General resources for Improv Teams and teams looking to improve the improvisational component of Instant Challenge

Improvisational Theatre

Unlike conventional scripted theatre, there is an element of spontaneity and unpredictability that makes improv a unique and exciting experience for the performers as well as the audience. Every performance is completely different, and there’s an element of risk involved since there’s no guarantee that any given scene will “work”.

The Basic Idea

There are lots of different styles of improvisation, but the one that’s currently the most popular is “spot” improv. “Spot” improv involves taking audience suggestions (or in DI the “improv prop” chosen in the prep area just before the performance of the Team Challenge) and using them immediately (“on the spot”) to create scenes. The scenes usually wind up being very funny, but that’s not a requirement. Good scenes can be serious and touching instead of (or in addition to) being comedic .

Key Elements

Perhaps the single most important thing that improvisors learn is the value of agreement. Since nothing exists until the actors create it, a scene will only be “real” (for both the performers and the audience) if everyone agree s with each other about things like where they are, who they are, and what’s going on.

The performers must also accept each others’ ideas, and build on them — that’s the fundamental process of improvisation.


Books on Improvisation:

Improby Keith Johnstone – An excellent book for someone just starting out in improv, and worthwhile reading for people who’ve been doing it for a while. D iscusses a lot of basic theory, and explores the nature of spontaneity. Keith Johnstone is best known as the the inventor of Theatresports. Published by Methuen. ISBN 0-413-46430-X.

Improvisation for the Theaterby Viola Spolin – Another essential text for budding improvisors. This and Impro are probably the two fundamenta l texts to start from. Whereas Impro covers the theory, this book emphasizes the practical use of theater games. Viola Spolin was one of the founders of modern improv, and her early work in the 1930’s led to the Compass Theatre and Second Cit y. Published by Northwestern University Press. ISBN #0-8101-1000-8.

Truth in Comedyby Del Close, Charna Halpern and Kim “Howard” Johnson – One of the best “contemporary” books above improv. Very practical approach, aimed d irectly at people who are actively performing in an improvisational format. Del Close is one of the pioneers of improvisation, and was one of the founding members of the Chicago-based Second City. Published by Meriwether Publishing of Colorado Springs, Co lorado. ISBN 1-56608-003-7.

Interactive Actingby Jeff Wirth – An excellent primer for both interactive (audience participatory) theatre and improvisational theatre in general. Writte n in clear, simple language. Published by Fall Creek Press, Fall Creek, Oregon. ISBN 0-9632374-9-7.

Improvisation in Dramaby Anthony Frost and Ralph Yarrow – Tremendous book giving an overview of improvisation from ancient times to now. Contains a great comparison between Johnstone and Spolin and the “New York School” vs the “Chicago School”. Published by St. Martins Press, 1989, ISBN 0-312-04746-0.

Improv Comedyby Andy Goldberg – Good treatment of the elements of improvisation. One of the few books that actually discusses the practicalities of assemb ling a troupe, structuring a show, getting suggestions from an audience, lighting and music. Also presents a good list of workshop games and exercises. Andy Goldbeg is a director and performer with Off the Wall, a Los Angeles-based improv tro upe. Published by Samuel French, Hollywood. ISBN 0-780573-606083.

Comedy Improvisationby Delton T. Horn – Solid discussion of the basic principles of improv; also has a brief overview of forming a troupe and staging a sh ow. Published by Meriwether Publishing, Colorado Springs, Colorado. ISBN 0-916260-69-0.

How To Be Really Funnyby Mark Stolzenberg – Despite the goofy title (and a cover that makes it look like it’s aimed at kids) this is a surprisingly good b ook with a fresh approach. Published by Sterling Publishing, New York. ISBN 0-8069-6887-7.

Improv Game Book IIby Lynda Belt – A followup to Improvisation Through Theatre Sports, its just a collection (albeit a good one) of performan ce games. Published by Thespis Productions, 2010-12th Ave SE, Puyallup, Washington. ISBN 0-9620799-6-O.

Improv! A Handbook for the Actorby Greg Atkins – As the title implies, this book is aimed at the actor who wishes to improve his or her improv skills for use in straight theatre. Published by Heinemann, Portsmouth, New Hampshire. ISBN 0-435-08627-8.

Commedia dell’Arte: An Actor’s Handbookby John Rudlin – Includes a short history of the Commedia form, a guide to playing each of the stock characters, an d possible applications for twentieth century theatre. Published by Routledge, London. ISBN 0415-047706.

Theatre of the Oppressedby Augusto Boal – The theory of Boal’s system of interactive, empowering form of theatre. Published by Theatre Communications Grou p, New York. ISBN 0-930452-49-6.

