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The Improviser's Mind Set Workshop Hand-Out: Games, Exercises and Resources

    The improviser's mind set is characterized by readiness, openness, and awareness - the heightened, focused attention of a player fully engaged in a game. In fact, games are the structure of many improvisation warm-up exercises because the rules, framework, mutual agreements and creative tension are the conditions that sharpen perception and the capacity to push beyond conventional boundaries. "Games create a safe crisis and thrust you into the intuitive," writes Rob Adler in The #1 Exercise You Need To Create Spontaneity on "That crisis moment is a very creative time. We open up, new choices are available to us, and we do things that were impossible only a moment before. When faced with a crisis, the mind doesn’t have time to think through the problem. It just clings to the most present thought and intuition is released to solve the problem. Intuition comes in the now."
   So, how do we find a growth-producing crisis without causing a crisis for others? Play a game. 
by Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, RMT, CGP

Applied Improvisation channels the best and most important dimensions of game-playing into the development of useful and empowering skills and knowledge. We enter into a "state of play" that taps creative energy, a state in which we are less defensive and more aware of others, a state of flow producing energy that is then available for whatever purpose we put it to in daily life.  "Anytime the brain is in learning mode," writes Dr. Ezriel Kornel on "there are new synapses forming between the neurons. So you're creating thousands of connections that can then be applied to other tasks as well." Most importantly, games have a graduated development of skills that allow us to go further and get more out of playing them. To develop those skills we will have to repeat an action or process many times over. We will fail or fall short in the process of strengthening a skill set, and have to be willing to face that kind of vulnerability. So failure is something we invite and embrace in improvisation, because through failed attempts to meet an objective we discover what works. We also discover our "default" choices and our defensive positions which come up naturally when something we want to do well does not, in practice, go well. This is when the good will and combined energy of group members are absolutely essential. 
    Mistakes, missteps and outright failures are all part of improvisation's experimental
mind set, within which we hope to find what is interesting and inventive in our dynamic interactions, but also the power of that mind set to reboot perfectionism, redirect the need to control outcomes, and disrupt the tendency to hold back when we are out of our comfort zone. Through experimenting with various ways to play a game and solve the problems that come up there is opportunity for discovery of new ways to play, and with that, our own creative power hidden behind layers of self-protection that very few social interactions will penetrate.
     In her book Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better And How They Can Change The World game designer Jane McGonigle, PhD cites research showing that the 4 key drivers of human happiness are: satisfying tasks, social connection, the possibility of success and meaning/purpose. All 4 of these elements are present when playing games, and especially true when playing improv games. Here's a breakdown of that idea:
Satisfying tasks: For improvisation to happen, 2 or more people need to be doing specific things that are somewhat challenging to our conventional, habit-driven mind set but not so much that we cannot achieve them, e.g. focused listening, responding to unpredictable offers, sticking to the agreements made that frame the game. In one improv game called "26 Lines Of Dialogue" the group agrees to create a scene in which the first line starts with the letter "A," the 2nd line starts with a word that begins with "B," the 3rd line with "C" and so on. The task is to create a story that tracks, one line to the next, within this task-driven frame. To add another degree of difficulty, one group member leaves the room and re-enters with an opening line that sets up what the group is in the scene, e.g. "All right everyone,sopranos over there, altos here, tenors in the back and basses behind them." Now the group knows they are a choir and can build the story from that premise. The tasks are challenging, require stretching some cognitive muscles, but that is what makes them fun and interesting.
Social Connection: Improvisation occurs through interaction with other people. The fact that people are coming together to both play with uncertainty and learn something new heightens the bonding experience. People do not have to open up about deeply personal aspects of their lives to feel connected through improvisation, because everyone is vulnerable, the spirit of improvisation is supportive and collaborative, and the experience itself is a way of revealing self to others. Like fans rooting for a mutually-beloved team, there are stakes that everyone buys into that produce a sometimes profound bond.
The Possibility of Success: We may have to make many attempts to succeed at something that is important to us, and games train us to learn from every attempt. Overcoming obstacles to personal goals is not very different from the psychological obstacles faced by great innovators like Steve Jobs or the Wright brothers or Daniel Hale Williams, a black American doctor in the 1890s who dealt with extreme social injustice to himself and his patients but was the first surgeon to successfully perform open heart surgery: if something has never happened before we might not believe it can happen at all. Skill, insight, and special knowledge about how to get further into a game are "wins" that may move us closer to a finish line in a conventional game. In an improvisation, the creative process has no predictable outcome, but the process itself is an exercise in possibility.
Meaning and Purpose: Games are brain-training, skill-developing experiences we have with other people, and those facts alone endows them with meaning. Many online and video games involve an epic quest or problem to solve, which can bring about innovative approaches to real-world problem. Applied improvisation games have multiple dimensions embedded with meaning and often profound revelation. 
And there is the use of games for heroic purposes like saving lives: "Someday, a video game might even save your life, as games are already benefiting students and practitioners in the medical field," writes Scott Steinberg on A study published in the February 2011 edition of Archives of Surgery says that surgeons who regularly play video games are generally more skilled at performing laparoscopic surgery. In addition, according to Dr. Jeffrey Taekman, the director of Duke University's Human Simulation and Patient Safety Center, "serious games and virtual environments are the future of education. Besides offering medical students the ability to practice on patients (which is much safer in the digital world), simulations offer health care providers several upsides. Chief among them, Taekman says, are the abilities to make choices, see results and apply information immediately."

