Improv 101 — What Are You Doing?

What Are You Doing? is one of the more simple warm-up games for improvisers and, really, just actors in general. Unlike many warm-up games, however, this can be modified for a performance. It is both a group game and a large group game, but really this game is anything you want it to be. For my purposes, I’ll explain how it would work for a performance first, and then propose modifications for other needs.

Performing What Are You Doing is a high energy hoop game that would generally require at least six people, but works better the more people you add. Generally in a performance the troupe won’t have more than ten members present if you even have that many, but there’s no maximum number of improvisers. You have them get into two lines representing their respective teams, and the goal will be to eliminate the other team. From the audience, you get a suggestion of some initials. It can be any pair of letters, but that’s not the important thing. (You can also get a suggestion of a theme for the game, such as ‘holidays’, or ‘beach fun’ or things like that, but that’s totally up to you.)

The game begins when one person starts pantomiming (it doesn’t really matter what, but often we stick with brushing one’s teeth). The person from the front of the other line will jump on stage and ask “What are you doing?”, to which the person pantomiming will respond with something that is completely not what they are doing, using the initials as inspiration for the action they are describing. “Wrestling koalas!” for your initials of ‘WK’. The other improviser will then begin pantomiming a wrestling match with some koalas. At this point, tooth brusher will stop pantomiming and ask “What are you doing?”, and this goes on until one of them messes up, stalls, or says something too similar that was stated previously, up to the ref’s discretion. The game continues with improvisers interacting one-by-one until one team is entirely eliminated.

For more seasoned improvisers, I ask them to make every sentence a distinct pantomime. How does pantomiming “wrestling koalas” differ from “wrestling rabid koalas”, or “wrestling pygmy pandas”? You can, of course, incorporate speech into the pantomime, but really, these three actions should be distinguishable from one another.

In a performance, I like to challenge my improvisers by steadily increasing the number of letters I force them to use in the game. Suddenly, it’s not just “wrestling koalas”, it’s “wrestling koalas sleepily” or “wrestling koalas sleepily never”. You’l notice that the more letters you add to the game, the less these actions make sense. People find that it’s often easier to add words to the end of the action rather than just add adjectives in the middle, but hey, if the right letters are used, it doesn’t matter all that much. As a side note, this game should be played very quickly in a performance. Any stalling at all (such as “I am wrestling koalas!” should be met with elimination.

As for non-performance applications for this game, it’s pretty simple. The easiest thing to do is remove the elimination aspect of it and have everyone be in one big line. As soon as you mess up, you go to the back of the line and keep playing. Also, using a general theme works better than initials with larger groups, as there are more readily accessible actions associated with “beach fun” than there are with the letters “WK”. The main thing to remember here, though, is that everybody should be having fun, which means it needs to go quickly. It doesn’t matter if people are bad. It’s meant to inspire quick thinking and help with pantomime practice, but beyond that it gets the heart going, which is (almost) never a bad thing.


Improv 101 — Zip Zap Zop

Just like Bippity Bippity Bop, this game doesn’t involve much actual improv. It’s a good warm-up, and it can build energy if you play it right (though it takes the effort of the whole cast in order to use it in such a way). It’s really simple and quick, but there are tons of variations to this game. It’s pretty adaptable! This game can work with any number of people, but I’d say it works best with a group of between six to thirty. Any more than that and you run the risk of getting people who are “playing” but never actually participate.

This game is essentially a game of imaginary hot potato. Everybody stands in a circle, and one person claps (to draw attention) and points to any other person, making eye contact and saying “Zip!” The person they point to claps and points (the same action), pointing to a different person, and says “Zap!” The last person repeats this action, saying “Zop!” At that point, you circle back around to “Zip”. The idea is to get into a rhythm of zip, zap, and zop as quickly as possible. This builds energy because it’s supposed to go as fast as you can, and it also promotes a nice group mentality, since you have to make eye contact (and trust me, you have to make eye contact or people won’t know who you’re pointing to).

Baseline, that’s it. That’s the whole game. But this is a great game because since it’s so simple, it’s easy to build upon. The more familiar the actors get with this game, the harder you can make it. For one, you can stop clapping and pass the zips and zaps purely via eye contact. This is far more difficult because you no longer have moment to draw the eye’s attention. (It’s also obviously more quiet because now nobody’s clapping.)

Again, you can make it more difficult by passing around two (or even three) at once! This, as you can probably imagine, is super tough because now you can’t just be following the movement. You have to watch for two different things at once, and be prepared if one (or both) land on you. If you practice this, I recommend looking straight ahead so you can use your peripheral vision to see if anyone points at you. You drop the eye contact, sure, but its the only way to ensure you are ready to pick it up. If two fall on you on the same beat, best case scenario you point at two different people to make sure there are still two going around. If you try this method, establish a beat that the actors can work with. You want both people to always be saying “zip” (or whatever the relevant word may be) simultaneously and so on so it doesn’t get confusing. Make sure the beat isn’t too fast so everyone can use it without getting flustered!

