Some hints on how to teach your team the improv skills they need to succeed in the Improv challenge and in Instant Challenges.

What’s Improv? (From

It could mean to:

  • Ad-Lib
  • Make it up on the spot
  • Create right off of the top of your head
  • Respond off-the-cuff
  • Say or do the first thing that comes to mind

Here’s what Mr.Webster’s states: To compose and perform without preparation; to make or do with whatever is at hand.

The current styles of Improvisation or Improv, are a type of theatre that evolved from techniques used in acting classes. At the time, acting teachers/directors were having a difficult time getting the actors to be spontaneous with their on-stage reactions. One such teacher, Viola Spolin, designed a series of techniques or “games” to facilitate the release of the actors’ spontaneity.

These games focused on:

  • Trusting others while on stage.
  • The sharing of idea’s.
  • Accepting and validating the actions, feelings and ideas of fellow actors

Soon these games evolved into a completely separate theatre discipline. Throughout the 50’s and 60’s improvisational theatre grew in popularity but it was an improv group from Canada called “Theatre Sports” who gave the art form its massive appeal through their unique approach of competitive performances. This particular form of improv migrated to America through a troupe called Comedy Sportz. With the access to improv and the related games ever increasing, many splinter improv troupes formed spreading the fun and excitement of improvisational comedy across the country.

Improv’s appeal is that noone knows what’s going to happen next – not the audience, not even the performers. The audience stands at the edge of the pool waiting to see if the actors will sink or swim

The Rules of Improv

Courtesy of “On Stage: Theater Games and Activities for Kids” by Lisa Bany-Winters (Chicago Review Press, $14.95)

1. The most important rule of improv is always to say “Yes.”

In an improv scene, when you are acting, always say no to him. If you partner says “Look at the elephant,” you might say “That’s not an elephant – it’s a rocket ship.”

Now play the same scene with your partner, but say yes this time. Working together in this way will make your scenes more active and much more interesting for your audience to watch. If you always remember to play the yes game, you’ll be a successful improv actor.

2. The second most important rule of improv is don’t ask questions.

There are two reasons you should not ask in improv.

First, you never have to ask a yes or no question because you are already playing the yes game. Asking the question just take s up time in your scene and is not active, so instead of saying, “DO you want to go swimming?” – instead say “Let’s go swimming.”

Second, asking questions puts a lot of pressure on your scene partner. For example, if you say, “What is that thing?” you force your partner to make up what it is. It’s better to say “Look at that lion.” and then your partner can talk about the lion to further the scene and move it along.

3. The third most important rule of improv is to stay in the present.

Don’t talk about things that have happened in the past (talk about what you did yesterday) or the future (talk about what you will do tomorrow). Instead of talking about going to the mall, go there. Instead of talking about something you used to do, so something now. Also remember to play the yes game and don’t ask questions. Most scenes that are in the present have more action and active scenes are more interesting than scenes where the characters stand around and only talk.

Easy Pantomime/Improvisation Practice Activities

With Pantomime: 

  1. Strive for consistency. Mimed objects should remain the same size.
  2. Use exaggerations! Gestures and emotions should make BIG impact.
  3. Keep it simple ? something your audience will immediately understand.
  4. Tell a story that has an initial situation with an arising conflict and ends with resolution.
  5. Be creative! Your story does not have to be totally realistic so have fun!

With Improvisation:

  1. Introduce your characters with energy! Give them personality and pizzazz!
  2. Use different voices, gestures and emotions to distinguish your characterizations.
  3. Listen to each other and build on each other’s ideas.
  4. Speak up so your audience can feel the energy.
  5. Relax and go with the flow. Creativity comes pouring out when you are having fun!

Improv ? Avoid the Pitfalls!

  1. Don’t comment on the scene or fall out of character. Never say, “well, this is boring” or “now what?”
  2. Don’t argue with the other actors or change the direction of the scene.
  3. Don’t use vulgar language or gestures. Swearing and obscene subject matter gets audience response because they are shocking NOT because they are creative!

