Improv 101 — Superheroes

Superheroes is one of those weird games that can’t be played a whole lot. For one, the only version that I’m familiar with is easy to script, and it’s a hoop game where the difficulty is set totally by the improvisers themselves. That being said, it is a fun little game that is easy to teach people with little improv experience.

The game is a low energy hoop game for about four people (but can still work with three or five). From the audience you get a suggestion of a superhero name and a problem for them to solve. The scene starts with that superhero on stage, doing some menial activity their alter ego might do as a hobby. They then get word of this problem via telephone or Batsignal, or anything else as long as it is portrayed in the scene. Instead of solving the problem, however, they think about this for a while, and says something along the lines of “I can’t handle this, this sounds like a job for ___!” introducing a new superhero, who then enters the scene. The first improviser can say any superhero name they want (meaning it can unfortunately be scripted), and the two of them discuss the problem. Even with the two of them, they still can’t solve the problem, so Superhero 2 calls in number three, giving them a completely new name. This goes on until all of your previously discussed improvisers are on stage, and the last person to come onstage does solve the problem (ex. Duct Tape Man solves the problem of the world exploding by taping everything up so it stays together).

Obviously, as each person gets called on stage they should personify their superhero. If somebody is “Talking Backwards Guy” then they should either say words in reverse order or speak gibberish as if he talks backwards. It really doesn’t matter, as long as they portray that superhero.

The grievance I have with this game is that the conflict is an artificial one. The only rule to the first three heroes is that they aren’t allowed to be able to solve the problem, so they are pretty much irrelevant to the scene and can therefore be literally anybody. You can also give the last superhero a power that is perfectly suited to solving the problem. This all leads to a very real possibility of everything happening systematically rather than organically, which is not how improv should be.

Now, I have thought of a fix to this game. I’ve never tried it, so I don’t know if it actually works, but here’s the idea. Once all four(ish) superheroes on stage, they can solve the problem, but only when all of them work together. It doesn’t quite work if you act out the fix, but rather the superheroes should come up with a plan. If Treeman, Catface, Steelletto, and Astronomurder all get together when all the world’s water somehow evaporated, how do they solve it? Easy. Instead of saying “Astronomurder can just make a bunch of water-rich asteroids collide with Earth, problem solved”, you must include all of their powers. Astronomurder calls down a bunch of meteorites, sure. But how will this not also destroy the planet? Easy. You get Treeman to turn into a giant tree, which Steelletto climbs, and once the meteorites breach the atmosphere Steelletto uses his cool sword legs to slice all the meteorites into tiny debris. Catface brings all her cats for moral support (or leaves one at the top of Treeman’s tree form to inspire Steelletto to climb at heroically fast speeds).

This way, a bunch of seemingly random superhero names can become a team to solve any problem, and only with their powers combined were they able to handle the task at hand. This makes the improv game into one where each person really has to use their head, and allows them to personify really weird characters to boot.

Also, I’m pretty sure Astronomurder is actually a super villain given his name and power. But maybe he wants to destroy the world on his own terms, or get revenge on his nemesis, Treeman, before killing everybody off. This is all stuff that can (and should) be explained in the actual context of the scene.

Improv 101 — Arms Through

One of the games that Whose Line is it, Anyway? is most famous for, Arms Through is sort of a gimmick game that I don’t play a lot, because it requires a few variables to be in place before you can even try it out. Now, when I explain it, I’m not going to explain how WLIIA plays it, because that’s a different environment than what most improv would provide.

Arms Through is a team hoop game with a varying energy level. It’s humor can derive from both the things that are done and the things that are said, so really it just depends on that specific game. The setup for the game is pretty simple. Four people get into two different pairs. One person from each pair folds their arms behind their backs, and the other person from that pair goes behind them and puts their own ‘arms through’ the gaps in their sides. Each pair in this game is one person in the scene, with the body of one person and the arms of the other. You get any suggestion at all, and the scene progresses as if it was two normal people doing it, if those people were excessively prone to touching their faces and generally being “handsy”.

So, why does this game not work well in all situations? Well, for obvious reasons, it requires you to know and trust the rest of your cast. IF you get two strangers to play this, they won’t be very comfortable with one another. You want the pair of people to work as  a team, following hand gestures and all, but if they’re so uncomfortable they’re standing a foot apart from each other, their arms won’t even be long enough to accomplish anything, and any audience would practically be able to feel the discomfort that would cause. Another thing that I specifically have to consider is that I’m working with a lot of teenagers, and without really getting into it, I have to be careful because things can go from uncomfortable to sexual harassment really quick. (When considering this, I always make the pairs the same gender, but this doesn’t necessarily solve the problem.) Really, though, as long as the cast knows each other, these aren’t things anyone would have to worry about.

