Intro to Improv Key Takeaways


Whenever your scene partner presents something to you within a scene, you should agree with it and then add your own piece to it. You can dislike what they say, but you should agree that it is the truth of the scene. 
Yes-and means ‘I’ve heard you and I will honor what you brought by adding to it.’
Avoid saying “No” in scenes or negating information. “Yes, but…” is also problematic since it often deflects or negates. 


Your number one job on an improv stage is to make your scene partner look great. Their job is to make YOU look great. Everyone lifts everyone else up. We signify this with a ritual called ‘Got Your Back’ before shows where we gently tap our teammates on the back and say ‘Got your back…’ I’m going to make you look great, you’re going to make me look great!


Sentences work better for improv scenes than questions do. The main reason is because when you ask a question, more often than not, you are putting the weight of information on your scene mate, whereas a sentence gifts information to them. Gifting information is always better.


Having said that, we are all wired up to ask questions. It will slip out sometimes and that’s okay. If you catch yourself asking a question, don’t correct it, but rather quickly answer your own question.


“What are we having for dinner? I’m hungry for meatloaf.”


Some questions are better than others. Questions that provide some specific information are usually fine.“How was your blind date last night?” is good because it brings some information. The other character had a date last night.


If someone else asks you a question in a scene, you can answer it however you want and that becomes absolutely true, because anything you say becomes true in a scene and they have to agree with it. If they ask a Yes/No type question, most of the time it will be more fun to say Yes to it!


There are three main ways to start a scene:
Start with a Sentence
We want to gift our scene partner with information which is usually easiest to do with sentences rather than ask questions, which puts the weight of the information on the other person. Don’t worry about saying something clever or funny. Any normal everyday sentence will do. If you get stuck, “I don’t know what to say.” will start a scene just fine.
A reminder that we try to avoid questions in improv because we want to gift information to our scene partner rather than require information from them. 
Start with Object Work
On an improv stage we usually only have each other and a few chairs. Everything else we make up. We want to treat objects like they are real, with weight size, and volume, use them and put them away like we would real things.  The more realistic we treat the object, the more the audience will buy into the illusion. Even if you have real things like phones on you, still use improv objects. Pay with an improv wallet, take off improv clothes, tie improv shoes, etc.
For new improvisers, we will start object work scenes the following way: One person comes out and silently starts doing a chore involving objects. A second person comes out and joins them silently in that activity, either doing the exact same thing, or something they think goes along with it. After a few seconds of silence and a check in with eye contact, either person can start talking. If the second person is unsure what the first person is doing, they can join them by doing the exact same thing. If they are inspired, they can name what they think it is, which might surprise everyone.
Start with an Emotion
One person enters the scene and shows a strong emotion. They can have dialogue, but shouldn’t say why they are feeling this way because the second person joining them get to name exactly why they feel this way, to which the first person must agree.
Strong emotions are better than middle range ones, which can sometimes be vague. On a scale of 1 to 10 go to at least an 8 so it’s clear.


There are a few things to keep in mind when you are on an improv stage to make sure you are seen and heard, and to make sure that others are seen and heard, especially when you have a full audience watching. 


Share the Energy

If there are more than two people on stage, you will need to share the energy, otherwise the audience will hear static if improvisers are talking over each other. Talk popcorn style. Remember the Energy disc/object from the Share the Energy exercise. You can give the energy to someone else or you can take it through body language and eye contact. 

Project Your Voice (even when whispering)
Talk louder than you think you may need to. We are generally not mic’d up, so you want to make sure that the person on the back row of seats can hear you clearly. If you are naturally soft-spoken, push your volume up. 
If whispering in a scene, do a ‘stage whisper’ and change the tone of your voice to that of a whisper, but try to keep your volume up. The audience will understand that it’s a whisper. 
Cheat Out Towards the Audience
When you are on a stage, be aware of how you are facing the audience. You always want to have your face towards the audience and never have your back to them. Sometimes this will feel awkward to you on stage, but it looks correct to the crowd. We call this Cheating Out. 
If you’re in a scene where you might normally be facing the other person directly, instead face them at an angle so most of the audience can see both of your faces. This also will enable them to hear you. 
Backline Etiquette
When you are on the backline or sidelines, you should be standing up, leaning in, and intently watching the scene, ready to provide support like sound effects or pop-ins at any moment. Don’t slouch against the wall, look disinterested, or be chatting to each other behind the scene going on. It’s okay to have a quick whisper to someone if you have an idea for the next scene, but it should not be distracting from what’s going on in front of you. 


Once a scene is over, it is up to the rest of the troupe to edit it in order to end it and start a brand new scenes. There are a few different ways to edit a scene. 


A Sweep edit (also called a Wipe) works like this:
Once a scene is over, someone from the back line runs across the front of the stage to signify that it is done and a new scene should begin immediately. By doing this, you are the human equivalent of the line that transitions from one scene to another on a movie screen.

Wipes will happen when:


  • A button line is found – a funny moment that is the perfect end to the scene.
  • The scene isn’t getting traction after a minute or so – go ahead and get it out of there.
  • Something offensive to the audience happens. Wipe immediately to move on from it.

