Improv 101 — What Are You Doing?

What Are You Doing? is one of the more simple warm-up games for improvisers and, really, just actors in general. Unlike many warm-up games, however, this can be modified for a performance. It is both a group game and a large group game, but really this game is anything you want it to be. For my purposes, I’ll explain how it would work for a performance first, and then propose modifications for other needs.

Performing What Are You Doing is a high energy hoop game that would generally require at least six people, but works better the more people you add. Generally in a performance the troupe won’t have more than ten members present if you even have that many, but there’s no maximum number of improvisers. You have them get into two lines representing their respective teams, and the goal will be to eliminate the other team. From the audience, you get a suggestion of some initials. It can be any pair of letters, but that’s not the important thing. (You can also get a suggestion of a theme for the game, such as ‘holidays’, or ‘beach fun’ or things like that, but that’s totally up to you.)

The game begins when one person starts pantomiming (it doesn’t really matter what, but often we stick with brushing one’s teeth). The person from the front of the other line will jump on stage and ask “What are you doing?”, to which the person pantomiming will respond with something that is completely not what they are doing, using the initials as inspiration for the action they are describing. “Wrestling koalas!” for your initials of ‘WK’. The other improviser will then begin pantomiming a wrestling match with some koalas. At this point, tooth brusher will stop pantomiming and ask “What are you doing?”, and this goes on until one of them messes up, stalls, or says something too similar that was stated previously, up to the ref’s discretion. The game continues with improvisers interacting one-by-one until one team is entirely eliminated.

For more seasoned improvisers, I ask them to make every sentence a distinct pantomime. How does pantomiming “wrestling koalas” differ from “wrestling rabid koalas”, or “wrestling pygmy pandas”? You can, of course, incorporate speech into the pantomime, but really, these three actions should be distinguishable from one another.

In a performance, I like to challenge my improvisers by steadily increasing the number of letters I force them to use in the game. Suddenly, it’s not just “wrestling koalas”, it’s “wrestling koalas sleepily” or “wrestling koalas sleepily never”. You’l notice that the more letters you add to the game, the less these actions make sense. People find that it’s often easier to add words to the end of the action rather than just add adjectives in the middle, but hey, if the right letters are used, it doesn’t matter all that much. As a side note, this game should be played very quickly in a performance. Any stalling at all (such as “I am wrestling koalas!” should be met with elimination.

As for non-performance applications for this game, it’s pretty simple. The easiest thing to do is remove the elimination aspect of it and have everyone be in one big line. As soon as you mess up, you go to the back of the line and keep playing. Also, using a general theme works better than initials with larger groups, as there are more readily accessible actions associated with “beach fun” than there are with the letters “WK”. The main thing to remember here, though, is that everybody should be having fun, which means it needs to go quickly. It doesn’t matter if people are bad. It’s meant to inspire quick thinking and help with pantomime practice, but beyond that it gets the heart going, which is (almost) never a bad thing.

 

Improv 101 — World’s Worst

World’s Worst is most easily described as an alternative to 185, where instead of making bad puns, you act out a joke. It is at its best played as a high energy group game, with very quick and short segments with at least six people participating.

There is basically nothing to explain with this game, really. All the improvisers stand in a line, and the ref gets a suggestion of a profession. Then, one by one, the improvisers step forward and do their best impression of the “world’s worst [suggestion]”. This continues until the improvisers have no more ideas, and a new suggestion is taken.

Let’s say your suggestion is doctor. You could step forward, pantomime being in an operating room (which can be done a number of ways), and then yell “Screwdriver!” in the same way a doctor would ask a nurse to hand them a scalpel or some other tool. Or, they could pantomime unplugging an ICU outlet in order to charge their phone (and yes, I realize that’s not how it works, but the audience will laugh anyway). You could also pantomime somebody playing the Operation board game. Throwing in a Doctor Who, Dr. Doom, or Dr. Horrible reference could be hilarious, but keep in mind that your audience may not know those characters.

This game is a lot harder than 185. In that game, all you have to do is come up with a punchline. The setup is all there. But in this one, you have to actually act. You have to establish Crow in less than five seconds just to set your joke up, and you have to do it without slowing the momentum of the game and the energy of the audience. This is why more improvisers makes this easier; you simply have more people to come up with jokes.

You can also bring in other improvisers to make short little scenes. Obviously, it will be hard to brief them on the joke you want to tell, so ideally you’d only want to do it if you just need a person there. This also works better the more familiar you are with your cast, because they will be able to play along with whatever your idea is easier. This can be hard, especially if you don’t know your cast, because something you do in the scene might prompt them to respond, and you run the risk of jeopardizing the setup to your joke if they don’t know what you’re trying to go for. In these instances, it is okay to whisper something to them quickly as you’re walking up to whatever your stage is. This is for entertainment, after all. You’re not going to be booed off the stage for quickly collaborating with your fellow actors.

