Let’s Improv(e)

by | Nov 3, 2020 | Actors, Creativity | 0 comments

The Second City is known for raising some of the most fascinating and innovative comedy since it opened its doors more than 50 years ago in Chicago. It was the birth of an institution that would serve as thee leading source of cutting edge comic artistry.

For those who haven’t heard of the company The Second City is really all about improve which to them is an art form in itself. The actors are also the writers; they create their content in concert with their fellow ensemble members and sometimes even in an ongoing dialogue with their audience. 

They also abide by the old saying ‘it’s funny because it’s true’ thus compelling them to draw from their personal experiences and to share true feelings and insights. 

Improvisation became a necessity which lead work that was funny, honest, and, because it dealt often in the most serious of subject matter, revolutionary. 

Over decades of it’s establishment The Second City continued to challenge convention while further developing teaching methods, tools, and techniques that would attract many of the worlds brightest future comedians including Billy Murray, John Belushi, Steve Carell and Tina Fey. 

It came to a point were studying improve at Second City was about filling the room with truth and trust rather than just with loudness and noise. It eventually lead to the realisation that professional success often rests on the same pillars that form the foundation of great comedy improve: Creativity, Communication, and Collaboration – the three C’s. 

At The Second City they don’t teach you how to be funny. Rather, you learn to tap into the part of your brain that so often censors the truth for fear of being judged. When people no longer feel limited to saying what is right or polite – when they are given freedom to express themselves in public, without inhibitions or fear – that’s when the funny happens. In another way, comedy provides us a safe place to speak and hear the truth. 

What improvisation does is to take the focus off ourselves and allow us to dial down our personal judgement. When we’re concentrating hard and fully present in the moment, there’s no room for self-consciousness or shaky nerves. All your energy goes into the task at hand. 

Here then are some elements of improv that every actor who wants to embrace their craft and not necessarily just for comedy should be aspiring to:

Yes, And…

In the context of improvisation for the stage, where there’s no script to guide the direction of a scene, Yes, And goes like this: One actor offers an idea onstage and other actors affirm and build onto that idea with something of their own. For example, someone might say ‘Wow, I’ve never seen so many stars in the sky.’ And another actor might add, ‘I know. Things look so different up here on the moon.’ 

If the second actor negates the first actor’s offering with something like, ‘I can’t see a single star… it’s broad daylight,’ the scene would have stopped in its tracks and left the first actor to scramble to find a response that could bring the scene back to speed in a way that an audience would find interesting. 

It’s really about affirming and building on ideas or exploring and heightening a scene so the central idea of accepting what’s offered and adding to it (regardless of what you may think of it) is absolutely foundational to everything that is done at Second City. 

This is one way of how Wayne’s World came into existence which was originally created by Mike Myers on stage. 

Great improvisors know how to roll with miscues and goof ups. You really have to be a lemonade maker when handed a lemon. Mistakes can cause stress in the moment, but they also provide inspiration to new thinking and new possibilities if you’re coming from a Yes, And mind set. So make accidents work. 


The word team implies competition, which inherently suggests some external foe that the group is working against. Ensemble carries no such baggage: it is a thing unto itself, an entity that is only its true self when its members are performing as one. 

Stars are really born out of ensembles – without ever sacrificing the greater needs of the whole group. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, ‘The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still maintain the ability to function.’ Effective individuals inside an ensemble constantly play with this dynamic. On the one hand, they demand that their ideas – no matter how brilliant – can be acted on only when embraced by others. Some of their attributes include the ability to exist and operate in the moment; master the roles of give and take; and surrender the need always to be right. 

But bear in mind that in any group, you are susceptible to each individual’s mood and baggage, emotional or otherwise. You need to build and maintain consensus, you need to be constantly aware of how the group dynamic is affecting the individuals in the group, and you must be aware of how the individuals affect the group. People are complicated, so ensembles are too. 

Ensembles must constantly shift in reaction to changing group dynamics. As an improviser you’re supposed to be writing your own script – as well as the script for others. Everyone has to be flexible for ensembles to work. 

One of the things Second City wants their actors to focus on is how to stay in the moment. When you are in dialogue with your coworkers, stay present in the discussion at hand and don’t dwell on previous mistakes or even previous successes. In short, if you are in a space where you are expected to bring your creative voice, it is vital that you stay in the moment. All your energies must be concentrated on the here and now so that you are here and now is the best it can be and your fellow improvisers get to work with the best material you have to offer. 

One of the exercise they do that helps you stay in the present is Mirror. You simply have the members of the group split up into pairs and face each other. Assign one person the job of initiating small movements with their face and body while the other person’s job is to mirror their every action, gesture, or expression. Then have the pair reverse roles. Finally, see if they can continue to mirror each other when no one is assigned to lead. 

Just as athletes stretch their limbs before they race, individuals who want to improve their emotional intelligence need to warm up those muscles as well. The Mirror exercise is a basic building block to being in an ensemble. The goal isn’t to be interesting or funny but to achieve and sustain focus. 