For Intro, we want you to learn to trust and depend upon your scene mates, so we’re going to ask that you stay in a scene until someone from the troupe’s back line (anyone not currently in the scene) runs across in front.


We don’t want the audience to get bored with our show. Sometimes we can get into a rut or get stuck on a singular idea over and over again. Audiences like variety. One easy way to get unstuck and generate a new idea on the fly is to A TO C it. 


So let’s say we get the word ‘grasshopper’ and we have WAY too many scenes that are focused on grasshoppers or we’ve said the word ‘grasshopper’ five times too often. Here’s how you can fix that:


It’s as simple as saying to yourself:


“Grasshopper (A) makes me think of legs (B), which makes me think of shaving (C). I’m going to start the next scene by shaving my legs.”


We’ve now created a brand new thread for the show.



When we start an improv show, we usually get a word from the audience to get started with. If we just used the word, it runs the risk of being a fairly one-note show focused only on that word. To avoid this, most shows have an OPENING at the start that takes the word and generates many more ideas from it. Think of the opening as ‘scene fuel’ – you’re stopping to fill up at the gas pump before heading out for the show. 


The Opening is more for the troupe than it is for the audience, but we have a variety of openings that are entertaining for an audience


There are an infinite number of openings. For beginner improv, we’re going to use our FIRST COMBO INITIATION SCENE as the opening. It incorporates the best of all three initiation styles into one, creates some great grounded scenes that can provide plenty of ‘scene fuel’ and gets you into some great habits.


The Combo Initiation 

For Intro, we are going to use the Combo Initiation Scene as our opening. It’s also a great way to start any scene that utilizes all three initiations in one. Here are the steps:


  1. After the troupe introduces themselves, someone will get a random word from the audience.
  2. One improviser steps out silently and uses the word to inspire some object work. Don’t speak, just let it be silent for a bit.
  3. A second improviser will come into the scene and join them in that activity, silently either doing the same thing or doing something that goes along with what the first person. They are also going to add a strong emotion to what they are doing. If the first person is wiping tables, the second person might be angrily sweeping the floor. Actually interact with objects.
  4. Give it about ten seconds or more of silently doing the object work together.
  5. Both characters, who know each other well, will pause, make eye contact, and silently hold that eye contact for five seconds.
  6. While making eye contact, each character will say the other character’s first name – let this be inspired by the scene and relationship so far. And only say the first name – no “hello’s” or any other dialogue yet. “Frank…” “Polly…”
  7. Let the scene breathe for a beat. Now either character can kick things off with a sentence.
  8. Play out the scene. Don’t worry about being funny or clever. Just have a nice grounded and patient scene. This scene should play out longer than the rest of the show since we are generating ideas. The goal is 3 minutes or longer.
  9. Backline will wipe on a good ending point or button line, and the rest of the show begins, using this first scene as fuel.
  10. The players in the first scene, can utilize the second scene for the same brainstorming purposes if they want. 

As this scene is playing out, people on the backline should be picking out one thing that they might use to inspire a scene later. Could be a concept, idea, word, emotion, object work, or even a line of dialogue, that they will use later to initiate a new scene later in the show. 


Don’t worry about remembering everything. Just pick one thing and put it in your back pocket to use later. If everyone does this, you’ll have more than enough fuel for a 15 minute show!



Game is anything that is fun to play with within the scene for the improviser and the audience. We usually know we have stumbled upon game when the audience laughs or reacts big in other ways.
For Intro we focus on patterns for game but it can also be heightening, emotional reactions,  emotion shifts, etc, etc. (all of which we dig into in the Level 2 class).
Discover patterns such as catch phrases, movements, etc. We forced them a bit in the class exercises to show how and why they work, but, when doing scenes, it is always best to stumble upon them naturally (and you won’t always have them). As stated above, you will know you’ve found it when the audience reacts strongly.
Patterns can also have variations. The rule is if you do it the exactly the same the second time as the first, then do it exactly the same the third time – if different the second time, then make it equally different the third time.
Let patterns breathe for awhile in between returning to them. It gives them more weight if you let there be around 30 seconds or more between coming back to them.
Rule of Threes
If you find something that the audience clearly likes, do it again, and then do it again for a total of three. Game usually happens best in threes. If you have a pattern, do it three times. If heightening do it three times. Return to scenes in threes. Our brains like the number three and find it entertaining and satisfying.
Multiples of three also work, so if you go beyond three, go ahead and make it six. If beyond six, go to nine.


