One of the best things about improv is that it’s full of variety. There’s something in it for lots of different kinds of people, whether it’s a skill they’ll excel at, a particular type of game that they find fun and rewarding, a way of connecting with people, or something else. Because of that variety, though, and the variety of human experiences, it means most of us can find something that we don’t like too. Maybe it’s confusing, maybe we feel like we’re bad at it, maybe we just hate it. That’s ok too!
For me, there are a handful of games/skills that I hated for years because I couldn’t find a way through them that worked for me and I allowed myself to feel bad about that. We all like to be good at things and feel like we ‘get it’, no? As someone who is neurodivergent, the things that I don’t get are often different from what others don’t get. It can be tricky for teachers to see what might be difficult about a particular exercise that they personally never struggled with, and when you’re new to improv it can be difficult to articulate why something doesn’t click. I’ve been improvising since 2007, and it took me about a decade to get the hang of a few of these skills! So if that’s you or your student, fear not, there’s hope.
- Character walks
Character walks are when you walk around the room, change something about how you’re walking, and let that inform a character choice. I’ve done them many different ways over the years, but the most common by far is choosing a different body part to lead with. When I first tried these, and as I did them over and over through the years (this is a popular one), I found myself just wandering around with my elbow out, totally befuddled as to how anyone was intuiting a character from this motion.
I started improvising before I transitioned, and like a lot of trans people I did not have a very familiar relationship with my body- a lot of us tend to think of ourselves as a brain in a jar pre transition, and it’s a hard habit to break. Without that sense of connection, a body is just an interestingly complex tool we pilot, not a source of emotional awareness. It’s worth mentioning that a lot of neurodivergent folks also struggle with body awareness and/or reading emotional feedback from their bodies.
I’ve found two ways through this that work well for me, both based on things that I do have an intuitive understanding of. The first way is to change the exercise- I pick something in my natural walk that feels a bit feminine or masculine and choose to exaggerate it, using my understanding of gendered behaviour to extrapolate a character choice. The second way is to lead with the body part, then imagine an animal that moves that way. I use the characteristics of the animal to inform a human character, and boom: character walk, accomplished. These both work for me because they play to my interests and strengths; if you hate character walks, start from something you do like and try to map it on.
2. Hot Spot
Confession: I love Hot Spot. I could play it for hours. If you’ve not played it before, or know it by a different name, Hot Spot is where one person stands in the middle of a circle and sings a song (a known one, or a made up one). The rest of the group joins in or supports as best they can, and when somebody is inspired (or the middle person looks like they’re done being there) they tag in and start a new song. When I first tried this game I was frozen on the edge of the circle. My background is as a classical musician (I was doing my masters degree when I started doing improv to try and improve my stage presence- little did I know it would become my career!), and I knew next to no pop songs- I could hum a lot of concertos, but it didn’t feel like there was a space for that in the game. I was left out, and I felt bad about it.
Because I’m a music nerd, the first thing I did when I saw what I thought was a gap in my knowledge was to make a big playlist of songs with words and listen to it so I would know a few. The second thing that started happening as I got better and more confident was that I cared less if people knew the songs I was bringing in. This took a little while, as some styles of improv are better than others at embracing difference rather than making it the joke or leaving someone out to dry.
My hot take on this game, after years of loving the feeling of making connections in my brain that it gives me, is that it is worth learning for most people (nothing is for everybody and that’s ok). What it needs, though, is the knowledge that whatever you’re bringing to the table is valued- even if your references are different from everyone else’s. If you’re teaching a group of people from different age groups, cultures etc, make sure they feel that before trying Hot Spot (or don’t try it). Hot Spot is an even better game if we’re all a bit different and use our own ways to make connections- picking out melodic shapes and chords, the emotion of a song, etc. And if it includes an occasional chorus of ‘Barbie Girl’ that I’m the only one not singing along to, that’s ok too- I take joy in your joy.
3. Gibberish scenes
This one has always done my brain in. I’m dyslexic, which means that I think in pictures rather than words- so when I speak it’s thought out, by necessity. The feeling of attempting to parse together gibberish sounds has always made me feel stupid, in the worst way. It puts me in my head rather than being the freeing experience others seem to find it to be, and I’m often not quite myself for hours after. At first I took this, like every other weakness, as a personal challenge to get better at it. I got to the point where I could force myself through a gibberish scene, but I have yet to enjoy one.
My ultimate solution? I politely opt out, whether it’s in a class or on stage. Improv should be an enjoyable and rewarding experience, and if it’s not it’s time to reevaluate. If you’re worried that setting yourself a boundary or saying no to something will look like a weakness, I promise it won’t. If anything, I think that seeing an experienced player opt out of something is a very good thing for new improvisers in particular. There’s often an implicit expectation that we’ll all do all the things together and have a lovely time, even if your teacher has said you can opt out. Seeing it in action is empowering for everyone in the room, so never be shy to do it.
Oh my goodness, I used to be terrified of accents. When I moved to the UK and discovered that not only are there dozens of regional accents here, but imitating them all is a seemingly common hobby for Brits, I felt very out of my depth. For someone who doesn’t have the experience of playfully imitating accents, it can seem like a magical gift that we simply haven’t been blessed with. It’s even harder for people who are improvising outside their mother tongue. For me, the first thing I did was bring different voices to characters in ways that did suit me- making my tone brighter or darker, heavier or lighter, changing the pitch, speed, inflection. Because I have a musical background and work as a voice coach, this way of doing character voices is much more comfortable than accents.
A few years ago I directed and played in an improvised Tennessee Williams show, complete with Southern accents. Nobody in the cast is American, so we all had to learn it from scratch. Here’s the secret: we hired a dialect coach, used the materials he provided to practise, and included accent work in every single rehearsal. Aha! The secret was hard work all along (like most things that seem like a magical talent). Every single person in the cast got much better at the accent the more we worked on it, and we regularly received compliments on how well it was executed. If you want/need a particular skill to help further your improv, assume it’s learnable by anyone with enough hard work. Whether it feels worth it for you is another story!
So, that’s my list and the ways I found through. What are the things that have taken you ages to figure out, and how did you do it? Let’s demystify.