult to maintain a constant stream of movements that do not eventually grow monotonous. When there is no leader, each moment is the natural, organic result of the moment before, and the process sustains itself.

Once an improvised scene is underway, performers will quickly gather plenty of rules. Focus gradually turns from establishing the game to simply playing it, and this is where the second important skill, the ability to react, becomes crucial. Improvisers are taught to react in a manner that is honest to their character and truthful to the scene - or, as I would say it, according to the rules of the game. If the rule is that you’re a sheriff, then you react like the sheriff you are. Occasionally, when performers get nervous about having undertaken such a ridiculous endeavor as performing unscripted theater, they will replace reaction with justification. Instead of just doing what their sheriff does, they explain that they are the sheriff, they explain that they do things that sheriffs do, or they explain why it is that they’re the sheriff. The point of reacting is to play according the rules, not to explain or justify the rules.

Again, there are exercises that are used in improv rehearsals to help develop the basic skill of reacting. One of the most common is called Word Ball. In this exercise, people stand in a circle and mime throwing an imaginary ball to each other. Whenever someone throws the ball, they say a word. The goal is to keep the ball moving at all times. Again, as simple as it sounds, it is all too easy for people to freeze up, holding the ball as they try to think up the “right” word to say. It quickly shows the advantage of simply reacting to the word said previously rather than crafting a word. The physical act of throwing the ball provides a focus for the conscious mind so it does not interfere with the simple act of instant response.

Another exercise used in rehearsal to sharpen reaction skills is a Three-Line Scene. As the name implies, these are quick scenes between two improvisers in which one person says a line, the second responds, and then the first person says a third line that is a response to the second line (in line with rules set up by the first line). For example, if Person 1 says, “I hope people like my casserole,” Person 2 might respond, “These parasites are getting fed for free - who cares if they like it or not?” Person 1 might in return say, “I hope people like being fed for free.” In the first line, the speaker establishes a rule for his character: he is always concerned about other people’s satisfaction. The second line is a response that establishes Person 2’s rule of disregard for other’s feelings. The third line is a response that obeys the rule of concern about other people. By beginning and ending so quickly, these scenes encourage quick, honest responses, as there’s no real advantage in trying to take the time to invent a response.

But does a series of reactions, guided by a set of rules, really equal a story? Note that this is essentially the process that playwrights, directors, and actors are collectively trying to reverse-engineer in scripted theater. The opening of a play is crafted so that the story that follows makes sense, emotionally if not always intellectually, and the conclusion comes as a natural result of what was already there at the beginning. Actors in scripted theater are working to reach a point where they are not recalling memorized dialogue and actions, but know the characters and the material so well that their responses are compelled by what is happening on stage. At that point they may not be able to recall their lines in the play without the stimulus that provokes such a response.

Improvisational theater, then, relies on an implied playwright, an imaginary author who has written every conceivable story it is possible to write. Each performer is simply assumed to have already studied every one of those possible stories, each of them so thoroughly that they no longer reside in conscious knowledge. But given any cue, the improviser can confidently deliver an honest response, knowing that it will exactly and perfectly lead the story to its ultimate conclusion.

It is highly unlikely that an audience will see an improvisational performance in which the story is governed solely by the rules generated within the scene. There are almost always other rules, set beforehand, which impact the story. For instance, most improv performances involve soliciting a random word or phrase from the audience. Some improvisers use this suggestion purely as a jumping-off point, while others use it throughout the performance as a constant touchstone.

How suggestions are solicited from the audience and how they are used vary widely. It is most common to ask the audience a random question to elicit the suggestion: “What’s the worst birthday gift you’ve ever received?” or “Name a place you’ve gone on a family vacation,” or “What did your grandfather do for a living?” For my own solo improv performance, 300 Comic Books, I have an audience member select a random comic book from a box. I then improvise a monologue based off the comic book they’ve chosen, and all scenes are inspired by that monologue.

