The Ultimate Guide to Improv

February 2, 2023

7 min read

What Is Improv?

If you’re an actor or interested in acting, you’ve probably heard of improv: an impromptu type of acting that pushes your skills to the limit.

Improv is such an underrated form of acting, but it can be so beneficial for those who learn. Our comprehensive guide will cover what improv is — including the five rules you should be following during scenes — as well as how to practice your skills and improv games to help you along. Let’s get started. And… action!

What Is Improv?

Improv — which is short for improvisation — is a type of theatre that’s performed live and in the moment. In other words, essential aspects like the characters, the setting, the dialogue, and the plot are made up in real time, often based on a suggestion from the audience. 

Not all improv techniques are the same either; they really depend on the troupe (a group of actors who perform together). For example, the goals, style, and even acting training that a troupe has will inform their performance. You leverage and rely on your impromptu speaking skills to give the audience the best show you can. 

Although lots of performances rely on comedy as the foundation, other troupes prefer the drama side or even mix the two genres for their show.

Why Is Improv Special?

Improv is such a special kind of theatre because it’s a one-of-a-kind performance that only exists in that moment. If you see an improv show, that’s it — there won’t ever be a second performance with the same dialogue, characters, setting, and plot again. It’s completely spontaneous. 

What Are the 5 Rules of Improv?

There are lots of rules in improv — some obvious and some unspoken. In general, there are about five rules of improv you should keep in mind.

  1. Don’t try to change or shut down your acting partner’s ideas. For example, if the decided scene is about a mother trying to get her son to go to therapy, don’t respond with, “Actually, she has a daughter, not a son, and he doesn’t need to go to therapy.” It’s just not helpful and doesn’t make for a solid scene. 
  2. Avoid too many open-ended questions. If you’re constantly asking a fellow actor open-ended questions, you can really destroy the scene. For example, asking your partner, whose role is a builder, “Why are you a construction worker?” forces them to quickly come up with a full backstory, which can be a scene-killer if it happens over and over again.
  3. Don’t force it to be funny. Even though lots of improv scenes rely on comedy, don’t force it. That takes all the humor out of it. In fact, most of the time, trying not to be funny is actually funnier than forcing it. 
  4. You’ll look good when you make your partner look good. This is something improv actors don’t think about, but when you make your partner look bad, you both look bad. The reverse is true, too. Even if you think you have a better idea, it doesn’t really matter — “better” ideas turn into unsuccessful scenes if you throw your partner off. 
  5. Make sure you’re telling a story. Improv is all about storytelling. It’s easier said than done, but just because you’re improvising a scene doesn’t mean you can just fill it with fluff; you have to remember you’re telling the audience a story. 

You can work on and implement these five rules of improv with improv classes. 

What Are Improv Classes?

Improv classes are courses you take that are specifically designed to help you improve your impromptu acting skills and get you used to this type of spontaneous performance. You can usually take this type of class at your local theatre company.

If you need some inspiration, check out New York City improv coach Chris Gethard’s at basic improv methods that can transform your abilities: 

New York City improv coach Chris Gethard discusses some basic improv methods.

What Are the Benefits of Improv?

Improv offers a whole host of benefits. By practicing this type of acting, you’ll also be working on your creativity and teamwork, as well as your public speaking skills. If public speaking is something you’re still working on and you need some inspiration, public speaking books are a great way to get some motivation.

Other benefits include:

  • The social aspect of bonding with fellow actors
  • Making you more comfortable taking risks
  • Improving your impromptu speaking skills
  • Providing you with a safe space to experiment with your acting
  • Improving your listening skills
  • Building your confidence

To fully enjoy these benefits, however, you’ll have to put in a bit of hard work and effort in the form of dedicated practice.

How to Practice Improv

Learning improv has so many benefits. However, if you’d like to complement your improv classes with outside practice, take advantage of a speech coach like Yoodli. It can take your skills to the next level through its improv-specific games.

