Improv theatre, or improvisation refers to a theatrical art form in which two or more actors create a scene or a play on the spot, without any preparation and often inspired by an audience suggestion. Usually it’s a comedic art form.
Improv dates back a few decades and the “founders” of improv in its modern form are considered to be Keith Johnstone and Viola Spolin, although several other schools and theatres have evolved from that base and developed their own styles and training methods.
Despite having different schools and focuses nowadays, there are still some principles shared by pretty much improv practitioner because they are what gives improvisers the possibility of working in a way that enables them to create a whole play out of thin air and to safely navigate complete uncertainty (i.e. not knowing what will happen next and how) on stage.
This is where everything starts: you can’t do improv unless you are able to listen. Because on stage you have nothing else but your scene partner(s), you need to be able to absorb as many pieces of information as you can from him or her and from your environment to incorporate them in the scene. Clearly, part of the game is being able to communicate information well, and make listening easy for your scene partner.
This, simply put, means accepting everything that is being gradually established in a scene and adding pieces of information as the story goes along. By doing this, improvisers are able to build improv scenes that are coherent, clear and in which the actors don’t contradict and misunderstand each other. Yes, And… actually goes much deeper than what one can explain in three lines of text, but the essence is that.
Improv in practice
Improv requires practice. There is no getting around it. No amount of books that you read or videos you watch can prepare you for the mindset you need to build to do improv at a high level, or even at a basic one.
Specifically, because improvisers have literally nothing to rely on apart from their scene partner, most improv training is about interacting and communicating well with others, and breaking down communication skills to an incredible level of detail.
This type of work and training is one of the concepts on which I base my workshops. Technically, this training method is called Applied Improvisation and incorporating it in your company helps with situations where planning becomes impossible because of time pressure and you and your teammates need to make do with what you have to find a solution – a condition known as Organizational Improvisation.