Getting to the heart of what we do

I’ve had a recurring thought for the last six months or so.

This thought isn’t revolutionary or some sort of sudden realisation that has changed my improv world, but it’s a basic thing I’ve forgotten and that I think a lot of improvisers end up forgetting.  As MissImp takes the last few enrollments for another beginners improv course, I thought I’d share this thought.

As improvisers we start by learning the basics of scenework.  We learn yes… and.  We learn about characters, environment and object work.  We look at patterns, callbacks and the game of the scene.  After that, we often take it as read that these things should happen, and we concentrate more on forms.  We chase the next good format or gimmick.  Just as shortformers chase the next funny game to play, longformers often chase the next cool format to perform.

In many ways this makes sense.  We want new ways of expressing what we do but I think there is a danger of forgetting what’s important when we put too much attention on a form rather than the most crucial part of our work – doing good scenework.

An improviser stands and falls on her or his scenework.  So much so that you can have the most technically perfect Harold, for example, but have something really dull.  Getting the formatics right isn’t enough.  Show me characters and something that means something to them.  Show me performers who are listening and responding in the moment.  Show me great patterns being played by skilled improvisers.  That’s where the magic is and with all the noise there is about formats and other pre-occupations in improv we lose this.

Don’t get me wrong.  Formats are useful devices  when used by skilled improvisers but unless you are always looking to increase your skill level, getting obsessed with formats is pointless to me.  It’s the same for a lot of things that come along as baggage with improv.  Warm-ups are great – they put you in a mental and physical state to do what you do, but when you spend more time thinking about them than your scenework, they’re getting in your way.  When you spend more time thinking about your seating plan, the audience numbers, the guestlist….they all take up time you could spend thinking about and practicing your scenework.

As a new bunch of improvisers starts their first steps on Monday, I hope those of us who have taken those steps before will continue on our journey as good improvisers by reinvesting in the scenework we do and doing what we can to improve ourselves.  I’d rather watch a bunch of scenes with no format but great scenework than an awesome format done with sloppy scenework.

If you are interested in a one day intensive to work on your own scenework, I’m offering one on Sat 1st June.  Details here:


8 thoughts on “Getting to the heart of what we do

  1. Hello,

    My revelation, a couple of years ago, was that formats teach certain specific areas that are more important than teaching and learning just improvisation.
    I’ve spent all of my time till then learning improvisation and when I realised the elements that were weak in my Harold, I understood that being in a class specific to that would mean I learn necessary different techniques and principles that are vital to the format.



  2. If you’re logged into Facebook it should work. I’ve now either made the link worse or fixed it. It works for me currently but then I created the event. If you’re having problems email MissImp and I will happily forward on all the details 🙂


  3. Nope – it still doesn’t work. Is it a private event or something? Or do you have to be a friend of the person creating it? I only want to see the event page so I can see who else is going and share lifts etc!


  4. Ah, now THAT was what was happening. Yes, it was only “friends of people invited” who could see. I’ve now changed it so it was a public event. I think I just left it on default setting. D’oh!


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