Lastly, if you intend to be playing this game for a while, you can add penalties for messing up. You can define what constitutes as “messing up” on your own, but for my troupe its defined as whatever stops the flow of the game. Sometimes we can’t pin the blame on one person so we throw it on two or three. In any case, whenever somebody messes up with this rule, they must say new “words”, going down the alphabet every time they mess up and skipping vowels. If you’re on “zip, zap, and zop” and you mess up, now you say bip, bap, or bop instead. If somebody calls “zip” on you, you now point to somebody and call “bap”. If you mess up again, now you say cip, cap, or cop, and so on. It can get pretty difficult when you’ve been playing for a while and it sounds like “Dip! Bap! Hop! Tip! Gap! Fop!” Especially when it can be a sort of funny-embarrassing for that poor soul that is already on the letter T.

Again, there’s actually virtually zero improv in this game. It’s just a fun game you can play with a group of friends. Super simple, and the variations are only for when you get too good for upping the tempo to mean anything anymore. If nothing else, this is a game everyone can have fun with.

Improv 101 — Bippity Bippity Bop

Bippity Bippity Bop isn’t really all that much of an “improv” game. There isn’t much improv (until you’ve played it too much), but it is amazing at both building energy and forcing actors to be more comfortable with each other. It’s quick, and works best with at least six people, but it can still work (and be fun!) with upwards of forty people!

Here is the gist: a large group of people stand in a circle (comfortably shoulder to shoulder works best), with one person in the middle. This person is “it”, and their goal is to get somebody to mess up, and make them “it”, meaning they would switch places. The person that is it has a few tools to work with, but as I said, this is an energy building game. The only consistent way to get somebody to mess up is to be quick enough to confuse them or catch them unawares. This person goes about the circle as quickly as possible and tossing words out to people, trying to get them to slip up. Henceforth, the person in the middle will be called the “It”.

There are several words (or phrases) that the It can say, falling into two distinct categories: response or actions. Response words require the person to respond a certain command. The It can say “Bippity bippity bop”, in which case the person they make eye contact must say “Bop” before the It. This means that the It must say the entire phrase quickly (while articulating each syllable), because obviously “Bop” can be said nigh instantaneously. Conversely, the It can say just “Bop”. In this instance, the person it is said to must say and do nothing. If they mess up and accidentally respond with “Bop” (or anything else) they become It. (Another response command is “Hippity Hippity Hop”, which requires the person to respond by hopping before the It says “Hop”. My group doesn’t use this phrase because it gets used too often and it is too easy to catch people with it.)

Action words are used more often. This requires not only the person to do something in response to the phrase, but it also requires the two people adjacent to them in the circle to also do something. Most often, we use the words “Elephant”, “Kamikaze”, and “Charlie’s Angels”. When the It says one of these, they say it and count to ten as quickly as possible. If those three people don’t complete a picture of what that phrase is, they are out. (Most often it’s one person that messes up the most). For “Elephant”, the primary target extends an arm out and puts the other arm around their bicep. This makes the trunk. The two peripheral people make big ears by pantomiming a huge open space with their arms (in the shape of ears). For “Kamikaze”, the primary target uses their hands to pantomime wearing goggles to be the pilot and the adjacent people extend both arm outwards to form the wings of the plane.
For “Charlie’s Angels”, the three people make the classic gun pose of the three girls.  The people make guns with their hands and stand in formation, one facing forward, and the other two facing in the direction of their respective sides.

Again, the only way this game will work is if there is energy. It is intended to keep people on their feet, and is a great way to warm up for a series of real improv games. As the cast learns this game and gets better and better about how they respond to what the It says, you can make it harder for everyone by throwing in the wild card of allowing the It to say whatever they want before counting to ten. If they say “Eiffel Tower”, the target and two adjacent people have to make a picture that makes sense with that phrase. There is no limit to the creativity when you throw this rule in. Just remember that if you do this, allow people to justify the pose that they are in. If their response makes sense, say “I’m a tourist taking pictures of the Eiffel Tower!”, perhaps what they were pantomiming is enough to justify the scene. It’s up to the actors’ interpretation.

Improv 101 — Yes, And…


Another important warm-up game for aspiring improvisers to learn is called Yes, And… These are typically short little snapshots of scenes in which both people must always start any line with “Yes, and…”. The idea is that on stage, you are working with the other cast members, not against them, so Yes, And… is a game that allows you to build off of the other’s statements without asking questions or denying. (You can’t really say “Yes, and why?” or “Yes, and… no”. It simply doesn’t make sense in the context of a scene.)

The game usually lasts about thirty seconds. One improviser starts on stage (starting off every scene game as though you’re playing ABA), and the other comes on and says something like “Hey, Jimmy, I need those reports you filed from last night.” (The first line of the scene doesn’t have to begin with “Yes, and”.) Person B says “Yes, and I was up all night doing it! I hate this job.” This could move Person A to say “Yes, and I think we should both quit right now,” and so on.