Acting Styles

Here are some different acting styles that might be useful in improv scenes:

  • Soap opera
  • Shakespearean play
  • Science Fiction (outer space adventures)
  • Cartoon
  • Tragedy
  • Silent (pantomime or mime)
  • Opera
  • Talk show
  • Sitcom (family comedy)
  • Horror show
  • Kung Fu movie
  • Documentary (educational)
  • Spy novel
  • Music video
  • Courtroom drama
  • Foreign film
  • Police drama
  • Farce (broad comedy)
  • Practice acting out the following scenes ? Use either Pantomime or Improvisation:
  • For Individual team members:
  • Playing football, baseball, bowling.
  • Giving a cat a bath
  • Swimming in the ocean
  • Eating spaghetti
  • Changing a baby’s diaper
  • Sleeping in a cactus patch
  • Living the life of a superhero
  • For two or more team members:
  • A cow being milked
  • Playing ping?pong
  • Winning the lottery
  • Big dog meets pack of cats
  • Moving a piano down stairs
  • A millionth customer in a store
  • Getting past a perfume salesperson in a store
  • Act out these emotions:
  • Frustration
  • Impatience
  • Nervous
  • Too much coffee
  • Tired
  • Chilled
  • Nauseous
  • Fearful
  • Shy
  • Love
  • Hate

Still more on Improv….

See “Create Your Own Instant Challenges and Improvs“. You can print out this wonderful tool that will assist you in creating an infinite number of practice challenges and situations for your teams.

Pantomime Exercise

Have the team members pantomime eating or drinking various types of food:

  • a lollipop
  • a watermelon slice
  • spaghetti
  • milkshake
  • an apple
  • a banana
  • bowl of soup
  • a nut
  • chips and dip
  • a cup of hot coffee
  • corn on the cob stalk of celery
  • Other Pantomime Exercises:
  • Frog eating insects
  • Carrying a very heavy box Washing a car
  • Monkey eating a banana
  • Witch brewing up a potion
  • Painting a portrait
  • Leaf falling from a tree
  • Decorating a Christmas tree
  • Sailor steering a ship in a storm
  • Carving a jack-o-lantern
  • Arranging flowers in a vase
  • Winning an Olympic gold medal
  • Eating an ice cream cone on a hot day
  • Being “it” in a game of hide-and-seek
  • Squirrel gathering nuts
  • Building a snowman
  • Blowing bubblegum bubbles
  • Digging a hole a finding a treasure chest
  • Cat stalking a mouse
  • Climbing a tree
  • Tasting food for the king when it’s been poisoned
  • Eating at a restaurant and finding a celebrity at the next table
  • Bird flying south for the winter
  • Prospector panning for gold
  • Holding up a stagecoach
  • T-Rex chasing down its prey
  • Walking down a sidewalk and stepping into fresh cement
  • Hanging wallpaper
  • Bobbing for apples
  • Kid misbehaving when the teacher’s back is turned
  • Surfer wiping out on a big wave
  • Trying on a new suit or dress
  • Having a food fight
  • Packing a suitcase
  • Bungee jumping
  • Collecting treasure from the Titanic
  • Searching for Big Foot
  • Getting a manicure from Austin Powers
  • Catching snowflakes on your tongue
  • A bear waking from a winters nap
  • Barney jumping rope
  • Playing the World Cup
  • Being chased by a skunk
  • Following a rainbow
  • A bear looking for honey
  • A witch flying on her broom
  • Signing the Declaration of Independence
  • Playing mud football
  • Attending volleyball camp
  • A dog chasing a cat
  • Baking Christmas cookies
  • Dyeing Easter Eggs
  • A girl scout selling cookies
  • G.I. Joe rescuing Barbie
  • Sewing the American Flag
  • Visiting the Grand Canyon
  • Watching a scary movie
  • Meeting Dorothy on the Yellow Brick Road
  • Babysitting Dennis the Menace
  • Eating a lemon
  • Playing basketball against Michael Jordan
  • Playing soccer against Mia Hamm
  • Climbing Mount Everest
  • A penguin looking for Santa
  • Winning the lottery
  • A caterpillar changing into a butterfly
  • Riding a bull
  • Getting a shot at the doctor’s office
  • A bird eating a fish
  • A turkey the day before Thanksgiving
  • Playing checkers with Barney
  • Looking for your shoes
  • Walking a tightrope at the circus
  • Playing volleyball against the Backstreet Boys
  • Trying out for the Spice Girls
  • Styling Ricky Martin’s hair
  • Baking a cake
  • Trying on a bathing suit
  • Feeding a baby his carrots
  • Working at the drive through at MacDonald’s
  • Dancing in a ballet recital
  • Leaving the hair salon with a REALLY bad haircut
  • Climbing a mountain
  • Shooting an apple off someone’s head with an arrow.
  • Shopping in a toy store
  • Performing in the musical Sound of Music
  • Setting all the clocks in a clock shop
  • Climbing the Eiffel Tower
  • Having dinner with Chelsea Clinton
  • Wrapping a present
  • Swimming with sharks
  • Helping Wile E Coyote beat the Road Runner
  • Playing with dolphins
  • Tweety escaping Sylvester
  • Playing Tetris against Brittany Spears
  • Eating spaghetti and meatballs
  • Helping the tooth fairy gather teeth
  • Interviewing for a job on Dawson Creek
  • Building an igloo
  • Beating Tiger Woods in golf
  • Exploring your Grandmother’s attic
  • Playing chess with Abraham Lincoln
  • Doing a commercial for a brand new toothpaste
  • Making dinner for George Washington
  • Attending a comedy club
  • A deer hiding from a hunter
  • Running the last mile of a marathon
  • Taking a test you didn’t study for
  • Riding on an elephant in Africa
  • A tiger at the circus
  • Trying to light a campfire
  • Eating jelly donuts
  • Hunting for Easter Eggs
  • Modeling for the cover of a magazine
  • Flying a kite
  • Decorating a wedding cake
  • Learning how to ride a bike
  • Celebrating New Year’s Eve with the Barney
  • Dancing with Cinderella at the Ball
  • Cutting an onion
  • Reading a very boring book
  • Picking bananas with a monkey
  • Making a banana split
  • Taking the 101 Dalmatians for a walk
  • Shopping with the Teletubbie, Dipsy

