Improv 101 — My Movie

Like many improv games, I’ve seen My Movie played a couple of different ways. The core of the game is the same, but there is a bit of variety to the nuances that can be tailored to suit the needs of a particular troupe.

Most often, it is played as a high energy group game. It can work with lots of people, but generally as long as you have more than four you’ll be fine. The idea is that the improvisers are a group of scriptwriters pitching movie ideas to the ref. You get some initials from the audience and you have the improvisers come up with movie titles using those initials. One by one, the ref points to them and they yell the title of a movie using those letters. If it sounds interesting, the Ref calls “Tagline!” and the improviser must then give a short description that could appear on a poster or in a movie trailer. If the tagline appeals to the ref, they can say “Let’s see it!”, in which case the improvisers must then act out a snippet of a scene from that movie. After that, the ref and improvisers return to calling out movie titles until the next one sticks.

The biggest difference in the two ways I’ve seen this game played is the intro. Namely, what happens before the ref starts pointing at people and the game actually starts. The first time I had seen this game, all the improvisers chant “My movie, my movie my movie, aww yeah!” in the same tone of Big Booty, a game I’ll probably never actually talk about in detail. Because I obviously can’t describe what the tone of that chant is, I think the second way is easier. Instead of the chant, all the improvisers just yell “My movie!” as fast as they possibly can while trying to get the ref’s attention as if they are a bunch of people at a crowded press conference trying to be called on. I prefer it this way, and it’s a lot easier because it doesn’t require synchronization.

Another reason I like the second intro is the faster pacing. The key thing to remember for this game is that it’s meant to be high energy. The ref needs to point to his or her targets quick to get them to pitch movie titles rapid-fire. There should never be a full second of downtime in this game, and all transitions must be seamless. This is the sort of game that is a good warm-up for an audience, because it gets their heart rate up. My Movie isn’t a very funny game, but it only needs to be fast and entertaining to get your viewers into the mood.

This is also the sort of game that combines preparation with on-the-spot moments. You kind of have to think about movie titles as you wait for the referee to point at you, but it’s hard to have both a tagline and a scene ready if it’s a good movie title, so you often have to say the first thing that comes to mind.

With this game, improvisers can do no wrong. With as fast as the pace is set, the most difficult thing about it is that you’ll often be expected to pitch movie titles faster than you can come up with them, and as such it’s a great way to force beginning actors to think more quickly. There will, inevitably, be instances where you have to speak when you don’t know what to say. It happens a lot in improv, but don’t let that stop you from saying anything. Sometimes the most memorable quotes come from instances in which you hadn’t put any thought to your words. And even if you do say something dumb, the game is supposed to be pretty quick. People will only remember the gems in a game like this. And if you have upwards of six people, this game is super easy, because it allows the other improvisers time to think about better titles.

This is one of those games that is great for beginning improvisers, and I try to introduce it very early on to the kids I teach. Also, here is a link to a great example of this game.

Improv 101 — DVD (or Television)

DVD is one of those games that can be played regardless of how experienced a group of improvisers are. All you need is for the ref/improviser at the helm to know what they’re doing, and everything else comes easy. Since it’s basically the same game, I’ll also talk about Television and how to play that one.

DVD is a highly customizable improv game, but usually it’s a high energy scene game. Since there are so many ways to play it, you’re not going to see two different improv troupes play it the same way, and I couldn’t reasonably explain all there is to do within a short amount of time, so here is the basic premise. One person holds the remote (this can be the referee or another improviser), and they have full control over what is happening in the scene. They can mute, volume up/down, pause, rewind, fast forward, change the channel (if you’re playing Television), or skip chapter (in DVD). The biggest difference between skipping chapter or changing channels is that in DVD, the characters will remain consistent, whereas in Television everything changes. (It’s worth noting that Television can easily be played as a group game, with different groups of people acting as different channels. In this case, it’s played very similarly to Four Rooms, which I’ve already talked about.)

The rule of thumb for this game is “do it how it happens in real life”. If the ref calls “Mute!” then the only thing that happens is that you stop making sound. If they change the channel after that, the TV will still be muted, and when they unmute it, you suddenly start talking again, mid-sentence preferably. If they skip the chapter in a DVD, everything changes instantly. Usually this means the start of a new scene (as DVD’s are often broken this way, but not always).

