Improv 101 — 90 Second Alphabet

90 Second Alphabet is one of my favorite games, but that’s less because its fun to play or watch and more because I’m good at it and we all like to show off every once in a while. This game is unusual in the fact that it’s usually only a two player improv game, where the most common number of improvisers for games is either four or eight. Just like Slideshow, there is a lot to unpack about this game, even though the baseline is really simple.

You have two people, and the idea is to perform a scene in 90 seconds where every line that is said begins with the next letter in the alphabet (with the speaker alternating back and forth, naturally). You get a location (any suggestion works), and a letter of the alphabet. If the letter is ‘P’, the first line in the scene must start with ‘P’, then ‘Q’, then ‘R’, and so on. This will continue until the actors go all the way around the alphabet and end on a line that starts with ‘P’, and the scene ends. That’s the whole game.

When I’m teaching this to new kids, I always tell them that the alphabet is considerably harder to remember on the spot than you would think. Many people who try this game for the first time need help remembering what letter needs to come next. Obviously, this game needs to be done quickly (since you only have just over three seconds per letter), so while 90 seconds is a target to hit, I don’t expect anyone without a good amount of experience to be able to perform an entire scene that fast. In my experience, the easiest way to perform this game is to have your two characters get into an argument. You want each of your lines to be very brief, so an argument with quick back and forth banter works ideally. Obviously if you don’t know your alphabet then going faster won’t make the game any easier, but this is something to consider once you’re comfortable with your knowledge of which letters come in which order.

As with most games, there are funny things you can do to “cheat” your way past the rules. Remember, you can only skip rules in improv once the audience is familiar with them, which means you can only bend the rule of the game after you’ve established how the game should be played. With this game, obviously letters like ‘Q’, ‘X’, and ‘Z’ will be tough to weave into a normal conversation. Typically the easiest way around is to address the other character by a name that starts with these letters. Alternatively, if the game has been going on for thirty or forty seconds, you can use “Excellent”, “Exactly”, “Exquisite”, etc. for an ‘X’ word, as long as you emphasize the ‘X’ part. The audience will understand that you’re cheating and won’t hold it against you. (This also works for “You” with the letter ‘U’, or “Why” with the letter ‘Y’ and things like that!)

Once improvisers have gotten good with this game and the alphabet, you can make it tough. You can play this game doing the alphabet backwards (a skill I’ve honed quite a bit over the years), or even skipping every two letters. (I.e. ‘A’ to ‘D’ to ‘G’ to ‘J’, etc.). If you’re skipping letters, you need to go through the entire alphabet three times in order to hit every letter. Now, obviously the only real “increase in difficulty” here is the fact that you’re changing which letter in the alphabet that would appear next in the scene. The game doesn’t really get harder.

Another reason that this is one of my favorite games is that it can be played on a whim. It requires no preparation, no audience, and no referee. You can play it alone with another person just as easily as you could on stage in front of a huge audience. It’s quick, it’s easy, and it’s simple, even if it’s tough!

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