Whether you’re putting on a short play, above-a-pub comedy, or trying to get out of a sticky on-stage situation, improvisation can be your best friend. We spoke to professionals Cariad Lloyd (pictured) and Brendan Murphy to get their tips…
“Always say yes,” says actor and comedian Brendan Murphy, who specialises in short-form comedy improvisation. “Saying no is blocking, and that makes it very hard to further a scenario. You have to accept what you’re given. It’s all about making suggestions.”
Make sure you’re prepared
“As an improviser you’ve all got this history and back language,” says comedian and Edinburgh star Cariad Lloyd, who performs in several improvisation groups, including Austentatious, who improvise an entire Austen novel. “You’ve been training since you started. There are exercises you can do, which warm up your mind, like stretches. That warming up is just to get you in the space where you don’t think.”
“We also rehearse, which always surprises people. We just run through a show and then talk about any bits that we thought got lost, or any characters that we feel didn’t get explored properly. But we'd never use what happens in rehearsal in terms of story. You never pre-plan.”
“You have to be willing to be a dick and look stupid,” says Cariad. “You have to be vulnerable and know that the players you’re with will look after you.”
“Improvisation has saved me when I’ve cocked up in scripted shows,” says Brendan. “When I was doing NewsRevue [at Canal Cafe Theatre] I learned a song the night before. When it came to performing it, I just forgot the lines, so did an improvised monologue to cover it. “
Don’t try to be funny
“Don’t try to be funny, just say what comes into your head,” says Brendan. “Don’t try too hard – saying ‘tomato sponge’ or ‘frog radiator’ may be tempting, but it’s just saying something for effect. Everything you say should be furthering the scene.”
Tell the story
“It’s not about being quick-witted,” says Cariad. “You can be a very slow, very unfunny person in real life, but a brilliant improviser. It’s about listening, connecting and being present. It’s about being a good actor. Long-form improvisers are brilliant storytellers. They’ll know the moment in the show to come in and drop in a piece of information or plot-turn that changes everything.”
Play to your strengths and be aware of your weaknesses
“In an ideal improv group you want a mix,” says Cariad. “Someone who’s physical, someone who’s funny, someone who’s light, a storyteller.”
“I have this really cheesy phrase: As in impro, as in life. So, if you struggle to listen in life, then you’ll struggle to listen in an improv scene. If you’re quite controlling in real life, then you’ll be controlling in improv. Any behaviour that is problematic in life, will be in improv. And, on the flip side, behaviour that is helpful in real life will probably be helpful in improv.”
If things are going badly, be the hero
“If a scene is going badly, then you should go in there and save it,” says Cariad. “If it’s going well – although it’s really tempting to go in and join it, and enjoy it – they don’t need you. So, stay out.”
Finally, read the book
Keith Johnstone, the father of British improvisation, wrote a book called Impro. Read it.
In Focus: An introduction to improvisation games
For a huge list of improve games, check out the improvencyclopedia.
Here are a few from Brendan and Cariad:
Freeze Tag: A few players start a scene, then one of the performers off stage calls “freeze”, goes into the scene, taps someone on the shoulder, takes on their physicality and then you go from there. So, for example, someone is lying on the floor doing sit–ups with their trainer. A performer shouts “freeze”, goes in, adopts their pose, but changes it to someone giving birth.
Word Ball: You throw a ball while saying a word, the person who catches it says that word and then immediately throws it out with another word. So it’ll go shoe – shoe man – man tree – tree bag. It’s just a way to get your brain used to saying words without judging or thinking about what you’re saying.
You can even just do it with sounds. “We’re trained in the outside world to worry about what we’re saying because it has meaning,” says Cariad. “But in improv you can say anything and then just throw it away. Experienced improvisers don’t judge what they say, which is an incredibly powerful thing for all creative arts.”
Cariad Lloyd is taking her new show, The Freewheelin’ Cariad Lloyd, to the Edinburgh Fringe this August.
Brendan Murphy will be playing in The One Hour Plays at Edinburgh Fringe this August.