So, how do you actually play this game? Well, it really is a normal scene. It is the “body’s” job to allow the arms to be as involved in the scene as possible, and it’s the “arms'” job to be entertaining. Obviously moving around can be difficult because each person is actually two, but this game wouldn’t work with stage entrances and exits in any case. As a result of this, this game is often shorter than most, because having two people interact nonstop in one scene starts to get a little stale, even if the scene itself is entertaining.

Whose Line plays this as a gimmick, with Colin making Ryan eat awful concoctions and having him justify those things in the scene. There’s never any movement, and since they only have one body-arms pair, all the focus in the scene is given to them. In a conventional improv performance, however, improvisers almost never have props to use in any game, and it makes the game different each time you play it. I don’t like the way Whose Line plays it because it’s always done the same way, which isn’t in the spirit of improv, but to each their own.

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 — Eggs

Eggs is usually the first team game I teach to any group of aspiring actors. It’s a very simple hoop game that only involves acting how you are told, and thus is extremely easy. The more experienced the cast is with this game, however, the more you can do with it.

So, as I said this is a team game. Unlike others it requires exactly four people (unless you have the ref fill the “director” role, which I will get into). It’s a hoop game because every improviser has a very specific role in the game, and all they do is modify their role depending on what they are asked.

Another reason this is the first game I teach to people is because it has an established scene. Scripted? Only sort of, because it requires the audience to know the scene to be able to get the joke. The scene goes as follows, describing each role as a proper noun to make it easier to understand who is who.

<Egg Maker starts center stage, whisking some eggs in a bowl (pantomime, obviously). Dead Person walks on from stage right.>

Dead Person: What are you doing?

Egg Maker: Making eggs.

DP: Can I have some?

EM: Sure, but they’re not ready yet.

DP: I don’t care. <Takes the bowl and drinks from it. Promptly falls to the floor, apparently dead.>

<EM runs slightly stage left, grabs a pantomime phone.>

EM: Doctor, doctor! Come quick!

<Doctor walks on from upstage left.>

Doctor: What seems to be the problem?

<EM points to the Dead Person. Doctor walks over and checks pulse.>

Doctor: He/She’s dead.

When you’re playing Eggs, this scene must be performed to “set the stage”, if you will. These lines and actions must be performed verbatim in order for the scene to do well. Once this scene is performed, the Director (which can be the ref or another improviser) calls “Cut!” The Director does not have preset lines. You can give the Director any personality you choose: Anything from Gordon Ramsey to kindly grandmother. They can say anything they want (I usually go with something along the lines of “That was the most awful thing I’ve ever witnessed. You’re lucky I’m desperate.”) Whatever they say leads into having the Director have them perform the scene again, only “This time as painters, teachers, clowns, etc.” (The Director can come up with these suggestions on their own, and they can be anything from objects, to emotions, to occupations, to genres, but it looks scripted if you don’t get these suggestions from the audience.)

When the actors perform the scenes, they must change their original actors to make sense with their new suggestions. The Egg Maker can now be painting something instead of making eggs, or making a lesson plan, or juggling. Here’s the key, though. Whatever the suggestion, you must make it different from the original scene.

For this scene, I usually grab very specific suggestions in order. This is because as the scene progresses, I want the improvisers to make the scene more and more different, while making sure the whole audience understands what is going on. In a typical game, four different scenes will be played. The first change shouldn’t manipulate any of the dialogue, but the third change can be a very different scene. The suggestions I grab (in order) to help make this happen the way I want is emotion, genre, and occupation. Performing depressed can make the scene the same but different, but making everybody painters will change the entire story progression.

As improvisers get more experienced, they should be able to take similar suggestions and perform differently to accommodate how late into the game they are. Performing with the suggestion “Depressed” when it’s the first scene change should look very different when it’s the last scene change. This goes for any suggestion, and grabbing the suggestions in a specific order will inhibit the actors’ ability to learn how to do that, but it’s useful for instructional purposes.

There are different versions of this game, as well. Bus Stop is the same game only with a longer static scene, and Movie Director is the same only with no static scene. Typically I teach this one because it’s easier to teach and learn than the other two. It’s fun, it’s easy, but most importantly: it’s simple.