Most of these will be easy to get but the idea here is to have them practice humorous elaboration. If you have to pantomime the banana, make a big to-do about selecting just the right one from the bunch on the tree, peeling it and discovering it has a bad spot, starting over with a new one and – finally – eating it … then as you start to leave the stage and everyone thinks you’re done, you slip on the imaginary banana peel you threw on the floor!

IMPROV Tips – Stretching the Performance

Question: I have a group of 3rd, 4th and 5th graders who are doing the Dynamic Improv challenge. They are having a very difficult time stretching their presentations to 6 minutes. In fact, we’re lucky to get about 1-1/2. Any suggestions?


  1. Have them do pantomimes. Remind them after they run through one, for example, that if one is pantomiming a surfer, they would first get the board, wax it, walk it over, paddle and then get up and surf. Point out that it is the set up that makes the finish satisfying. Somewhere on this list was a page of possible group and single pantomimes.
  2. Have them sit in a circle. Give them a topic like “a day at the beach.” Point a stick at one person and let them tell a few sentences; then point to another. Again, talk to them afterward about not rushing through the stories; instead, they should describe the scene and the characters.
  3. We do short improvs. We have the kids make cards of people (either famous or a profession), verbs and places. Then they draw them randomly, say, Mia Hamm golfing at the bakery. Give them two minutes to plan and two to perform. This is great training both for putting unrelated notions together and for drawing out a skit a little.
  4. I also ask them after each skit that runs short what they might have added. You might also have them talk for another five minutes after they’ve done their 1 1/2 minute skit about how they could expand and then have them do the skit a second time. If one really doesn’t work out they talk about what went wrong and try it again. I think that repetition is a good way of making what they’ve learned stick. Also, they can leave feeling successful.
  5. You might try having them use story boards as were discussed previously on the list. A few sheets of paper are allowed in the Tool Box for competition. They can list the topics given on each board and document the details that they know they want to include. By breaking it down this way, it may help them to remember more. They may even want to assign a length of time to each board. The more research details they have, the better there presentation will be. By building their plot around their topics, they can also ensure more points, a more polished story, and hopefully enough information to fill up 6 minutes.
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