By Mel Paradis (author of Teaching Improv: The Essential Handbook)
I feel grateful for my improv roots right now. It’s helping me navigate the uncertainty of each coming day. When I start losing my mind (new choice), toilet paper (new choice), hand sanitizer (new choice), banana peels (go on…), I realize I need to take myself and the banana peels a little less seriously. All improv scenes, brilliant or torturous, eventually come to an end. If we do our part, we might be able to make it a little more interesting, if not enjoyable, while we ride it out.
While many are using this gifted time to reorganize their home, I know many of you drama and improv teachers are searching for effective ways to teach improvisation remotely through distance learning. So I’ve put together my top activities for students to get their “Improv Home Life In Order”. These are fun improv activities that can be done individually, or with someone in their place of shelter or remotely through video conferencing. No matter which ones you choose, the activities will allow your performers to build a fun and solid improv foundation—all from their own home.
This is part one of a two-part blog post. In this first post I cover individual improv activities. Students can email their lists to you the teacher and/or video record themselves completing the activities and share the link with you. Keep an eye out in the next couple of days for a post on how to improvise with others while working remotely.
INDIVIDUAL IMPROV ACTIVITIES
1) Make a Master List of Improv Scenes
Being able to draw from strong scenes will give you an edge. So take this time to come up with very specific descriptions of your scenes.
Locations – Use all your senses in describing the place of the scene. What does it look like, sound like, smell like? Not just a beach. The location is Point Dume State Beach at sunset, in middle of winter, it’s not so crowded, smells of impending rain, seagulls are flying overhead, mild waves crash on the sand, which is covered with bull kelp.
Stock Characters – Create a list of archetypes. Then break each archetype down even further into different trope type characters. Example: Villains: Mad Scientist, Corrupt Politician, High School Mean Girl, etc.
Elevate Your Characters – Who do you usually fall back on? Give that person even more detail with a secret backstory. For example: The New York “coffee talk” Lady. Maybe she just got dumped and she carries an edge of bitterness into everything she does. Alternatively, she has been secretly holding onto a winning lottery ticket but hasn’t cashed it in yet and is extremely joyful.
Familiarize Famous People – It never hurts to write down details about and practice folks from history or pop culture that come up in shows. What do we know about them? Do they have a tag line? What are their funny quirks? Example: Abraham Lincoln: He wears a hat to take off and put on and has a beard that can be stroked. Famous line, “Four score…”. He was shot in a theater.
After you complete your lists, go online to check out professional improv scenes. Observe and take notes on what you saw. Here is a useful link of improv scenes to start with.
2) Practice Your Pantomiming Skills
Let’s face it, improvisors typically are not the best at pantomiming. (Check out this video for a good laugh at what it would look like if improvisors had the props in their hands.)
So while we’re likely spending more time home, let’s find ways to give some much needed attention to the every day objects around us.
Utilize Objects Around the House – Find 5 everyday items around your house. Pick each one up and use it as you normally would. Notice the weight, the mass and how you typically handle the object. Put the item down then attempt to pantomime the object you were just holding. Take notice of how you create space for the object and how you interact with it. Video record yourself with the object and without the object and make observations in the way you move.
Check out this video with great pantomiming.
3) Create 10 Strong Opening Statements
Great improv scenes start with a strong statement (not question), which takes place in the present moment. Opening statements are even better if you gift your scene partner with a clear relationship. Create a list of at least 10 of strong opening statements.. Example: Veronica, this is the last time I am going to ask you to prom!
4) Work Out Your Improv “Associations” Muscle
Using No Technology – Find a pile of magazines, newspapers, books, etc. Pull anything with lots of words or images.
Utilizing Technology – Find an app or use the website Can I Get A…
Associations Activity: From a magazine, newspaper or book, open up to a random page and write down the first word/object you see. Turn to another page and write down the first word/object you see on that page. Then create an association chain between these two objects. Give yourself no more than one minute to make your connection and/or try to make the connection in less than 5 steps. Example: Shells/Printer – Shells are found on a beach; a beach house is where I wish I were sheltering in place; instead I am sheltering in my 5th story apartment; while in my apartment, I am supposed to be working, instead I spend hours printing off coloring pages to keep my kids occupied.
For more helpful improv activities check out Teaching Improv: The Essential Handbook , which contains dozens of homework assignments and links to online videos that can be useful for teaching improv remotely.
For more than 25 years Mel Paradis has performed and facilitated improv with groups ranging from preschoolers through adults. Since 2011 she has been a member of Jackson Hole, Wyoming’s improv comedy troupe, The Laff Staff. In addition to improvising, Mel works as a freelance writer and Gifted and Talented teacher. Mel lives on the backside of the Teton Mountain Range in Idaho with her husband and two children.