GAMES from May 9 workshop


  • Practice concentration and memory skills
  • Develop ability to listen and build upon the last offer rather than project a story
  •  beyond our own contribution;
  • Develop the ability to get on the same page with others in a group through entering
  •   the improviser's mind set;
Player #1 comes up with a simple and short sentence. Each next person repeats the sentence, adding another detail. Previously added details can be neither dropped nor changed. The game goes until the sentence gets too long for people to repeat.
The progression could go something like this:
"There is a car."
"There is a red car."
"There is a red sports car."
"There is a red sports car on fire."
"There is a red sports car on fire on the side of the Long Island Expressway."
"There is a red sports car on fire on the eastbound side of the Long Island Expressway.
"There is a red sports car on fire on the eastbound side of the Long Island Expressway that has stopped all traffic," etc etc
Do a practice round with a simple instruction to add one detail. Process with the following questions, then do another round with the specific intention to keep details very simple and direct, and to have each detail either build on the most recent offer or fill in information regarding a detail that is already in the story. 
Processing questions: 
As each new detail was added to the line, what was each player thinking? 
Was the group on the same page about the story that was developing through the imagery? 
Where did the story go down a different road and what was that player thinking about his/her contribution? 
What is difficult about getting on the same page with other people?
Practice emotional commitment to a silly task, which can help to dislodge self-judgment and over-thinking;
To make other players laugh;

To try as many ways as possible to achieve an objective;
Players in a circle, one in the middle. The one in the middle must approach players one at a time and yell "Give me back my son!" in the over-dramatic style of Mel Gibson in the movie "Ransom." When the receiving player laughs, the scene is over. The idea is to try as many different choices as one can think of to make the other person laugh. New choices may not be easy to think of when the pressure is on, and not everyone will succeed, but the task is a silly and low-stake way to challenge perfectionism and over-thinking.

  • Practice listening and responding rapidly;
  • Practice jumping in to keep a story going or develop the idea being processed;
  • Integrate the elements of a lesson or piece of information that is being learned;
Players sit in a circle with one person in the center. The circle contains exactly the number of chairs required for all members to be sitting and one person standing in the middle. Each person claims a part of a stagecoach, i.e. the wheels, the seats, the luggage, the driver, the reins, the horses. The person in the middle begins to tell a story about the stagecoach. Every time a part of a stagecoach is named in the narrative, the person who claimed that part has to get up and walk around his/her chair. Every time the word "stagecoach" is used, everyone has to get up and grab a different chair. The person in the middle tries to get a seat and someone is left in the middle, who then continues the story.
Yes-anding the traditional Stagecoach exercise: Stagecoach is a wonderful warm-up to storytelling, group listening, collaboration, and quick-change. This exercise can then be used to process a piece of knowledge or lesson by having each members claim an element in the lesson, e.g. in a lesson about what happens during the stress response and how to be resilient to stress, members might claim to be: adrenaline, cortisol, the amygdala of the brain, the breath, blood pressure, the pre-frontal cortex. The words "stress response" are the equivalent of "stagecoach," when everyone jumps up and takes a different seat. The combination of physical activity, listening for cues, and having to take over the narrative without warning makes this is an exercise that helps integrate information so it is more readily remembered and deployed when needed.
Dueling Wants
To explore what happens when 2 players have a very clear "want" from their scene partner that is not openly stated;
To experiment with all the different ways to express a want without explicitly stating it;
To practice "yes...and" while keeping one's own objective in the game;

2 players. One player leaves the room. The facilitator or the group assigns the player in the room with an objective, something he/she is going to try to get from the other player, e.g. he/she wants the other player to rob a bank, or sing the Happy Birthday song, or offer to adopt the dog. That player then leaves and the other player comes in and is assigned an objective. When the 2 players enter the scene, they are assigned either a location or a role/relationship and must begin the scene from those roles or in that location. As the scene develops, the players can gauge how close they are to getting the objective by stating "it seems like you want me to...." and getting as much clarification as can be expressed without giving it away. When each player succeeds the scene is over.

Debrief questions:
What was it like to have both one's own objective in mind and pay close attention to what the partner seemed to want?
What attempts were successful and which not so much? How did the story develop based on these wants?
Most dynamics in real-life situations are like this game. We enter into a scene with something we want to happen, and are generally involved with others' expressed or unexpressed wants. We can get practiced at picking up on the "game" within groups and organizations, which opens up creative choices about how to respond.

Lifestage, Inc 496 Smithtown Bypass  Suite 202  Smithtown, NY 11787 offers applied improvisation workshops for professionals in a variety of fields and improvisation training.


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