In most shows you see whether performed on stage or on screen there are, invariably, Givers and Takers, but the individuals in the ensemble need to do both in order to build with collective vigour. 

One of The Second City’s directors and teachers says ‘You’re only as good as your weakest member. At The Second City, your ensemble is only as good as its ability to compensate for its weakest member.’ The difference is that the onus for the weakness is put back on the ensemble rather than the individual. 

For any scene to work, you need a balance of Givers and Takers. Sometimes people just don’t like to share the spotlight, so they interrupt or otherwise block the Giver’s attempts to take focus. 

Your challenge to the group is to do both – give focus, then take focus, then give it back. Ideally, the actors become adept at giving and taking focus in equal measure or it will create chaos on stage. Either result is a lesson. When it works seamlessly and ensemble members share focus, with some giving and some taking, they find a way to make order out of the exchange. When it doesn’t work, everyone is confused and nothing gets accomplished. 

In the course of improvising with an ensemble, you will quickly learn that nothing works if you cling to your idea of what’s right, true, or funny. Improvisation demands that you surrender to the greater needs of the ensemble. It’s all about recognising that you are only a part of a greater whole and that in letting go and ceding control you open yourself up to possibilities you may never have imagined. 

Practicing improv strengthens the muscles that allow us to stay in the moment, give and take, and sacrifice that part of us that thinks being right actually matters. In turn, those muscles allow us to become better improvisors and innovators. 

Using Failure 

The key to staying relevant in the world is constantly challenging and reinventing yourself. 

No matter what you do for a living, you’re going to fail at some point. The thing is, if you’re good at what you do, you’re going to fail, because it means you’re out there taking risks. Fear of failure drains companies of their innovative lifeblood. If you accept failure as a natural part of the creative process you will see tremendous increase in productivity and innovation. 

The idea is to first create low risk opportunities for you to try stuff out, in other words, fail. Risk taking isn’t everyone’s favourite activity but if you want to pursue new and different ideas then you need to know that it isn’t going to be as bad as you think it is every time you take a shot and miss. Lower the stakes a bit and see what happens. Shifting your mind-set to accommodate failure in the creative process is essential to making it a positive part of your workflow instead of a barrier. 

In improve you are creating something from nothing, in the moment so you get to present yourself and your creation in front of an audience and therefore letting people watch you evolve, eventually, into something brilliant, unexpected and funny. Make no mistake though – it can also be extremely messy. 

You get to fiddle with characters, dialogue, the order of scenes and sometimes even the score. You will do this with full knowledge that your tinkering may cause your preview audience short term pain in order to achieve longer term gain. 

The moment you lose the ability to take risks, the confidence to take risks is the start of artistic death. The best improvisors don’t feel compelled to bring wholly formed, finished ideas into an improvised scene. They know that the ensemble, working together, will ultimately create the full scene, so an individual’s responsibility is only to bring the next idea or piece of info that can advance the scene. Because of this, no one actor carries the burden of creation, and because improvised scenes are built one brick at a time, no single idea is critical, and the scene can grow into something great even if individual contribution along the way aren’t spot on or interesting. 

Listening is a muscle 

We have a listening problem in our world. Why? Because we don’t practice. Because we aren’t taught. We’ve never been given the tools to develop our listening skills. 

Great listening is at the core of great improvisation. In order to build scenes onstage without a script to guide the action, actors need to affirm and build on each other’s ideas – to use Yes, And – to create a cool, funny, smart scene. But before you can affirm and build on ideas, you must hear them in the first place. You must listen. 

An improv actor should rephrase what the speaker has said in order to assure that he or she understands the speaker’s full intent. In improv, you must understand that every word your scene partners utter is a gift, a lifeline, because it offers the rest of the ensemble something to build on, something from which they can make a scene funny and watchable. When the pressure is on fear sometimes overrides the listening skills and actors can resort to all the fear based responses such as yelling and questioning. 

In improv you need to talk in terms of gifts and offerings. When other actors say something that’s a gift to you and the scene, and if everyone is listening fully, building on what’s being offered, great scenes are possible. 

Deep, practiced listening is really a form of meditation. It is a skill that enables you to turn off the judgement part of your brain and allows you to interact with individuals and groups in a seamless way. Great listening is the difference between flopping in front of an audience and creating art. 

When you’re improvising onstage, you’re not just listening to scene partners, you’re listening to audience suggestions. And sometimes you’re listening to mistakes, so that you can abide by yet another improv adage, ‘make mistakes work for you.’ 

It is absolutely vital for improvisers to key in on what’s really being said in addition to what is being said. So much comedy springs from that source. Beyond comedic purposes, empathetic listening gives you a far clearer path to truth. When you understand how someone is feeling in addition to what they are saying, you receive multiple insights into their whole psyche. 

Ultimately, improvisation is about making discoveries. You walk onto the stage or into a room with absolutely nothing and, by the time you leave, you will have created something. It’s your job really to be a facilitator to others, to help them recognise their best work. The world is shifting, accelerating and demanding more of us. Keeping up can be a challenge. Regardless, there’s no need to be afraid – improvisation is the prefect tool kit for navigating the unknown. 

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