If they change channels, you are now on a different network entirely. I remember the Food Network and the Disney Channel were on button away on our old TV. It isn’t so different now. Depending on how you want to play, however, the ref might ask for suggestions based on what channels they want to be in the game. In that case, the ref should say “Food Network!” instead of “Channel up!” The best takeaway for this is to do what makes sense for your troupe. Come up with your own rules. The only thing that matters is that you all know what’s going on and that you remain consistent.

Another thing to consider is volume changes and rewinding. When the volume goes up and down, an experienced improviser should be careful not to shout. Remember, the scene isn’t changing, it’s only the amount of noise you’re making. If a character is yelling, they should be yelling regardless of how loud they are (and I’d expect a good ref to turn the volume down if you start shouting!) not to mention that when the volume is up really high, blocking should also be loud. Try moving across the stage more loudly than you otherwise would. In the case of rewinding and fast forwarding, this also often mutes the TV. So you just start doing everything very quickly in silence. If you want to go for a retro TV, then speak in gibberish ‘squeaky voice’, because it should still be unintelligible.

I’m leaving a lot out here because the game is so versatile, so just ask yourself how TV’s and DVD’s work. It’s totally acceptable to say “Stop!” during a game of DVD and then go to the bloopers, or pause it to add subtitles (in which case a new improviser should step in and start talking over them in a different language, to your discretion!) The key thing here is that while improv is pretty much open to anything, you need to establish with the rest of your troupe exactly what is in the realm of possibility. It’s not scripting it because there’s still no script, you’re simply discussing what they can expect in these games. Other than that, Television and DVD are basically open to anything.

Improv 101 — Beastie Rap

Beastie Rap is one of my troupe’s favorite games, and the biggest requirement is knowing your cast. Also, having somebody that can beatbox works wonders. This game is a crowd-pleaser, and while I think it’s a little silly, I can’t deny the fact that it brings a lot to a performance.

This is an elimination-style group game that requires lots of energy. Typically eight people works best for this, but any even number works. (An odd number still works if one of the improvisers can beatbox instead of play in the game.) The way that it works is you’ll get a simple name like ‘Matt’. You have a beat, and the first person on one team will say something like “Walking down the street with my best friend Matt!” (anything that fits a similar amount of syllables works, though), and on the last word of the lyric, everybody else on their team will jump in with whatever word they want it to be, much like the style of Beastie Boys from whom this game was inspired. The opposing team will answer with their own lyric that rhymes with ‘Matt’, and this is where it gets tricky. The person coming up with the word has to let the rest of their team know what that word is using the rest of the lyric. For example, “You pet it and it purrs, it’s called a ___!” and the rest of the team will jump in with ‘Cat’.

It  sounds tough but it’s actually pretty easy, and this is because of two things. The first is that whatever the word is, you know it will have to rhyme with ‘Matt’. The second thing is the fact that you don’t have to make a cohesive plot to this song. Each lyric is individual. The cat lyric doesn’t have to retain any continuity with the Matt lyric, (though bonus points to you if you can manage it), so you can use that time to tell your team what you want to say. This goes on until one person from either team messes up, and another person steps in. This sort of elimination is fun because even if you’re “out”, you can still participate by shouting the words at the end.

How do you mess up? Simple. If the person fails to convey the word to the rest of their team, leading them to shout out different words, or if they can’t think of a rhyme, they’re out. Really, though, it’s up to the ref (and the audience) whether some mess-ups are worth being forgiven, though often none of them are.

When you’re playing this game, you don’t have to stick to any strict words. You can take objects as suggestions, not just names. You can also take polysyllabic names, though by virtue of how rhymes work, this doesn’t necessarily make rhyming any more difficult. You can also open the song with any dialogue. You can say “Walking down the street with my best friend Matt!”, or “This guy at work, they call him Matt!”, or “I hate this jerk and his name is Matt!”. The only factor is fitting it into the rhythm of the beat. Though, in a performance where you’re taking people’s real names as suggestions, I would refrain from insulting them for fear of them taking it personally, so be cautious.

And that’s the whole game. Final parting words, though. My troupe rarely practices this game, because you don’t want improvisers to be too familiar with the names that are used. This is an elimination game, and if they’ve practiced so much that they know all the words that rhymes with every common name off the top of their head, they won’t get eliminated, which is half the fun of the game. So when I teach this game, I do enough to explain the game and get them into a rhythm that works, and after that we only play it every few months to make sure we all still know how it goes.

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.