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According to The Random House Unabridged Electronic Dictionary, the definition of "improv" is as follows:

im•prov (im´prov) n. Informal.
     [by shortening]

All right, so that probably did not help much if you are unfamiliar with the world of improv. So here is the definition of "improvisation":

im•prov•i•sa•tion (im prov'e za´shen) n.
     1. an act of improvising.
     2. something improvised.
      [1780-90; IMPROVISE + -ATION]

You can always rely on the dictionary, can't you? Well, the definition of "improv" as generally accepted by the Improv Troupe is "acting without a script." There are certain takes and exceptions to this, but in its most simple form, improv can be anything as long as it is not scripted. Because there is no script, very often there are no specific costumes, sets, or props involved. The improvisers have to convey who they are without the assistance of physical objects, and therefore the audience as well as the improvisers need to have a good imagination. One of the biggest misconceptions about improvisation is that it has to be comedic. "Improv," however, does not necessarily mean "funny." Improv can take absolutely any form, whether it be comedy, mystery, serious drama, or even musical. It is true, however, that most improv skits will turn out comedic. All the same, an improvised scene should never be panned just because it was not funny.

An improvised skit can be a planned scene, a structure, or an "on-the-spot" improv.

Some improvisers feel that planned scenes, even without a script, lose a lot of the uniqueness of improv. Others believe planned skits still offer on-the-spot improv while they provide a more solid and predictable structure. Planned skits are organized by a group of actors well in advance of an actual performance. A beginning, middle, and end to the scene are set so that it never careens too far off course. Each actor takes a role, and scenes are sometimes rehearsed. Planned scenes will occasionally use props, as opposed to on-the-spot improv (see below) which requires miming to create objects. Overall, most planned scenes turn out like scripted skits that were never actually written down on paper.

Structures are an essential component of improv. Generally, they will take the form of a game. Certain rules are assigned to the improvisers on stage, or a special setting is given. For example, a popular structure used on "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" and by the Improv Troupe is called "surprise party." In this structure, a surprise party is held for a host. The host steps off stage or out of the room while the other actors are assigned character traits. Generally, the traits are chosen by audience members and can range anywhere from a doctor to a depressed Elvis-impersonating gerbil. Then, the host returns and pretends to be setting up a party. One by one, the guests with traits come on stage as if they just arrived at the party. They cannot make any direct mention of their trait, but they have to show it clearly through their interaction with the host and the other guests. The host must guess the trait of each guest, though a good improviser will not simply yell out what he or she thinks the trait is but rather integrate his or her guesses into the dialogue. For instance, rather than blurting out, "Hey, I know what you are! You're a doctor! Did I get it right? Did I?" a good improviser will say something along the lines of, "I'm so glad you could make it to the party. I mean, it just wouldn't be a party without a depressed Elvis-impersonating gerbil." If the trait of a guest is guessed correctly, that guest exits the stage. The scene continues until all guests have left the stage.

On-the-spot improv is sometimes referred to as "pure improv." Nothing is established, nothing is set. A handful of people, though more often just two or three, simply begin acting and interacting with one another. In such a situation, it is absolutely essential that the actors quickly understand what the others are thinking even if they cannot discuss with each other. Each actor quickly tries to express his character through words or movement so that the other actors can react appropriately. One actor will generally try to establish a setting, and together the actors develop a plot for the scene. One of the most difficult aspects to this form of improv is finding a way to end a skit. Unlike a planned scene, which has a set ending, or a structure, which generally ends when a certain goal is accomplished, a pure improv ends whenever the actors on stage (or off stage, as the case may be) decide to end it. This means communication between actors through subtle hints and signals is vital. If a conflict develops in the skit, the actors can try to end the scene by resolving the conflict. Actors of a troupe or class can sometimes end a scene even if they are not part of the action on stage. If a skit carries on for too long, actors from off stage will plan a way to quickly cut the scene off, and then enter and do so. Though it may seem like stealing the spotlight, a scene may continue for hours without such intrusions. Some improvisers consider such on-the-spot acting the most difficult, while others live by it.

In general, no one type of improvisation is used during a performance. Rather, an assortment of planned scenes, structures, and pure improv are all meshed together into one show. Sometimes performances will be based around a single theme, such as Halloween or graduation. Some improvisers keep the same character throughout a show, while others switch with every scene. Most shows have some preset structure so that they do not continue on indefinitely, but every show is different and every group runs their shows a different way.

Of course, improvisation is not strictly for performances. In fact, many people encounter improvisational theatre through improv classes or clubs, in which they not only learn about acting but also have an incredible amount of fun. Classes and clubs can be found across the United States and elsewhere in the world, and regardless of where you live, there is probably one nearby.

So, if you haven't already, get involved in improv, either by seeing a professional performance, by signing up for a class, or by joining a club. You will certainly not be the worse for it, and you might even get a good laugh out of it.


A Short History of Improvisational Theatre

Improvisational theatre is as old as time. It pre-dates the invention of writing, since long before we started writing scripts we were telling stories by acting them out.

The Commedia Dell'Arte

Over the centuries, there have been many different improvisational styles. The most direct ancestor of modern improv is probably the Commedia Dell'Arte, which was popular throughout Europe for almost 200 years starting in the mid-1500's. Troupes of performers would travel from town to town, presenting shows in the public squares and on makeshift stages. They would improvise all their own dialog, within a framework provided by a set "scenario".

After the Commedia died off, improv theatre faded into obscurity until it was separately and spontaneously re-invented by two people who have shaped the craft as it exists today -- Keith Johnstone and Viola Spolin.

Keith Johnstone and Theatresports

Keith Johnstone started formulating his theories about creativity and spontaneity while growing up in England, and later brought them into his teaching at the University of Calgary. He felt that theatre had become pretentious, which is why the average man in the street didn't even consider attending it. Johnstone wanted to bring theatre to the people who went to sporting and boxing matches, the same audience that Shakespeare had written for in his day.

Johnstone decided that one approach would be to combine elements of both theatre and sports, to form a hybrid called Theatresports. The trappings of team sports were adapted to the improvisational theatre context; teams would compete for points awarded by judges, and audiences would be encouraged to cheer for good scenes and jeer the judges ("kill the umpire!").

Through Theatresports, Johnstone's ideas have gone on to influence (directly or indirectly) almost every major improv group.

Viola Spolin and Theatre Games

Back in the 1920's and 1930's, a woman named Viola Spolin  began to develop a new approach to the teaching of acting. It was based on the simple and powerful idea that children would enjoy learning the craft of acting if it were presented as a series of games.

Spolin's son, Paul Sills, built on his mother's work and was one of the driving forces of improvisational theatre centered around the University of Chicago in the mid-1950's. Along with people like Del Close and David Shepherd, Sills created an ensemble of actors who developed a kind of "modern Commedia" which would appeal to the average man in the street. As with Theatresports and the original Commedia, the goal was to create theatre that was accessible to everyone.

The group that sprang from the work of Sills, Shepherd and Close, called The Compass, was extremely successful. It brought people to the theatre who in many cases had never gone before, and eventually led to the development of a company called Second City.

Through The Compass and Second City, Spolin's Theatre Games have gone on to influence an entire generation of improvisational performers.