The key thing here is to make a comprehensive scene that not only builds upon what the other person said before, but also moves the scene forward. The example above is obviously progressing a scene, first we have two coworkers, they don’t like their job, so they quit. Then perhaps they go on to plan moving to a beach front house together. Who knows? Moving a scene forward is the goal improvisers are striving towards with this game. It’s pretty easy to say, “Hey, look my new car is awesome!”

“Yes, and it’s got seven hundred horsepower!”

“Yes, and the seats are really comfortable!”

“Yes, and red is my favorite color!”

This is not moving the scene forward. It is simply painting a picture and then adding detail after detail, some of them being sort of obvious and unnecessary. This is what an improviser should stray away from, because it’s boring and there’s only so much to talk about.

For beginning actors, though, the main thing to focus on is avoiding asking questions and denying. It’s easy to pretend that “Yes, and” is simply the beginning to every sentence and just use it because you have to. Consider this example: “Hey, Jimmy, I need those reports you filed from last night.”

“Yes, and I didn’t file them.”

You can see how it mostly makes sense, but that’s not really how people talk. On one hand, Person A already established that you filed them, meaning that the second line is denial. But saying “Yes, and I didn’t…” is not really a sentence you would ever hear somebody say in real life (of course, there will be exceptions). So, this being the case, it’s more important to make the conversation of repeated “Yes, and”s make grammatical sense before an actor worries about also ensuring that the scene moves forward.

As soon as an improviser can reliably play this game without questions or denial and move a scene forward, they can probably be expected to act in any scene with the same sort of results consistently.

On a side note, have you ever looked at a word so long it became unreal? “Yes” is a really weird word. Why isn’t there a second ‘S’? How many three letter words have ‘E’ as the only vowel?

Improv 101 — ABA

First on the list of warm-up games is ABA. I would argue that this is the most important game for any improviser to learn, because this sets the building blocks for learning any game moving forward. This isn’t really a “game” in the sense that you would ever see it performed, it’s just for practice so that the actors can learn how to start scenes without scripts.

The game itself is simple. It only requires two performers and each run-through typically only takes about fifteen to twenty seconds. One person, Person B, starts on stage, pantomiming. They can be pantomiming anything at all. The other, Person A, walks on and says a line. Person B responds to this line, and Person A makes one second a final statement. “A-B-A”. At that point, the game is concluded.

The goal of this game is for beginning improvisers to learn and practice the basics of establishing a core scene concept designated by the acronym “CROW”. This stands for Characters, Relationship, Objective, and Where. The scene must establish ‘Characters’, involving who the two characters are individually without the other person. (Saying two people are sisters is referring to relationship, not character.) If a scene involves a mother and son, the characters could possibly ‘six year old child’ and ‘middle-aged woman/mother’. ‘Relationship’ is who the characters are in reference to the other. This could be siblings, mentor-student, coworkers, things like that. ‘Objective’ refers to the conflict of the scene. Are they trying to get to school on time, land a plane, or somehow fly a kite on the moon? Sometimes the characters have different or even opposing objectives, and that’s okay. This could easily bring more tension (and therefore conflict) to the scene. ‘Where’, of course, is simply the location in which the scene takes place. Most often you want to be as specific as possible. Don’t say ‘house’ if you can say ‘in the kitchen’ etc.

What many beginning actors learn is that a lot of CROW can be established through implication rather than statement. If B is pantomiming something and Person A runs on stating “Honey, honey, no! Not on the walls!” then, regardless of what else is happening in the scene, we can infer all of CROW just from that one line. A is a parent, B is a child (mingling Character and Relationship here). The objective is to have fun (the child) and stop the child from ruining the house (the parent). Obviously, this would take place in the house. The coolest part about that is the fact that both characters each have one more line even though they’ve already established all of CROW. This could then be used to further the scene and perhaps fine out the details. What exactly is the child doing to the walls? Where’s the other parent? Things like that.

Ideally, most scene games should start off as “ABA”. When you’re performing longer games, establishing CROW is important because if we have characters with no objective, there is nowhere for the scene to go.

The key thing here is to practice how scenes work. Remember that pantomiming requires space and weight. Don’t forget that there is a stapler in your hands and suddenly make it stop existing. Don’t deny what the other person is doing, and especially don’t ask them what they are doing. If you don’t know what they are doing or don’t know how to come on as an appropriate character, it’s perfectly acceptable to walk on and establish them as flying a plane when they were really pantomiming chopping carrots or reading. Now suddenly they have to justify why flying a plane looks like whatever action it is they were doing.

Remember, the beauty of improv is that while there are limits to what you can do to “succeed” on stage, there will still always be several ways to get there. There’s a way around every roadblock you come across in a game.