The best way to practice this game is actually to practice other games in conjunction with 185. This is basically a much more advanced version of that game, and it functions the exact same way in a performance, so beginning actors should stick to coming up with jokes until they’re comfortable developing those mini scenes. Also, as a side note, this game is generally not as entertaining as 185, for whatever reason. In my experience, it’s more fun as an actor, but the audience doesn’t typically enjoy it as much as they would have liked 185.

And also, this comedy skit by Studio C does an amazing job illustrating the sort of things you should be doing with this game.

Improv 101 — Lounge Lizards

Whenever I introduce this game to new kids, I always tell them that this will either be their favorite game or the bane of their existence. Personally, this is one of my worst games by virtue of the lack of life experience I have that this game requires, but it’s always a lot of fun as long as you have a few people that know what they’re doing.

Lounge Lizards is a singing game. The beauty of this one is that this can be played with any number of people, though the less you have the more skill is required in order to make things entertaining for an audience. The concept is simple: one person is singing, and as they sing, somebody else cuts them off and starts singing a completely new song with the last word the original person sang. Imagine one song fading out as another fades in, and the pivot point is that one word they both have in common. You can cut people off mid lyric, or start singing a new song mid lyric. If you’re playing with enough people, you might also want to call ‘Freeze’ to tell them to stop singing before you begin.

This game can be played as elimination (taking out people that can’t think of a song or mess up) or just for fun. Since its so simple and can be played with so many people, there are so many ways you can play it, it can easily be tailored to the group playing.

The reason many people may not like this game is because you have to be at least somewhat okay with singing in front of people. I used to hate the very idea, but being a part of improv so long has made me not care. This still isn’t my favorite game, but only because most of the songs I listen to don’t have lyrics, aren’t in English, or are heavy metal, meaning I can’t sing most of the stuff I know and thus I am terrible at it.

When I introduce this game to people, I often force them to sing. They may hate me, but leaving your comfort zone is often a good thing, and sometimes people just need a nudge. If you’re as unfamiliar with songs as I am, though, there is a hint I tell people: Pretty much every song in the universe contains the word I, You, or Love. If you’re not savvy enough with songs to think of them on the fly, its okay to think of a song you know and simply wait for the other person to say one of those really prevalent words. If you do play this way, however, it should probably be with a large group of people, as when you’re playing elimination style with a time limit it probably won’t be enough to ‘wait’ for the word you want.

And that’s it. That’s the whole game: sing songs, cut people off and start new songs with the same words. Change the rules or make up new ones depending on how you want to play and how many people you have.

Whenever this game is brought up for the first time, the ‘riff off’ from Pitch Perfect is always brought up. It actually is pretty much the same thing, as in the scene they cut off people and start singing new songs (only this game doesn’t necessarily have a ‘category’ they must pick their song from). The biggest difference is that when you’re playing Lounge Lizards, you’re not going to have an acappella group as backup, you’ll be singing one person at a time. This means the game won’t seem nearly as good as the scene in the movie, but it’s an unfair comparison. Also, I put the link to the scene here, but also very slight content warning. (One of the categories they use is ‘Songs about sex’.)

Improv 101 — Four Rooms (325)

A lot of my most memorable moments in my entire improv career have been from this game alone, and hence it’s one of my favorites. Another reason that I like it is because it combines similar elements with other favorites of mine, most prominently Blind Line, which I covered last week. My group also refers to this game as “First Line, Last Line”, but I’m sure it has several other names. Let’s unpack it.

Four Rooms (or whatever you’re going to call it) is a group game that requires an even number of people (ideally eight). The improvisers will pair up, and they will each be in a separate “room”, performing (one at a time) an entirely different scene from the other groups. Each of the four rooms will have a different suggestion (we typically do ‘Location, Occupation, Time Period, and Wild Card’ in that order, but the suggestions aren’t important). As one pair of improvisers are performing, the referee can call “Freeze!”, at which point the performing actors will pause their scene, step back, and the next group will step forward and perform their completely different scene, beginning with the last line the actors before them said. The last line one group says before their scene pauses will become the first line the next one says, hence the alternate name. (As a side note, the very first group starting will usually be given a suggestion from the audience as to the line they will start the game off with.)

There are a few things the improvisers (and the ref) need to keep in mind in order to make successful, though. The improvisers don’t need to worry about establishing CROW as much as they normally would during scene games because the pieces of the scene don’t last very long before the ref can be expected to call “freeze” again, and CROW is often naturally established by whatever justification you use to make the line you are given make sense.