Improv 101 — Interrogation

Interrogation is one of the harder games to play, primarily because it requires a high degree of skill in puns, pacing, and knowing the rest of your cast and how they think. (There is a variation of this game called Good Cop, Bad Cop, which I’ll talk about later in this post.) This game is sort of like Chain Murder Mystery in the sense that you are conveying three ideas to another person without being able to outright say what it is, and while this is still a hoop game, it holds a far more cohesive scene than the other game. Also, this is going to be a longer post because there is a lot to cover with this game.

Interrogation is a four person (team), low energy hoop game. This means that the focus of this game is on the rules (or, the hoop) rather than forcing the improvisers to build a scene. This game is low energy, meaning that the humor involved is based on what the actors are saying rather than what they’re doing, and thus the energy of both the stage and the audience will be low (though that doesn’t mean it won’t be funny!)

Here’s how the game works. You have one of the four people be your ‘criminal’, and you have them leave so that they can’t hear the audience’s suggestions. The other three improvisers will be cops trying to get that criminal to confess to a crime they will have to figure out based on puns and context clues. The three cops will have to communicate three ideas to the criminal: location, accomplice, and crime. They will do so by using puns that describe that place, person, or action, narrowing down the possibility of what those things could be until the criminal confesses and says “I ate the last cookie in the jar at the Golden Gate Bridge with Prince Charming!”

So, how do you use puns to know what’s going on? This is where it gets difficult. When a cop says “Why there of all places?” this tells the criminal that the subject they will be covering is location. It is the cops’ job to provide clues through puns that get progressively easier as the game goes on. You don’t want to say an obvious pun like “This must have been a golden opportunity for you!” because that severely limits the possible locations instantly, and there’s no point in playing the game if the criminal knows the thing you’re talking about. Your puns should at first narrow the possibilities while still keeping the criminal in the dark. If they don’t get it after a minute, you can say things like that. This is also why you have three cops–it’s a lot easier to come up with suitable puns if three of you are working on it. You don’t want to have any down time, but you should never have all three cops doing nothing as they each think of puns. Remember you are performing!

Since this interrogation is so one-sided, it can be hard for the criminal to respond to questions they don’t know they answers to. You have to develop a pseudo-code with the rest of your cast to tell each other what’s going on. If the criminal says something like “Plenty of people hang out there. You’ll need more evidence than that if you want to book me!” This indicates to the cops that the criminal understands the location. Bonus points to you if you come up with a pun to tell the cops what you think it is! Plus, if your pun doesn’t suit the location, it’s obvious to the cops that you have the wrong idea.

When you transition to the next thing, always tell your fellow cops and the other criminal what you’re now talking about. “It’s not the location that disgusts me. It’s who you got to help you!” (changing the topic to accomplice) or “But the worst part of it all is your crime.” etc. If the criminal gets mixed up as to which pun is referred to which thing, the game is already over. But it’s okay if the criminal isn’t spot on, either. Either way, once they have a good idea of what all three things are, they confess, and the game is over.

Good Cop, Bad Cop variation: I’m not as familiar with the way this is played, but as far as my experience goes I think this is the more popular version. Instead of three cops, you have two, and each have their own distinct personalities. I prefer Interrogation because experienced actors will already give their cops distinct characters and personalities. You shouldn’t be forced to act a certain way, because you run the risk of the game being funny because of the actions rather than the clever puns. Shouting and doing silly things for the sake of easy laughs doesn’t require as much skill as forging awesome puns!

Improv 101 — Four Corners

When I think of Four Corners, my immediate thought is always “discount Four Rooms”. It does have significant differences–primarily the fact that it involves four performers rather than eight. It’s also one that blurs the line between scene games and hoop games. If I were to pick one, I would call it a scene game strictly because improvisers still have to build a scene and establish CROW, but the focus of this game isn’t the scene, it’s the hoop. It’s sort of hard to pin down because of it.

Here’s how the game is played. You get four improvisers and you have them form a square, with the two people in front playing as the current performers. At any point, the ref can call “left” or “right”, indicating that the square should rotate in the respective direction. “Whose left or right?” you ask. Well, technically this doesn’t matter as long as everybody’s on the same page with what each direction means. My troupe orients it to mean “the current performers’ left or right”. So when the square rotates, the new side of the square is an entirely different scene, though one person will always remain the same from the old scene (acting in an entirely different character and situation). The specifics aren’t imperative, but for this game, I usually get the following suggestions in order: Location, Occupation, Relationship, and Wild Card.

