Artistic Director of ‘The Delight Collective’, creator and director of the improvised game show ‘The Bish Bosh Bash!’ and regular BIT instructor Imogen Palmer breaks down her understanding of some improv terminology and lingo….
If the lingo that is being thrown around during and after class is making you feel like you have joined a cult, please read on and let me break some of it down.
Like any glossary, it could go on and on. I’ve tried to stick to the basics.
They are my interpretations of some of the terms and I’m very open to feedback. Part 2 to follow soon!
An offer is an idea shared in an improv scene/ game context.
Offers can be physical (a mimed activity, the way someone is standing or walking), verbal (spoken with words or sounds), emotional (changing emotion, coming on with emotion) or musical (instrument/ voice).
Of course, lots of offers are blends of the above but it can be interesting to notice what your go-to’s are and challenge yourself to try others.
Offers can be made off stage by improvising technicians with the lights and sound, musicians and also sound effects provided by off-stage actors.
Acceptance or ‘yes and’
‘Yes and’ is a famous improv training tool which can be used to help coach accepting and building on the ideas offered on stage. Inspired by the teaching of Patti Stiles and Impro Melbourne, I prefer to use the word ‘acceptance’ because in some cases we need to say ’no’ in order to accept an offer.
For example, if an actor comes on as a scary monster, we can accept this offer by saying ’No, no, noo!! Please don’t eat me!’, running to the door and discovering the door is locked…
One can endow another person on stage with details about their character or the scene.
For example: ‘Hello Beth, you’re looking a bit tired after that wild party. How is your guitar arm?’
The other actor now knows more information about themselves and the situation. They have been endowed with looking tired, and being someone who plays guitar.
We can also endow ourselves with information.
For example: ’It is I, Maxwell, the president of your fan club! Check out the new t-shirt I have of your face that I am wearing.’
Blocking is denying an idea or offer which can make it harder for a story to develop. Blocks can be obvious or more subtle and don’t necessarily mean the scene is ‘ruined’ (some people love to whip themselves or others if a block occurs). For example, if we take the scary monster offer and someone is prowling the stage like a very convincing and committed scary monster. The improv musician begins to play some scary music and the lights become dark and ominous…then another actor enters the scene and says ‘What are you doing Mum?’.
This will probably get a big laugh which means some companies or actors will choose to do blocks like this. This is a matter of artistic taste. I love horror so I would be more interested to see a scene where the scary monster finds and kills someone. However, just because they’ve been endowed as ‘Mum’ doesn’t mean the scene is over and the story is ‘ruined’. Perhaps this person has a monster for a mother and we see a scene about that, maybe the mum has just turned into the monster and eats the other actor!
A really obvious block would be something like:
Person A: Welcome to the beach.
Person B: This isn’t a beach.
Agan, they might get a laugh from the audience which might train them to think this is a brilliant thing to do. Personally I find stories more interesting which is why I don’t teach students or actors to play for laughs using blocks.
Wimping and Hedging
Keith Johnstone writes about these best in ‘Impro for Storytellers’ which I highly recommend to beginners and also those interested in teaching improv.
They are both ways of finding excuses not to ‘do the thing’ or keep the characters (actors) out of danger.
As I understand it, wimping is finding reasons not to do the thing.
If the offer is ‘Let’s go to the castle!’, person B could wimp by saying ‘Yes but oh look the lights are off, maybe the castle is closed’.
Hedging is finding lots of ways to stop getting to the thing.
Person A: Let’s go to the castle
Person B: oo yes, let’s go through the forest first, and then we should get our armour on and find a horse to ride and then get a new hat for the horse…
Like blocking, these things can get laughs. What is more, stories like ‘Lord of the Rings’ are massive bridging stories so in some contexts ‘bridging’ might be appropriate. Personally I’m more interested in getting to the castle and seeing what happens at the castle. I bloody love castles.
Styles of improv
There is no ‘one’ right way to do improv. Like any art form, there are loads of different styles and it can be fun to try a bunch of them and see what you like. It’s also worth trying the same style with different teachers because teaching style varies wildly.
Anyone who tells you they have ‘the secret to improv’ and tries to charge you a lot of money is a wannabe cult leader and you should avoid them at all costs.
The Bish Bosh Bash uses elements of narrative improv, short form and a format called ‘Super Scene’.
This is improv which focuses on storytelling. There is a big trend for narrative genre shows in the UK at the moment (Jane Austen, Murder Mystery, Shakespeare, Sherlock etc.). A narrative show can be genre based and aim to seem like a scripted show. It can also be a show which just has storytelling at its heart.
Some narrative shows aim to honour the genre and do a convincing portrayal of the genre, others prefer to do more of a parody. Again, all artistic taste. It’s helpful to find group consent in your company about what sort of show you’re trying to create.
‘Short form’ is short length improv games or scenes. A ‘short form’ show’ might have a bunch of different short games and scenes in them. ‘The Bish Bosh Bash!’ has a first half of short form games and scenes, followed by a narrative format.
I’ve seen this format performed by multiple companies in Australia and don’t know who originally created it. It involved four directors getting suggestions for four different opening scenes with different genres/styles. We see the scenes, then one gets voted out and we see three second scenes, one gets voted out and we see two third scenes before the final vote and we see the ‘Super scene’ from the ‘winning’ director.
A Keith Johnstone format where two teams of improvisers challenge each other to games and scenes which are judged by ‘the judge’ or be ended by a horn. This format has inspired many companies across the world and is a big influence on ‘The Bish Bosh Bash!’
Whose Line is it Anyway?
A tv show which specialised in short form improv comedy games. It was my first exposure to improv and I binge watched it as a teenager. Seems very old fashioned and out of date now (male dominated and reliant on stereotypes) but a useful reference point when trying to explain improv and certainly very influential in spreading the art form across the world.
Is a phrase and concept I learnt from Impro Melbourne who are very inspired by Keith Johnstone. It is the idea of training in celebrating mistakes through warm up games in order to train the ability to stay committed when ‘mistakes’ happen on stage. This leads to more committed, free, brave and professional looking work because the actors stop apologising for themselves.
Are ideas taken from the audience to inspire scenes.
Are ways in which performers can ask for suggestions eg. ‘Can I have a location/relationship/ object which will fit in my hand/ song lyric/ true story’ etc.
The Bish Bosh Bash! Takes place on the first Friday of every month at The Bristol Improv Theatre.