Improvisational Theatre (also known as improv or impro) is a form of theatre in which the actors perform spontaneously, without a script. Modern improvisation began in the classroom with the theatre games of Viola Spolin in the 1950s, then evolved quickly to become an independent artform worthy of presentation before a paying audience.
In all forms of improvisation, the actors invent/discover the dialogue and action as they perform. The unpredictable nature of such a performance lends itself naturally to comedy, which might go somewhat towards explaining why the overwhelming majority of improvisational theatre is comedic, not dramatic. Dramatic improv is used by many companies and artists as a means of generating text and content for later performance. This is sometimes referred to as "organic" theatre, and is especially favored by creators of political theatre, experimental theatre, and practitioners of drama therapy. Improvisation is often found used in actor training as well. Modern improvisational comedy, as it is practiced in the West, falls generally into two categories: shortform and longform.
Improvisational theatre allows an active relationship with the audience often absent from scripted theatre. Frequently improv groups will solicit suggestions from the audience as a source of inspiration, a way of getting the audience excited and involved, and as a means of proving that the performance is not scripted, a charge often aimed at the masters of the art, whose performances seem so effortless and detailed that those new to improv are convinced it must have been planned. Much of this success can be attributed to the level of cooperation and agreement these improvisers bring to the stage.
In order for an improvised scene to be successful, the actors involved must work together responsively to define the parameters and action of the scene. With each spoken word or action in the scene, an actor makes an offer, meaning that he or she defines some element of the reality of the scene. This might include giving another character a name, identifying a relationship, location, or using mime to define the physical environment. These activities are also known as endowment. It is the responsibility of the other actors to accept the offers that their fellow performers make; to not do so is known as blocking, which usually prevents the scene from developing. Some performers may deliberately block (or otherwise break out of character) for comedic effect -- this is known as gagging -- but this generally prevents the scene from advancing and is frowned upon by many improvisers. Accepting an offer is usually accompanied by adding a new offer, often building on the earlier one; this is a process improvisers refer to as "Yes, And..." and is considered the cornerstone of improvisational technique. For example, an improv scene might begin with these lines.
Adam: I'm proud of all the work you've done here on the farm, Junior.
Bill: Yes, and I'm proud of you for giving up the moonshine, Pa.
The unscripted nature of improv also implies no predetermined knowledge about the props that might be useful in a scene. Improv companies may have at their disposal some number of readily accessible props that can be called upon at a moment's notice, but many improvisers eschew props in favor of the infinite possibilities available through mime. As with all improv offers, actors are encouraged to respect the validity and continuity of the imaginary environment defined by themselves and their fellow performers; this means, for example, taking care not to walk through the table or "miraculously" survive multiple bullet wounds from another improviser's gun.
Because improv actors may be required to play a variety of roles without preparation, they need to be able to construct characters quickly with physicality, gestures, accents, voice changes, or other techniques as demanded by the situation. The actor may be called upon to play a character of a different age or sex. Character motivations are an important part of successful improv scenes, and improv actors must therefore attempt to act according to the objectives that they believe their character seeks.
Many improvisational actors also work as scripted actors, and "improv" techniques are often taught in standard acting classes. The basic skills of listening, clarity, confidence, and performing without thinking are considered important skills for actors to develop.
The Improv Community
Many theatre troupes are devoted to staging improvisational performances and growing the improv community through their training centres. One of the most widespread is the international organization Theatresports, which was founded by Keith Johnstone, an English director who wrote what many consider to be the seminal work on improvisational acting, Impro. Other prominent improv theatres, each well-known in the improv community for its particular style, include:
- The Second City  (http://www.secondcity.com/) (Chicago)
- ImprovOlympic  (http://www.improvolympic.com/) (Chicago)
- The Playground  (http://www.the-playground.com) (Chicago)
- The Annoyance Theatre  (http://www.annoyanceproductions.com) (Chicago)
- The Groundlings  (http://www.groundlings.com/start.htm) (Los Angeles)
- The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre  (http://www.ucbtheatre.com) (New York)
- The People's Improv Theater  (http://www.thepit-nyc.com) (New York)
- Gotham City Improv  (http://www.gothamcityimprov.com) (New York)
- Dirty South Improv (Chapel Hill)
- The Brave New Workshop  (http://www.bravenewworkshop.com) (Minneapolis)
- ImprovBoston  (http://www.improvboston.com) (Boston)
- Bang Studio  (http://www.bangstudio.com) (Los Angeles)
- ComedySportz  (http://www.comedysportz.com) (many cities in the US and Europe)
- Memphis Improvisational Theatre  (http://www.memphisimprov.com) (Memphis)
- Unexpected Productions  (http://unexpectedproductions.org/) (Seattle)
- BATS Improv  (http://www.improv.org/) (San Francisco)
- The San Francisco Improv Co-Operative  (http://www.sfimprovcooperative.com/) (San Francisco)
- Oui Be Negroes  (http://www.ouibenegroes.com/) (Chicago/San Francisco)
- True Fiction Magazine  (http://www.truefictionmagazine.com/) (San Francisco)
- The Spontaneity Shop  (http://www.the-spontaneity-shop.com/) (London)
- Cabaret Dada  (http://www.cabaretdada.com/) (Cleveland)
- CRUMBS  (http://www.CRUMBS.ca/) (Winnipeg,Canada)
- Boom Chicago  (http://www.boomchicago.nl/) (Amsterdam)
Some key figures in the development of improvisational theatre are Viola Spolin and her son Paul Sills, founder of Chicago's famed Second City troupe and inventor of Story Theater, and Del Close, founder of ImprovOlympic (along with Charna Halpern) and creator of the longform improv known as The Harold.
Keith Johnstone authored Impro and Impro for Storytellers and developed the international formats Theatresports, Micetro Impro, Gorilla Theatre and the Life Game.
Dick Chudnow founded ComedySportz dealing specifically with competitive shortform improvisational theatre.
- How to Be a Better Improviser (http://www.dangoldstein.com/howtoimprovise.html), an excellent primer on some of the basic precepts ("ground rules") of improv, by improviser and teacher Dan Goldstein.
- The Improv Wiki (http://greenlightwiki.com/improv) discusses techniques for performing and learning improv.
- Improvland (http://improvland.com) webpage about improvisational theatre, with articles, resources, message boards and an international links section to the groups around the world
- YesAnd.com (http://www.yesand.com) features improv news, resources and message boards.
- The Improv Resource Center (http://www.improvresourcecenter.com) is a community site for dedicated improvisers in Chicago, New York and other parts of the United States.