Improvisation -- character-building on the spot

By Matt Riche
I. J. Samson Junior High
St. John's, Newfoundland

Imagine you, and five others in the middle of a floor, surrounded by a huge crowd with their smiling gazes fixed on you. You're acting, but you aren't following any script, and you're sitting on your friend who is pretending to be a chair. Feel weird? Feel wacky? You should be!

Welcome to the world of Improv!

It's nothing more than being told who and where you are, and then having to act accordingly. Yet, it takes so much more than just memorizing some lines, and it is much more than just running amuck. It's about fast-thinking, confidence and teamwork. Yes, it takes a lot, but it is a rewarding experience.

"Improv" comes from the word "improvisation", which basically means making something out of what you have on the spot. In this case, a short piece of live acting is put together on the spot.

In an Improv game, a ref selects suggestions from the audience and gives them to the team. The team of six Improvers are given these suggestions to incorporate in the scene. The point of this is to prove that the scene is made up right there and then.

The team will then "huddle" for fifteen seconds. In that time, the team's captain will assign them with the character traits suggested to them by the ref, and explain the basic idea of how the scene will unfold. No time for any more details - it's now up to the team to develop the dialogue and appropriate actions. Other members of the team will 'physicalize' an environment by miming extra people, furniture, terrain, or even animals.

Improv comes in many forms. There are four types of official games (the ones played in the competitions), and a countless number of unofficial games and warm-up exercises.

In an official Improv competition, multiple teams perform four scenes each. The teams are awarded points for good acting, putting together a flowing scene, and physicalization. The games played in an official competition are called the character event, the theme event, the issues event, and the style event.

The character event is entertaining to watch. In this event, the team is given two or three character traits selected by the referee (smart, stupid, evil, optimistic etc. as well as an additional element that will affect the scene ("the building is on fire...", "everything is made from cheese..."...). After taking into account the suggested details, the team could come up with a scene about stupid and evil people interacting in a world of cheese.

The style event is fun to act. The team chooses a movie, TV series, a play, or anything to make a scene around. The team decides beforehand what kind of suggestions they need make the scene work. Then they ask the referee to take them from the audience. It can be any number of character traits or elements that will be included in their vaguely-structured scene. Then, they proceed to act out a scene in the style of what they've chosen, making sure to mimic the style of the movie or show that they picked before hand.

The issues event is often a poignant piece of acting. Here, the team is given a situation involving people and a problem. Not only does the team have to act out the problem, but they also have to come up with a realistic solution to the problem. The situations involve common problems that might affect teenagers, or emotional subjects like death. In this event, the scoring is based mainly on the acting in the scene and the scene's conclusion.

The theme event is my personal favourite. The team will be given only one suggestion in the form of a theme such as trouble, dreams, time, and so forth. A team can then choose between two approaches. They could act out a scene in which the theme pops up repeatedly (for example, in a time theme, somebody would ask for the time or say a phrase like "It's time for..." ); or do it "Herald" style. In the Herald scenario , the team remains in a huddle with smaller groups coming out and acting short scenes. Each group is oriented around the theme. If the theme was "time", they might do a scene where somebody is writing a test, and then say "Time's up!"; followed by a scene in which somebody is making soup, and says "I'll add some thyme..." - a play on words can earn the team extra points.

Improv is a great way to meet people, and an excellent way to build character. Why not try it yourself? Feeling wacky yet? You will be!


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