Additionally, improv performances almost always have a predetermined structure, each structure having its own set of rules that apply to the story before it begins. The number of different improv structures is vast and ever-growing. Although I offer some examples, they are by no means meant to be definitive; different performers may know these structures by different names or in variations, depending on where they studied improv. However, it is widely accepted that structures fall into one of two categories: short-form improvisation and long-form improvisation.

Figure 41.2. The author does something weird with his face, an unplanned reaction to an unexpected stimulus, as part of Huge Theater’s Creature Feature. Photo by Jen Scott.

Short-form improvisational structures grew out of the theater games developed by Viola Spolin, later used by the Compass Players, and then Second City in Chicago. Spolin’s Improvisation for the Theater (Spolin 1999) is an excellent introduction to her work and a landmark publication in the history of improv.

Short-form structures typically consist of one discreet scene, separate from any other scenes in the performance. The length of a scene can be as short as the briefest moment or last until everyone on stage drops from exhaustion, but the typical length is three to five minutes. The rules applied to scenes by short-form structures tend to be more stringent than long-form. While the hope is that these structural rules will force the performers into unexpected places, creating more enticing stories, it is often the case that much of the entertainment is simply watching actors struggle to function at all in such bizarre and binding circumstances.

Take the Alphabet Scene. Before the scene begins, a letter of the alphabet is chosen, typically by the audience. The first word of the first line of dialogue spoken must begin with that letter. The next actor to speak must begin his or her line of dialogue with a word that begins with the next letter of the alphabet. Each subsequent line spoken must start with the next letter in the alphabet. When the actors reach Z, they loop back to start the next line with A. Finally, the last line of dialogue in the scene is reached once the improvisers return to the same letter that began the first line spoken.

At first glance, this rule seems not to work toward the goal of creating a story, instead focusing more attention on the performers’ abilities to think of vaguely appropriate word that starts with the letter “X,” or for that matter to remember the basic order of the alphabet in a high-pressure, easily distracting environment. But behind the apparent obstacle hides an enhancement to the storytelling game. The mental energy spent wrestling with the alphabet problem helps to prevent the performer from trying to internally invent the story and forces them to rely on their observations. Instant, honest responses become more likely when the improviser is forced to speak but cannot control how they start.

Another example of a short-form structure is called Languages. Before the scene starts, a list of different languages is generated by audience suggestion (French, Spanish, Japanese, etc.). Once the scene has begun, a performer not involved in the scene will call out one of the languages on the list. At that point, the actors on stage will continue the scene, but replace their dialogue with a gibberish version of the selected language. The scene will progress in this way until the performers are instructed to return to English. At that point, they return to speaking their dialogue as normal. Throughout the scene, the performers switch back and forth between English and gibberish versions of the languages called out to them. Crucially, even when the performers are speaking nonsense, both the audience and the other performers will understand what is happening in the scene, through nonverbal signals.

Emotions is a structure in which a list of emotions is generated by audience suggestion and, as the scene progresses, the performers will periodically be instructed to react in the character of one of the emotions on the list. Take That Back (or Should Have Said, as it is sometimes known) involves an improviser standing outside of a scene with a bell. At any point during the scene, if the bell is rung, whoever spoke last must replace their previous response with a different one. Styles is a structure in which a scene is periodically stopped and given a style; for instance, a movie genre, a famous playwright, or a television show. The scene then continues in that style. There are many, many short-form improvisation structures.

Long-form improvisation, on the other hand, is a series of scenes, with rules governing how those scenes relate to each other. These structures will typically run twenty minutes to an hour. The most widely known long-form structure is the Harold. It is not within the scope of this essay to provide a history or an in-depth exploration of the philosophies behind the Harold. For a more definitive description of the structure one must read Truth in Comedy (Close, Halpern, and Johnson 1994). What I offer here is merely a quick description of the structure as most improvisers are likely to know it.

A Harold starts with an opening pattern game, which will be more abstract than a normal scene, and is meant to generate raw ideas and themes. There are then three unrelated scenes. After that, there is again a game of some kind, which may likely be a short-form structure. (Typically this part of the Harold is called a “game,” although I will refer to it as a “Harold game” to make it distinct from the idea of an improvised story’s game, discussed earlier.)