Games for Actors and Non-Actorsby Augusto Boal – The practical application (exercises, games, and structures) of Boal’s system. Published by Routledge, Lo ndon. ISBN 0-415-06155-5.

Playing BoalEdited by Mady Schutzman and Jan Cohen-Cruz – A collection of essays by practitioners of Boal’s techniques, exploring variations on and practi cal experiences with Theatre of the Oppressed. Published by Routledge, London. ISBN 0-415-08608-6.

House of Gamesby Chris Johnson. – Published by Routledge, NY, 1998. Frank Gallagher says: “Very good on process of creating groups and performances. He fo cuses on the leader’s role, which he calls facilitation. It appears his work is almost exclusively among marginalized segments of society. Nice mix of theory and application, the application is explained by the theory.”

Theater Games for the Classroomby Viola Spolin – Published by Northwestern University Press. ISBN 0-8101-4004-7.

Theatre Games for Young Performersby Maria C. Novelly – Published by Meriwether Publishing, Colorado Springs, Colorado. ISBN 0-916260-31-3.

Let’s Improviseby Milton E. Polsky – Published by Prentice-Hall. ISBN 0-13-532051-8.

Theatre Gamesby Clive Barker – Published by Methuen. ISBN 0-413-45380-4.

Improvisationby John Hodgson and Ernest Richards – Published by Grove Press, New York. ISBN 0-394-17099-7.

Gamester’s Handbook  by Donna Brandes and Howard Phillips – Good collection of workshop games. Published by Hutchison, London, UK. ISBN 0-09-1364213.

A Guide to Improvisationby Ronald James and Peter Williams – Fairly solid collection of games, oriented towards teaching theatre rather than performing. P ublished by Kemble Press, Oxon, UK. ISBN 0-906836-05-4.

Drama Startersby Graham Stoate – Another collection of games, mostly geared towards teaching drama to children. Published by Thomas Nelson and Sons, Surre y, UK. ISBN 0-17-444115-0.

Improvisation Through Theatre Sports  by Lynda Belt and Rebecca Stockley. – Very good collection of performance games. Published by Thespis Productions, 201 0-12th Ave SE, Puyallup, Washington. ISBN 0-9620799-1-X.

Whose Line is it Anyway?  by Dan Patterson and Mark Leveson – A fun little book based on the popular British TV series (seen on PBS in the States). Very lig ht reading, features many photos from the series along with descriptions of some of the most popular games (as well as hints about how how to play them). Published by Century, with Channel Four Productions, London, UK. ISBN 0-7126-3577-7.

The Improvised Play  by Paul Clements – A description of the work of Mike Leigh, who uses improvisational techniques to create scripted theatre. Published b y Methuen. ISBN 0-413-50440-9.

Don’t Be Prepared  by Keith Johnstone – Described as a Theatresports manual for teachers and improvisors, but it actually contains a lot of insight into the craft of improv. Also contains a list of various games and some of the theories behind them. Published by the Loose Moose Theatre Company (2003 McKnight Blvd. NE, Calgary, Alberta, T2E 6L2, Canada). ISBN 0-9698382-0-4.

SAK Comedy Theatre Lab Playbook  by SAK Comedy Theatre Lab – A great big collection of games, old and new, with short descriptions. Published by SAK Product ions, 45 E. Church, Orlando, Florida 32801, phone number (407) 648-0001.

Theatresports Down Under  — a guide for coaches and players by Lyn Pier se. Published by Improcorp Australia and ish group, distributed by ish group pty ld, 11 Power Ave, Alexandria 2015 NSW Australia phone +61 2 9699 1999, fax +61 2 9310 5744, ISBN 0-646-23861-2.

Improvising Real Life: Personal Story in Playback Theatre  by Jo Salas. – Presents the history, techniques, and principles of the interactive form, Playback Theatre, developed by Jonathan Fox, in which stories told by the audience are “played back” by improvisational performers. Includes chapters on ritual, use of music, and conducting. [Wirth] Published by Kendall/Hunt.

Scenarios of the Commedia dell’Arte  trans. & ed. by Henry F. Salerno – A collection of fifty complete plots from the commedia dell’arte, presented in s cenario form. This book can be used as a model for understanding scenario-driven, rather than script-driven, performances. [Wirth] Published by Limelight Editions.

Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding  by Artifical Intelligence – A full-scale script for an environmental interactive show. [Wirth] Published by Samuel French. Acting

Games-Improvisations and Exercises by Marsh Cassady – A textbook of theatre games and improvisations. [Halpern] Published by Meriwether, Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Improve With Improv!  by Brie Jones – A guide to improvisation and character development. [Halpern] Published by Meriwether, Colorado Springs, Colorado.

The Art of Memory  by Frances Amelia Yates.

Playing the Game  by Christine Poulter. – Publisher unknown.

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