Although it’s been several years since I graduated from my first improv class, I still remember what it felt like to be a student. I spent a lot of time wondering how to get better at improv, and the response was always the same: patience and practice. But I didn’t want to wait. I watched my own teachers dominate the stage and desperately wanted to know their secrets. Why couldn’t I do that?
The truth, I finally realized, was that I already knew how to do everything they were doing. They just happened to be able to put the lessons from class into practice, consistently.
Practice and patience are still a big part of getting better at improv, but you can get a lot better a lot faster if you remember (and practice) these 10 tips.
Read your scene partner
When you walk on stage, you won’t find any inspiration on the ground or out in the audience. Instead, look your scene partner in the eyes (as you walk on or while you’re doing some object work) and make an assumption about their emotional state based on their face and/or body. Now, you’ve got 90% of what you need to make a great scene.
When your scene partner initiates—even with something as banal as, “I bought milk”—react emotionally. Make that line personal and meaningful. As the scene progresses, dig deeper into that emotion and discovery why your character feels that way.
Make the first five lines count
Don’t open your scene with “Hey” or “What’s up?” That’s wasted breath. Take a second at the top of the scene to discover where you are, what you’re doing, and your relationship to your scene partner. Then, start making statements. Pay attention to those lines—if you do it right, everything you need is in there.
Play yourself + 10%
Don’t sell out the scene with a quick joke or stock stereotype. Invest in what’s happening and make choices that are true to life. Inform your character with your own fears, anxieties, and traits.
Use “I want,” “I think,” and “I feel” statements
When you’re feeling stuck, or when your scene partner gives you a gift, start a sentence with any of those three phrases to clarify your character’s feelings, heighten the emotional drama, and drive the scene forward.
Just say it
In real life, it’s polite to equivocate and mask your true desires (that’s called courtesy or self-preservation). But improv is an opportunity to break out of societal norms. Don’t play coy. Tell your scene partner exactly what’s on your mind. It will force them to react emotionally, and that’s when your scene will really begin.
Give little wins
Commit to your character. Commit to their point of view and their motivation. But if that desire comes up against your scene partner’s, you have to have a reason to stay rather than walk away. Give little wins by conceding a small point or by making a move that your partner would consider a win, but do not give up your underlying motivation or want.
Know the answers
You don’t need to ask how your scene partner’s character is feeling. Just look at them and know. Don’t ask if someone wants to do something. Start doing it. Don’t ask a question, because you already know the answer.
Know you already have enough
If you made the first five lines count, then you’ve probably already set up a game, relationship, or pattern that will serve as the core of the scene. You don’t need to keep looking for something to do. What you’re doing in the scene right now is enough—hold on to it like a life preserver. Make it deeper with “I want,” “I think,” and “I feel” statements. Expand it by asking yourself “if this is true, what else is true?” Keep going back to it. The audience will not get bored as long as you continue to react honestly and emotionally.
Make the scene about the two people on stage
If you’re talking about someone who isn’t in the scene, you’ve already lost—because that person isn’t here and they aren’t real. You can mention some third party if you must, but always return to how that third party is affecting you and your scene partner.
Reading a blog post won’t make you an superstar overnight. But consistently practicing these 10 tips will make you a better improviser, faster.
If you liked this post, you’ll like my book Improv ABC: The A-Z Guide to Becoming an Unstoppable Improviser. Drop your email here to get two free chapters.