But here’s the important thing about this game: the primary entertainment value in the audience is through disorienting your improvisers. This game doesn’t force the improvisers to justify ridiculous lines like in Four Rooms, and the rule for this game doesn’t interfere with the way the scenes are played, so if left on their own, the scenes will pretty much all be boring, especially since it will only be two people per scene by necessity.

How is this game fun, then? Well, it’s the referee’s job to confuse the performers as to what is actually happening and how the square should be positioning. First, I let them each establish CROW, calling “Right” until every scene has been performed for about fifteen seconds. Then I start to make things interesting. I pick up the pace, calling for a scene swap every five seconds, or saying “Left, left, right, left!” quickly in order to confuse them.

Now, this is actually more confusing than it sounds. Your brain doesn’t have time to do math and eliminate the redundant directions, and on top of that if you’re standing in the back, not performing, and I call “right”, that means “clockwise”, and to you, this direction means left. Why not just say “Clockwise/counter-clockwise”? Well, because the entire point is to be confusing! You don’t want to make it easier for the improvisers to get their bearings! Plus, way too many syllables for a quick direction.

The most enjoyment an audience will get from this game is actually in between the scenes when the actors are trying to figure out where they should be situated. The one thing I have to remind actors is to try to eliminate downtime between scenes. If I say “Left, left, right, right, right, left, right, right, left” in one breath, obviously it’ll take time to puzzle that out, but the key is to make sure every direction is followed. Don’t just stand there thinking about it and ‘solve the problem’, because the audience wants to see you suffer. And if at any point the square breaks, and people are caught in the wrong position, go with it. Combine the scenes. Make a joke out of it and laugh at yourself. Even if the entire scene fails to be entertaining, I guarantee that will be.

In any case, this game is a good energy builder, but since it’s entertainment relies on the actors failing, this game isn’t performed very often. There are better games more suited to showcase skill or simply bring up entertaining and memorable lines.

Improv 101 — Party Quirks

One of the more well-known games among the general community, Party Quirks allows improvisers to impersonate and act as a specific thing rather than coming up with a character in a specific scene. Party Quirks stands somewhat in a gray area between “hoops games” and “scene games”, because a scene is happening, but the focus is the hoop. I personally would categorize it as a hoop game because unlike in most scene games, you don’t have to establish CROW in this game; it’s already given to you.

Just like the Dating Game, Party Quirks gives three specific characters (or characteristics) to three different improvisers, and a fourth person has to figure out who everyone is. The biggest difference here is that rather than having the ‘impersonators’ answer questions, as in The Dating Game, they are all at the host’s party, interacting with each other and the scene around them as the host tries to figure out what’s going on.

The typical setup is this: after having the host leave for a while and taking audience suggestions on who the three impersonators will be, the scene begins and the host sets up a party (whose theme is up to the host). One by one, the impersonators arrive, knocking on a pantomimed door and are greeted by the host. They arrive in the order of suggestions that were taken: real person (historical or celebrity, typically), fictional character, and then the third person to arrive often has an “ailment”. They appear in this order so that the host knows something about each character right off the bat, and can therefore put the pieces together rather than try to figure out who everybody is based off anything in the universe. For “ailment”, this is typically a simple rule that the host must figure out, such as “Sneezes every time they touch somebody” or “Laughs uncontrollably when somebody asks a question”. (Another thing to keep in mind is the host of the party. Make sure you grab suggestions of people that they are at least familiar with, otherwise they will never figure it out.)

As the host figures out who each impersonator is, they tell them to leave. For example, when a person playing as Oprah says something that the host connects to that specific person, the host will say something like “Don’t you have a network to run? You’re way too busy and famous to be here!” (You don’t have to address them by name if it’s clear to your audience that you know who the impersonator is.

Eventually, the host will be left with one remaining impersonator, and if they are stumped as to who they may be, asking direct questions is allowed. It’s important for both people to remain in character, however. If they are left with the fictional character Courage the Cowardly Dog, the host may say “You’re not human, are you?”, to which ‘Courage’ may reply “Nope, but I’m always getting my humans out of trouble!” At this point, the game turns into a version of The Dating Game, but this shouldn’t last more than thirty seconds as the game is pretty much over. If they are still stumped, the ref can step in and help lead them to the right answer.

The success of this game is largely dependent on the impersonator’s ability to emulate their characters without being obvious. As time progresses, if the host is confused, you can be less and less subtle with your clues, but you should always stay in character.