The source/history of the approach

Using improvisation in theatre is an ancient practice. Commedia Dell’Arte, a theatre style common in Europe in the 1500s, is a good example of groups of actors that would perform without a script. But it was only in the 20th century that people like Keith Johnstone, Viola Spolin or Del Close – and you might want to read some of their stuff 😉 – started to research and develop specific practices on Improvisational Theatre (or Improv theatre as it is commonly called) through more inclusive theatre formats that went beyond the traditional preset stage story played by rehearsed actors to include games, improvisation and stories from the audience itself.

The aims of the methodology

The main idea behind Improv Theatre is to develop scenes with no script or predefined dialogues. Scenes are created on the spot by the actors, as they add characters, lines and imaginary scenarios to a common story that is built together. For this to be possible, Improv Theatre aims to develop a “Yes, and…” attitude. This means an attitude based on acceptance of the proposal of others, and the capacity to add something that supports the narrative and the scene being created. In the activities, the participants deliberatedly develop their competences, such as creativity, communication, ability to solve issues, flexibility or strengthen their self-confidence.

Step by step instructions

There are many ways you can use Improv theatre. One possible straight-forward structure to do so, is:

  1. Design – Think what kind of skills you would like to develop with the group and, according to their profile, choose the appropriate exercises. You will find a few suggestions in the links at the end of this text. Remember to plan well how you want to facilitate the debriefing of your session and help the group reflect on the skills you initially set out to develop.
  2. Prepare – Once you start your session(s), warmup the group with simple exercises that will help encourage participants to positively react and interact with each other. It might take a while until the group is feeling able to start improving full scenes, so take your time for a step-by-step approach.
  3. Play – There are many games around building scenes together. Many of them are easy and fun to start with. Some are useful to practice a “Yes, and…” attitude, others help us to create stories together, others work on our physicality, etc. Use them consciously and make sure everyone is involved during the games.
  4. Debrief – You might want to have a conversation at the end of a session, at the end of an exercise or at the end of a sequence of exercises. Whatever moment you choose to do this, make sure to create a calm environment where people feel safe sharing their feelings and thoughts. Prepare some questions beforehand to ensure that the conversation can focus on the learning points of that exercise/session and on how they transfer to real-life experiences.

The possible benefits of applying it to the field of youth work

Improv Theatre can be used as a methodology in youth work when you want to improve people’s capacity to communicate, work together, trust each other and be open to others’ ideas. It can help young people and adults to become more at ease with their own mistakes and unblock their creativity in a structured way.

Aspects to take into consideration when using this approach in youth work

  • Remember you are not training actors – When using improv theatre in a youth work context, with young people or with adults, your main goal is not an actual theatrical performance. You might include a performance at the end, but your focus should be on the things people learn on the way and how they can transfer them to their daily lives.
  • Warm-up is crucial – Your participants are probably not experienced actors, so do not expect they will be ready to invent stories and takerisks when they come through the door. They will need exercises that slowly build-up their confidence and prepare the right attitude and mindset to improvise. Even experienced actors perform these simple exercises regularly to get into the right mood and to develop their improv skills.
  • Embrace mistakes – In improv, everyone is invited to celebrate mistakes. This not only makes people more at ease with taking risks but it also challenges them to include those mistakes in the story of the scene being created. Failing is part of improvising (and part of life, by the way) so remember to create an environment where everyone can learn to accept their own and others’ mistakes.
  • Make co-relations – If your goal is to use this methodology as a way to develop specific skills for real life, then remember to give space for that reflection to happen, individually and in the group. Talk about the parallels people see between their behaviors in the exercises and in their daily lives and support them in expressing what they are learning from the process.

Tips for Warm-ups:


Setting the scene basics

Concrete session step by step

The advantages of using these methods are that participants will slowly let go of control and gain more trust in their first reactions. This will allow the group to cooperate better, building trust and great moments of fun.

Passing words around – Exercise to reduce self-censorship and increase speed and confidence in our own reactions.
In a circle tell a random word to the person on your side. That person should then quickly think of another word that comes to mind when hearing this first one and pass it to the person next to him/her. That person will do the same and so it goes around the circle. You can continuously start new “strings” of words, ensuring that after a while, everyone is in a steady rhythm of hearing a word and telling another word to the next person with almost no waiting time. A string of words can be “white – snow – cold – fridge – beer – drunk –violent – storm – black – witch – …”

Making New Proverbs – Exercise to practice collaboration and creating sentences together. In small groups of 5 or 6, use the same principle as in the exercise before to create proverbs collaboratively. One person starts by saying one word and one by one everyone will complete the proverb with the next word. It’s over when the group decides that the proverb is complete. A new proverb can be: “When-rainfalls-hard-no-man-goes-mad.” Once one proverb is
finished the next person can start a new proverb.