The first scene after this Harold game revisits the theme of the first scene after the opening pattern game. It might involve the same characters continuing the same story, or it may be a less apparent advancement of the important elements of that scene. The second scene after the Harold game scene revisits the theme of the second scene performed after the opening, and likewise with the third scene. Additionally, all three of these scenes will include elements of the Harold game, and their themes may begin to bleed into each other.

After all three scenes have had their themes touched upon again in this second round of scenes, there is a second Harold game. After this second Harold game, there are three final scenes that once again revisit the themes in order. But in this third round of scenes, the themes intermingle even more, ideally discovering one cohesive theme behind the entire collection of stories.

Obviously, performing this structure provides a radically different set of challenges for an improviser than an Alphabet Scene does. Rather than distract the intellect in order to prevent attempts to plan out a scene, this structure provides plenty of opportunity to try to quickly “write the scene.” In fact, while learning the structure, one can become so lost trying to remember what part is coming next and what the theme of scene two was that it seems like entering a playwriting state of mind is necessary for survival. But a long-form structure like this one is designed to take advantage of stories successfully created through gameplay and to bring them together in a whole that is greater than the sum of their parts. It is much easier to remember themes that are based on observations of existing elements rather than themes born of hasty invention. Honest reactions to events advance the scenes in a compelling and entertaining way, which in turn advance the whole Harold structure.

Recently I worked with Huge Theater in Minneapolis, performing a long-form structure called Creature Feature. The goal of this structure is to create one cohesive improvised story, specifically in the style of a monster movie. Before the performance, one performer was determined to be the monster. That improviser gets a suggestion from the audience for a monster and the title of the movie in which that monster will appear.

Once the first scene begins, all of the other performers begin to describe the details of the scene’s location, using filmic language such as “we fade up on” or “the camera pans.” Once the scene is set, the performer designated as the monster enters the scene as a soon-to-be victim and performs a solo scene of that victim’s death at the hands of an unseen monster. After that establishing scene, each improviser steps forward individually and gives an introductory monologue about their character, a role they will retain throughout the entirety of the structure. After this, scenes progress according to the conventions of monster movies. One by one, the monster kills characters until some final showdown resolves the story. Some of our creations included “Yodel,” in which a mermaid terrorized a small Swiss village, “Dr. Smith the Transvestite Gores Maniac Girl Scouts,” in which a group of young boys and girls were forced to confront the horrors of sexual ambiguity, the postmodern “The Butterflies, In Miami the Butterflies,” and “The Easter Bunny Versus the Aztec Mummy” which was exactly what you’d think it would be.

No matter where one encounters improvisation, it is likely to include at least some game terminology. It is not a coincidence that one of the most successful improvisational enterprises is ComedySportz, which features short-form structures as though they were a competitive sport. It is very common to hear an improv teacher instruct students to “find the game” in a scene. It can be a frustrating lesson, almost like a Zen koan, given that what you are being told to find does not exist until you start looking for it. And it is that, and not making up a story quickly, that is the challenge of improvisation.

For further reading about improv and the way in which it combines game-playing and storytelling, I recommend Impro: Improvisation and the Theater (Johnstone 1981) and Improvise: Scene from the Inside Out (Napier 2004). But, of course, the best way to understand and appreciate the art form is to see it in action. When performed well, improv creates truly unique stories, born of the exact place and time in which they are witnessed - well worth the price of admission.


Close, Del, Charna Halpern, and Kim Johnson (1994). Truth in Comedy: The Manual of Improvisation. Colorado Springs, CO: Meriwether Publishing.

Johnstone, Keith (1981). Impro: Improvisation and the Theater. London: Methuen Publishing.

Napier, Mick (2004). Improvise: Scene from the Inside Out. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Drama.

Spolin, Viola (1999). Improvisation for the Theater: A Handbook of Teaching and Directing Techniques (3rd edition). Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.