One of the best things about using Yoodli to practice is that it’s a safe space. This AI coach provides you with non-judgmental insights to improve your improv skills. 

It works like this: You’ll upload a video of yourself practicing (or record it directly on Yoodli) and the speech coach uses AI technology to give you individualized analytics based on how you perform. 

These insights include how fast you speak (pacing), filler words (since you want to avoid those during your performance), your word choice, and even your body language, among other analytics. On top of that, you’ll also get a full transcript. 

You can even use friends or other members of your troupe in your practice with Yoodli. Do so by learning how to record a Google Meet or implement Yoodli in a Zoom call. If you’re unfamiliar with Zoom, our simple tutorial could help you out: 

Learn how you can use Yoodli during your improv Zoom calls.

To practice improv via Yoodli, check out some of the below prompts to get you started. You can pick one at random and you and your troupe members can take it from there. 

What Is Improv?
Yoodli’s free games were inspired by the improv world, for improv performers to improve their skills.

Yoodli also offers free games for you and your troupe to practice with, from “Metaphor Mania” to “Spin a Yarn.” These games aren’t just entertaining and perfect for improv; they also help you become a better impromptu speaker and performer.

Improv Games for Practice

Improv games are some of the best ways to practice. Whether you’re still new to improv or you’ve been acting for years, these Yoodli’s improv games can take your practice to the next level.

Metaphor Mania is one of the most popular Yoodli improv speaking games for actors to use.

Here are seven more improv games to get you going. 

  1. Rhyming only. For this game, rhyming is key. Every line in the scene should end with a rhyme. This game works best if you have a speaking order so that it doesn’t get too confusing. The only catch is that these aren’t random rhymes — they have to make sense in the scene. 
  2. Virtual improv. This game works best with an AI speech coach like Yoodli because it takes place over an app like Zoom or Google Meet. It’ll be a normal improv session, except you and your troupe will get suggestions from the audience over Zoom or Google Meet chat. 
  3. Alphabetical dialogue. As the name suggests, you’ll rely on the alphabet in your dialogue. Each line will begin with whatever letter you’re on. So to start, the scene dialogue could look like this: 

“A giant!”

“Be careful, folks; they don’t look friendly.” 

“Can’t we take him home, please?”

“Don’t even think about it.” 

  1. Muted acting. This game works best when recorded and on an app like Zoom or Google Meet (you’ll be able to review the scene later). It works like this: Half your troupe will be muted and the other half will be unmuted. The unmuted group gets a prompt and performs the scene while the muted group watches. Then the muted team will act out their take on the scene. 
  2. Frozen screen. Another fun virtual game, your troupe will use Zoom or Google Meet during the scene. At any point in time during the scene, an actor can yell out, “Freeze!” and the other players can pretend the last line never happened, allowing you to take the scene in a completely different direction. 
  3. Picture perfect. Using Zoom or Google Meet, one of the players will share their screen and show an image of a random scenario (for example, pirates on a ship). Then, the other actors will have a few minutes to search their house for props to recreate the scene. 
  4. Just another excuse. For this improv game, you’ll rely on questions. Each actor uses accusations or questions to drive the scene. For example, you might ask, “Why are you covered in mud?” The actor then comes up with a wild excuse. Although in improv, you want to limit your number of open-ended questions, this exercise helps you prepare for those situations. 

Practice is a lot of work, but it’s absolutely necessary for successful improv.

Why Is It Important to Practice Improv?

If you enjoy improv and want to be the best actor you can be, practice is essential. Practicing improv is important to experiment and get comfortable using the techniques and skills you learn in class.  

Improv classes give you the impromptu acting methods and you practice implementing them with a speech coach like Yoodli.

The Bottom Line

To be the best improv actor you can be, you’ll need to put the skills you learn in class in daily practice. 

Even though improv is spontaneous, that doesn’t mean you don’t need to put in the work. Yoodli can complement the improv classes you take and help you elevate your skills as an actor. 


Start practicing with Yoodli.

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