1st Debriefing
Sit in a circle with the group and ask participants to share their feelings during the exercises. Relate the groups’ findings and insights with the practice of Improv Theatre and explain its main principle: “Yes, and…” as well as the importance of improvisers jointly establishing the main dimensions of the scene/ story they are creating – Who are we? Where are we? What are we doing? – at the beginning of a scene. The next exercise will help participants understand these principles in practice.

Freeze – Exercise to increase awareness, foster risk-taking and improve the capacity to start scenes together. The group sits (or stands) in a circle and two persons (A and B) start a scene from a random word given by anyone. The facilitator will say freeze when the main aspects of the scene are clear. Improvisers A and B will freeze the action by standing still in their positions, like statutes. A new person (C) from the circle goes to the center and taps one of the improvisers on the shoulder (let’s say they tapped on the shoulder of Improviser B). B will leave the scene and C takes their exact position and starts a completely new scene inspired by the body positions that were “inherited” from the scene before. In this case, A and C will start a new scene. The improviser that joins the scene should
be the one kicking off the new story until both have created the main dimensions: Who are we? Where are we? What are we doing? Then the facilitator will say freeze again and a new person will substitute one of the improvisers, starting a new scene again. The facilitator can also say freeze even if the improvisers did not manage to develop a coherent scene beginning. It is important that there is a bit of rhythm and that all participants can be in the center at least once.

A dubbed soap opera – Exercise to develop collaborative storytelling skills. In teams of 4, participants are invited to make a dubbed soap opera. The whole group proposes the title of the soap opera and that’s the inspiration for the team to start. Two improvisers are acting out the scene without talking (but moving their lips as if they were) while the other two are out of the scene but making the characters voices. Everyone is improvising and should act as one team together to make the best scene possible.

2nd Debriefing

  1. Explore with participants the feelings and findings brought out by the last exercises. Relate their experience with important Improv skills such as active listening, not being afraid of making mistakes, reacting honestly, pausing, accepting your partner proposals, etc.
  2. In buzz groups ask participants to discuss what kind of life skills they were developing while playing.
  3. Ask participants to share some of the conclusions from the buzz groups in the big group and name their takeaways from the session.

Practical information

When you might use it: This sequence can be useful if you want to prepare a group to start making more complete scenes together or when you want to develop team cooperation.
Time Required: 1:30 h – 2:00 h
How many people involved: 5 – 25
Target: 8-80 years old
Where: Ideally you will need a space that is big enough for participants to move around and where the group is not exposed to external observers in order to create a safe space for them to be able to freely express themselves without fear of judgment. Having a wooden or soft floor (carpet, grass or other) is preferable, so that participants feel comfortable using the floor (to lay down, crawl, sit, etc).
Materials Required: No specific materials are required, but participants should wear comfortable clothing. You can also use a sound system if you want to use music during the exercises.


Examples of the methodology being applied in youth work, in different contexts

You can combine Improv theatre with many other methodologies, depending on your goals. We have seen Improv being successfully used in combination with more theoretical input about teamwork and communication, in ideation sessions and in processes of youth participation, just to name a few examples.

During the Future Labs project, youth workers were trained to use Improv in different contexts, here are a few examples of what was done:

  • In Slovakia, at the Youth Community house Rečica ob Savinji, Improv techniques were combined with The Way of Council to help young people overcome the fear of job interviews through improvisation. Initially, the council was used to address the fears linked to job interviews. Then, Improv exercises were used to explore physical postures and discuss how posture affects how they feel and how they can improve their posture during job interviews. Afterwards, a sequence of improv games was implemented, culminating in improvised job interviews for random positions (e.g. cook, policeman, DJ). A few keywords were distributed and had to be used by the one who was playing the applicant. In the end the group reflected on what they could learn from the experience. As a follow-up, a simulated job interview in their field was offered on Skype so they could further practice their skills.
  • In Portugal, Improv was used at Youth Association Rota Jovem during a Youth Exchange as part of a team building activity. A sequence of improv exercises was used over 4 hours (with a break). The aim was to make the participants feel more comfortable with each other, and to get to know each other better. Improv techniques helped participants to concentrate fully in the activities and to stay really involved in all the processes, always paying attention to each other’s needs and accomplishments. It gave each person more confidence to be themselves, and the capacity to laugh about themselves in case they make mistakes. That helped to smooth the next educational process in the project.

Summar yof the most important aspects:

Concrete methods/activities and other resources


The methodological description is based on the text produced by Anita Silva. Developing Youth Work Innovation. E-handbook. Project Future Labs. Erasmus+, KA2, 2019. Publication of Humak University of Applied Sciences, page 44. Videos were also created within the project Future Labs.

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