Instead, the main thing both the improvisers and the ref have to watch out for is to make sure the scenes are all distinct from each other. If one group’s suggestion is ‘bowling ball’, the ref cannot call freeze after a line mentions a bowling ball, because the next scene would have to then incorporate a bowling ball. If the ref isn’t careful, there will be a bowling ball in every scene and none of the given suggestions will matter anymore since all the scenes will be so similar. So by the same token, the improvisers must be careful of what they say. If every line the two people say involves a bowling ball or a bowling alley, the ref is going to have a hard time calling “freeze”. Necessarily, the ref needs a more open line like “Don’t touch that!” or even “You’re off the team”. The latter could obviously be in reference to the bowling team, but if the next scene’s suggestion was ‘cowboys’, they could now be referring to a competitive cow wrangling team.

There is one exception to this rule against crossover, however. In many games, especially ones that involve scenes, the best conclusion to the game is with a “button”. If something a character says or does makes a reference to something that happened in the beginning of the scene, making a complete circle, that is the ideal time to end the scene. It’s important to note that this can only happen after enough time has passed (because I can’t call scene if the game has only been going on for a minute), so if the cowboys somehow manage to find a natural and plausible way to reference starting a new bowling ball team after the game has been going on for three to four minutes, that is the perfect time to end it.

Improv 101 — Questions Only

A lot of people have heard of Questions Only, and it’s pretty straightforward, but as improvisers soon learn, it’s hard to master. We don’t typically perform this one, because a big group game that isn’t high energy makes it hard to fit into the lineup of a one hour show. That being said, it still very much has its place in improv practice, as long as the improvisers have broken the beginner mistakes of asking questions in normal improv games.

So, as I said, Questions Only is a group game. Conventionally, it’s an elimination game, but this only works if your cast is strong enough to know how to reply to things in the form of a question. (If an improv troupe is bad at this game, it’s more likely that they would simply take turns rather than play it as an elimination. Typically you’ll have two lines competing against each other. The two people that are first in line will play (and you’ll only ever have two performers at a time), and people that are eliminated step out.

But, as bad experience will show, it’s easy to banter. If you say “Where are you going?” and I reply with “Where do you think I’m going?” it doesn’t do anything. I didn’t come up with my own sentence, I just reworded yours. That isn’t improv.

The way to play Questions Only is to treat every interaction as a two person scene. Every scene should start off as ABA, and establishing CROW is still paramount to “winning”. In addition, and this is the hard part, every question needs to move the scene forward. For example, if you say “Where are you going?” I could say “To buy groceries, want to come?” Now, I have added something to the scene, and we now have more insight into our characters and location than before. Breaking the habit of asking useless questions is definitely the most difficult aspect to this game, but its the only way to make it entertaining to an audience.

An interesting thing about this game is that it is virtually autonomous. You can get suggestions from the audience for location or relationship, but it’s not necessary. Furthermore, the only thing the ref has to do is call people out when they mess up. He/she doesn’t point to people, doesn’t give them directions, or anything. As long as the improvisers know what they’re doing, they should be able to perform the game with enough entertainment value as to not need any sort of help or interaction.

The funny thing, is that you see this game played a lot by non-improvisers. I’m sure you’ve bantered with a friend or a sibling in the car where you only ask questions. This is simply taking it a step forward where you introduce characters in the context of a scene. It’s for that reason that this game seems easy, because everybody does it for fun, but is actually hard because of that non-intuitive rule of not asking useless questions.

This is a great example of this game being played right, but pay attention in the beginning where Colin simply repeats whatever Ryan or Wayne says. That’s an example of what not to do, but luckily he doesn’t do it enough to overshadow the humor!

Improv 101 — Categories (265)

A fun game that we play a lot in our troupe is Categories. It’s a simple game, and another one of those easy things you can casually play on a long car ride, albeit with some different rules because you wouldn’t have a much needed ref. In concept it works similarly to Story, where the ref/coach points to individual people, but instead of narrating a story, that person must simply call out something that fits in a predetermined category.

In a performance, this game would work best with around eight people (give or take a few). Also similar to Story, this is a group elimination game. If somebody hesitates, names something that’s already been said, or says something the ref (or audience) simply doesn’t like, they are out. To start off, the ref asks the audience for a very broad category. Typical examples would be brands of cereal, car manufacturers, baseball teams, names of the fifty states, etc. When somebody is eliminated, you get a new suggestion, and as the game goes on, narrower and narrower suggestions work better. Types of trees, fast food chains that also serve tacos, elements on the periodic table with a larger atomic number than gold, that sort of thing. Another big difference between Categories and Story is that in this game, the ref always ‘goes down the line’ instead of pointing to random people as the game progresses.

