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What Is Improv?

By Angela Farrer
Updated May 17, 2024
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Improv refers to any type of performance or artistic skill-building exercise that does not follow a script, musical score, set of choreographed steps, or other type of planned instructions. Several different kinds of performing arts, such as acting, stand-up comedy, and music, frequently include improv. Improvisation can have multiple purposes, including helping performers think on their feet, work together in an ensemble, and tap into their inner creativity. It can also form the basis of some theater shows in which actors take suggestions from the audience and create a performance on the spot.

Many beginning and intermediate acting classes use improv games as a means to get student performers to feel comfortable with stepping into roles, as well as with speaking and moving in unfamiliar ways. These types of exercises can often be adapted for different story themes such as drama or comedy. Some of these theater students may go on to become improv actors, while others opt to pursue scripted roles.

Working with no script or rehearsal can often be an effective and challenging mental exercise. This type of situation usually requires performers to learn how to quickly respond to the immediate moment and come up with appropriate responses to unexpected cues. The spontaneous nature of improv can lead to innovative ways of interacting with both fellow cast members and with the audience.

Sketch performances have many of their roots in improvisation; new sketch comedy shows are often written from ideas that begin with improvisation exercises. Characters in these kinds of performances usually become part of a set script that still leaves some room for individual actor creativity. Some theater experts agree that script writers who take advantage of improv within a sketch framework have the best chances of creating quality material.

Stand-up comedians often use improvisation sessions to formulate their stage shows. Many begin with a set of exercises that involve movements as well as speech. Although stand-up comedy is known as an arena for solo performances, improvising performers can rehearse and brainstorm either in groups or individually.

Jazz is a style of music that relies heavily on improv with various instruments such as the trumpet and piano. Many well-known jazz compositions often begin with improvisation, and some skilled musicians are renowned for creating entirely new pieces on the spot during shows. Classical and rock music can also start with improv when a composer or songwriter is creating new material.

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Discussion Comments
By amysamp — On Sep 21, 2011

I love improv! I think it takes a lot of strength, courage, and mental ability to do it.

I went to a local improv comedy club recently and it was so hilarious! It amazes me that some people really do have the mental capacity and creativity to make up stuff off the top of their head like that! Making the material funny seems to be an extra challenge to an already challenging task!

When I went to the improv comedy club it was neat because they actually want the audience to participate and shout/share their ideas. I got so nervous with the idea of me even thinking of a subject off the top of my head that I couldn't think of anything or when I did I would just keep it to myself out of fear!

I do not think I would be very successful at acting improv, especially in a comedic setting, but I would want to try.

But because of all of these reasons, I also thing that show "Who's Line Is It Anyway?" is great because they dedicated a whole televised show to the art and creative ingenuity of comedic improv.

By KaBoom — On Sep 20, 2011

@Azuza - That show is pretty funny! I didn't know that is was done improv though.

I think it's neat that there are improv exercises for so many different disciplines. I've actually done them as a writer! When you have writers block, some people recommend that instead of sticking to what you planned to write, you just sit down with a piece of paper in front of you and write whatever comes to mind.

I've found this to be a very effective technique to get the creative juices flowing and get back to work! I've also generated some good ideas this way.

By Azuza — On Sep 19, 2011

I think I read somewhere that the show "Curb Your Enthusiasm" is done partially improv. I've never heard of any other actual television sitcoms being ran this way, but I think it's an interesting idea.

I also think it's been a successful one. "Curb Your Enthusiasm" is hilarious! I love watching Larry David get himself into trouble over and over.

By lighth0se33 — On Sep 19, 2011

In college, I took an art class that was all about free form and expression. We could draw squiggles and blocks if that was what we felt inspired to do, as long as we had an explanation for what it represented.

Our teacher put us through weekly improv exercises. She would pick an emotion or situation for us to express. Anything was acceptable, so long as we could explain our art. For instance, lines pointing upward could express happiness, because the corners of your lips turn upward when you smile.

Though this class didn’t teach us how to draw or paint, it did serve to teach us the other side of art. We learned how to put feelings on paper.

By OeKc05 — On Sep 18, 2011

A group of improv comedians is very popular locally. Their act is totally spontaneous, and they are each talented enough to make it original and hilarious every time.

Someone from the audience will shout out a scenario for them to build a story around. They will act it out together, and it is amazing how they manage to both think as one and have individual ideas at once.

I think that successful improv requires a certain type of person. There are some really good comedians out there who would freeze and panic if placed on the spot. They do great work if given time to prepare and practice. A good improv artist is brimming with a continuous supply of funny ideas, and he can let them flow to the audience without ever running dry.

By seag47 — On Sep 17, 2011

My local club has a house jazz band. On open mic night, the jazz band plays totally improv material, and anyone in the audience can get up and sing with them. They have to make up their own words, and it can be very entertaining when an intoxicated person tries to do this.

On the other hand, I have heard some people who are artists at songwriting, and they are able to take words they have written and form a melody to match what the band is playing. I don’t know how they do it on the spot like that, but it’s a beautiful thing to watch.

By kylee07drg — On Sep 16, 2011

I am in a band with a bunch of really talented musicians. Though we do a lot of cover songs, we have recently begun to incorporate original songs in our set list.

Every time we get together to practice, we set aside some time for improv, which we call a “jam session.” One of us will set the key, and we just start to play. It usually just falls in line, because we mesh well and think alike in terms of music.

Sometimes, we are able to write new songs from melodies that we created spontaneously during improv. It’s a magical thing to connect with four other people so well that a song is born.

By umbra21 — On Sep 16, 2011

@croydon - If you feel too nervous to try comedy improv another suggestion is to see if there are any groups which improv in something you're good at. Like, music or art.

I attended an art school that had a funny improv style class. I don't know if it was supposed to improve our art so much as make us more open creatively.

They would limit us to a certain amount of time, like a minute, or even less, and then get us to draw something from a magazine, or from a suggestion. A couple of times they even made it into something like Pictionary, where teams would try to guess what the other was drawing and so forth.

It was a really fun class! We became quite close actually. Although we did end up going through a lot of paper.

By croydon — On Sep 15, 2011

I remember when I first went to university they offered us a few free improv classes as a way of meeting people and becoming more confident.

It was one of the hardest things I ever did! I was so shy back then and just not confident enough in my own sense of humor.

But I managed to step out and do a little bit without prompting. And people laughed! It was hard, but it was also a very good moment for me. I still remember how good I felt about it.

I made a few friends through the class as well. If you get a chance to try one, I would really recommend it, as long as you think you could force yourself to participate.

By suntan12 — On Sep 15, 2011

I have been to the Miami Improv and I just love going there. I think that the stand up comedians are really funny and they certainly have a lot of guts getting up in front of a stage and telling jokes like that. I know that I couldn’t do it. I would be afraid that some of my jokes wouldn’t go over well and I would be faced with an audience that is just staring at me.

I am sure that every comedian has faced this at one time or another and I have even seen this happen on television. It is really hard to watch when that happens.

For me the funniest comedians are those that can find humor in everyday experiences that we can all relate to. I think that when the comedian offers a series of jokes that the audience can relate to it is usually a hit and the comedy sketches become more memorable.

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