Heightening is when you make something bigger and more extreme, and then make it even bigger and more extreme again. This is why starting grounded and normal in scenes is important, because it gives you space to heighten to the weird and crazy things.
Good example of heightening:
Guess what? I bought a boat!
Guess what? I bought a yacht!!
Guess what? I bought a cruise ship!!!
Extreme Heightening


A simple and very fun show format that exercises pattern and heightening game. It also lays the foundations for more advanced show formats down the road like ‘The Harold’.
Within the format, there are four 2-person scenes, and each scene will return three times (for a total of 12 scenes). The two players in the scene will find a pattern to repeat and something to heighten each time their scene returns.
Each time around it gets sillier and faster paced. Sometimes the third scene will be just a punchline because the audience will already know exactly where the scene is going to go based on the first two versions of it. I call those mic-drop scenes! They are very satisfying for both you the player and the audience!
Great example of mic drop scene (courtesy of Annapolis Summer 2021 class):
1st scene: Would you like some ice cream? – I really can’t… I’m lactose intolerant.
2nd scene: Would you like some cheese? – I really can’t… I’m lactose intolerant
3rd scene: C’mere Bessie… (pulls on leash for improv cow) – mic drop. Scene ends.

Intro to Improv Exercises

Zip Zap Zop

Simple pattern game. Form a circle. First person says Zip and points to another person (or hand swipes towards them), next person says Zap, third person says Zop and repeat the pattern.

Five Things

Someone gives a Category to someone else (serious or silly). They are to list 5 things in that category as fast as they can, not worrying about whether what they say is right. Just say something. After each one, the rest of the group counts them off. ONE… TWO… etc. After the fifth one, do a song and dance: THESE ARE FIVE THINGS and then the person who just went selects another person to give a category to. Keep going until everyone has had a chance to do this.


A character variation is to do FIVE THINGS AS A… In addition to the Five Things, someone else gives an ‘as a…’ character. A type of person rather than a specific human being. They then do the five things from the perspective and with the voice and physicality of that person. Example: “Five terrible pizza toppings as a Philly toll booth operator. ” 

Clap Pass

Circle up. Two people clap at the exact same time. Then they pass it to the next person and clap at the exact same time. Go around the circle at least once and then give them instructions that they can now send the energy in the other direction by staying with that same person and clapping again. You’ll likely need to remind them to try and be in sync when clapping.

Name Thumper

A great game to learn names! Each person will say their name, make a movement to go with their name, and then give a word to go along with their name – the word can start with the same letter, rhyme, be an animal, etc. it doesn’t matter – any word is good. Go around the room one by one with everyone repeating it back after the person gives the name, movement, word combo.


Once it’s gone around at least once, explain that you’re going to give your own name & symbol and then someone else’s name and symbol. When someone sees their name and symbol, they will give their own name and symbol and someone else’s, and so on. Let them know that this isn’t a competition, so anyone can stop and ask for a name, movement or symbol at any time – it’s encouraged to do so to learn names! 

Squirrel Nut Tree

Circle game. Three people form a triptych together. First person out says “I’m a Squirrel” and puts their body in the shape of a squirrel. 2nd person says “I’m a Nut” and takes the shape of a nut. 3rd person says “I’m a Tree” and takes the shape of a tree. The person who was out there first (or longest) says who stays and the other two return to the circle (let’s say Tree for the example). The person remaining then says their own thing again “I’m a Tree” and two more people come out to join them doing something that goes along with a Tree that is neither a Squirrel or a Nut this time. (example “I’m a swing” and “I’m a leaf”). Person out longest says who stays and repeat again. Note: You’ll often have to remind the first person to say theirs again to get the pattern going, remind the one out there the longest to keep one, and also encourage them to keep it flowing and not leave anyone out there by themselves for long. 


For the last one, find an easy one to have all of the class pile on to finish it off.

Snap Pass

Throw a snap to someone else in the circle. That person catches it with a snap and then throws it to someone else with a snap (it’s okay if people can’t make the noise of a snap – the motion is enough).


Two snaps: One to catch and the other to pass.


This continues. After a few snaps, the group usually gets very creative with it, and start treating it like a real object. When the snap comes back to the teacher, take a pause and ask people if they were seeing it? What helped with the illusion? What broke the illusion? Continue on and encourage the class to have fun with it.

Bunny Bunny/Toki Toki

Teach this one piece at a time, then combine it all together. 


First part: Make a bunny motion with two fingers (both hands) towards yourself and say BUNNY BUNNY. Then make the same motion towards someone else and say BUNNY BUNNY again. Some people will get the motion backwards, but it’s not a huge deal. Let that go for a bit to solidify. 


Second part: The two people to the sides of BUNNY BUNNY face that person, throw their arms out, and rock side to side saying TOKI TOKI in the same rhythm as BUNNY BUNNY. Let these play for awhile until it solidifies. 


Third part: Everyone who isn’t BUNNY BUNNY or TOKI TOKI will keep the rhythm by saying OOM-CHA OOM-CHA and slapping their own thighs gently to make a clap sound. Start everyone doing this, then once the rhythm has been established, start the BUNNY BUNNY-TOKI TOKI up. 


After they get good at it, you can speed it up slowly. Keep going faster until it falls apart.

History of Improv

Inventing Improv - Viola Spolin

The beginnings of Improv spawned from a daughter of Russian immigrants who taught theater games to teach English to new immigrants in Chicago. Her son would later found Second City. 
Full Documentary Below:

For Madmen Only - Del Close

The improv story picks up with Del Close, who would champion long-form improv as an artform, trained a staggering number of legendary Saturday Night Live castmembers, and invented “The Harold” format. Trailer below. Currently streaming on Hulu.