Speaking from experience, the way this game is played is completely dependent on the ref. All the improvisers have to do is come up with a list of appropriate responses in their head and say them one at a time until they’re given a new suggestion. The ref has to get good suggestions, know enough about each suggestion to be able to call out bad responses (I wouldn’t know baseball teams, for example), and generally provide the appropriate pacing to the game.

The best part about this game is the suggestions. When you really start thinking about it, you can come up with some really fun things. Some of my favorite categories include animal group names (i.e. pride of lions, murder of crows), the names of moons (i.e. Ganymede, Io, “The Moon” or Luna), or famous people in any given century.

This game is also the best example to use to introduce a new mini lesson! Never call yourself out. I personally play this game very specifically. If I can help it, I try to sneak in wrong answers and pass them off like they’re correct ones. For example, the category “types of rock” could include specific names like sandstone, pyrite, conglomerate, etc. But I like to say things like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. It isn’t what the audience would expect, but it isn’t really wrong. Once upon a time, I said “Canada” for the category of fifty states and called myself out (by walking off stage) when it was by far the most entertaining answer. Whenever I get the suggestion of breeds of dog, I will never say an actual dog breed. Instead I will say things that sound like they could be, but since there’s so many nobody would really know*. Here’s the thing: if the audience likes you, you deserve to be on stage. Being entertaining is literally your job as a performer. You’re not going to get fired for being especially good at your job! So if you are preparing to say something funny but wrong, in any game, wait to see if the audience or ref calls you out before you walk off stage.

Go crazy with this game. Play it with your friends and family. All you need is a sizable amount of people to start off. One time we played this while sitting down relaxing and we did the suggestion of “currency”. We used that suggestion for a good twenty minutes because once we started losing ideas, somebody brought up video game currencies and we basically didn’t run out of responses after that because we kept stretching the boundaries of what the suggestion meant.

 

*Making up dog names is admittedly stolen from a tweet I saw a few years back: “FAKE BREEDS I’VE TOLD PEOPLE MY DOG IS AT THE DOG PARK: Venetian Dabney, Brown Feta, Waxbeard, Oxnard Pike, Blue Hustler, High Presbyterian”

Improv 101 — Story

Story, or as it may also be known, Story Story Die, is a group game that is simple in concept, but can actually get pretty difficult once the cast has experience with it. In this game, a bunch of people stand in a line while the ref/coach points to them. Whichever actor is being pointed at is the one narrating a story, and the idea is to have one cohesive narration regardless of how quickly the ref moves their finger.

This game works best with at least six people, but can work with up to about twelve before things get a little boring. This is the first of a sub-genre of group games, however: elimination. Whenever somebody messes up, they are out, and can no longer play. The ref or coach gets a suggestion of a book that has never been written (Typically you’ll get a title like The Lost Shovel or The Little Engine That Couldn’t because people aren’t very imaginative). Then, starting with chapter one and speaking one at a time, the improvisers will narrate the tale of insert possibly clever title here. When somebody “messes up”, they are out, and that chapter concludes, starting over a new narration sequence with chapter two, until finally you only have two people left (which will usually be around chapter eight or so).

So, what constitutes as “messing up”, you ask, oh theoretical reader? There’s a number of ways. The idea here is that the actors are reading from a book. If an actor says something that doesn’t make grammatical sense with what the person said before it, they’re out. If they stutter or mess up their own sentence, they’re out. If they take too long to say anything (hesitation), they’re out.  They can also be eliminated by a number of additional rules to make the game harder as the game progresses (rules you can also begin with depending on how skilled the cast is).

The biggest rule to establish if the previous ones no longer work is the cutting of stalling techniques. “So”, “Decided to”, “And…”, “uhhh…” that sort of thing. With this rule, if an actor says or does anything that doesn’t add to the story, they are subject to elimination. My favorite phrase is “… and so they decided to….” because that can provide an extra two seconds to figure out what you’re going to say and it makes use of nearly every common stalling technique. Nearly everyone says it at some point in their improv career.

Lastly, when all else fails, you can eliminate letters themselves from the game. “No more words that start with the letter C”, or even “No more words that contain the letter E at all“. It’s hilarious to watch somebody struggle with talking with multiple rules like that in place. For my group, typically the final two improvisers will have two or three letter eliminating rules like that, usually making it impossible to say a main character’s name, or even mention and important plot object (say, a shovel). The best part about this rule is that you can pile more and more on, and regardless of how experienced the cast is, it will always overcome them eventually.

This game is pretty fun and my troupe has a lot of inside jokes from past runthroughs. It’s easy to play, but it forces beginning actors to really start thinking and getting into an “improv” mindset where other games do not.