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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
Concrete methods/activities and other resources
- To discover improv games: http://improvencyclopedia.org/games/
- To discover more about History of Improv and other cool resources: http://improvencyclopedia.org/games/
- To see lots of articles and resources that link Improv and Education: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1332894946778173/
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.