Improv for Teenagers: A Lesson Plan
Improvisational theatre is a fantastic tool in the drama classroom and one many teachers use. It helps students learn to react and respond to unexpected situations, and builds confidence and creative abilities.
With young students it is a good idea to give them some time to come up with a piece of improvisational theatre, but with older students you can challenge them by asking them to come up with something on the spot.
On-the-spot improvisation is a dynamic, fun and often very comedic type of theatre and can seem very daunting to new students. Below is a lesson plan I have used many times. It helps to break the ice and gives teenagers a fun, low-pressure introduction to improv.
Whose Line Is It Anyway?
Lesson Plan: Discussion
This is a lesson plan for a 90 minute class for adolescents titled 'Introduction to Improv'
1 . Talk about improv.
Explain what it is, making references to popular shows that include improvisational comedy such as Whose Line is it Anyway or Mock the Week. This will give improv a point of reference for the group and ensure their interest and focus.
2. Link improv to everyday activities.
The danger in discussing popular improv shows on television is that students can feel incredibly daunted and under pressure to be funny and interesting during improv skits. You can diffuse this pressure by emphasizing that the people on television are professional comedians and improv does not necessarily have to be humorous. Make sure to point out that everybody improvises every day. Nothing in life is scripted, and we are very adept in dealing with unexpected situations.
3. Cover the most basic ground rule of improv
The most basic ground rule is that there is no right or wrong. Something that inhibits a lot of students is the worry that they are somehow doing something wrong. Improv is about going with your impulses and creating something from them. While there are some rules we will cover in this lesson that can make improv easier, there is no right or wrong.
Teach your students to repeat these questions and answers to themselves when they are feeling unsure:
- How do I do it?
- Just do it.
- Am I doing it right?
These discussions are important in dealing with any fears the students may have, and getting them excited and focused for the rest of the class. However the discussion should be kept short, taking only 7-10 minutes of class time.
Start Out Easy
In order to make sure everybody is feeling comfortable and at ease, it is good to start out with some simple improv warm-ups.
4. 1, 2, 3 Counting
This is a very popular warm-up and one Augusto Boal mentions in his book 'Games for Actors and Non-Actors' in which he calls it '2x3xBradford', a reference to the town in which he first heard of the game. The premise is simple yet requires concentration.
1. Divide the group into pairs and ask the members of each group to name themselves either A or B.
2. Ask them to count to three as a pair with A saying '1', B saying '2', A saying '3', B saying'1', A saying '2', B saying '3' etc.
3. Now ask the As in each group to come up with a sound and movement that will replace '1'. The pair will continue counting with each partner substituting the sound and movement for the number '1'.
4. Now ask the Bs in each group to come up with a sound and movement that will replace '2'. The pair will continue counting with each partner substituting As sound and movement for the number '1', and Bs sound and movement for the number '2'
5. Now ask A to come up with another sound and movement, this time for the number '3'. By now, there should be no numbers heard, only the unique sounds and movements that have been substituted for each number.
This exercise is simple and low-pressure yet begins to awaken the creative muscles by calling on students to create movement and sound on the spot.
5. Word Ball
Word ball is another simple game but with higher pressure. It works by gathering the students into a circles and 'throwing' words around. It is a good idea to join in this game yourself and to be the first person to offer a word.
1. Choose any word to begin with (e.g. cat) and place your hands as if you were holding the word in them, then 'throw' the word using both your voice and your hands to a member of the group.
2. The member of the group must 'catch' the word, and then throw the first word that comes to mind (e.g. cuddly) to the next member of the group.
3. The next member 'catches' this word, and throws the first associated word that pops into their head (e.g. teddy bear) to the next person. The exercise continues like this until everybody has had plenty of chances to throw words around. Try to dissuade students from hesitating and encourage them to simply go with the first thing that comes to mind, reminding them that there is no such thing as wrong or right when it comes to improv.
Getting Into It
Now it's time to get the students up and improvising while keeping the pressure low. A good way to do this, is to keep the improvisations very short so nobody feels stuck in the spotlight.
6. Sentence, Response
1. Before class, prepare a number of sentences you will give to students to say. e.g.
- Why did you steal my puppy?
- Stop crying this instant!
- Can I borrow your red shirt tonight?
2. Gather the students in a circle, and give one of them a sentence. Ask them to approach another student in the circle and say it to them. The other student must then think of something to say in response to that sentence.
3. Once the student has responded, give them a sentence to say and ask them to approach another student, who must respond. This game should be fast-paced, with students only being called upon to come up with one sentence in reaction to what was said to them.
4. Once everybody has had a chance to both say a sentence and react to one, ask them to come up with sentences on their own so that both participants in the exercise are now improvising.
1. By now the students should feel comfortable in the circle. Call on someone to walk in to the centre of the circle and wait for someone to come and greet them.
2. When a volunteer comes into the centre to greet, they may do so in any way they wish. The student in the circle must then respond to the greeting. Both students then return to their places and another student comes into the centre and waits to be greeted.
Once again this is a simple, fast-paced exercise designed to increase students' levels of comfort with being on the spot. Greetings should be kept short and nobody should be left in the spotlight for too long.
Some Simple Rules
It's time to introduce some basic rules of improv. Although there is no right or wrong, there are rules that can help in the creation of improvisational theatre.
RULE ONE: Offer and Accept
There's nothing worse when doing improv than working with somebody who constantly negates your ideas. e.g.
A: Wow, did you see that elephant over there?
B: No. What are you talking about?
Negating an idea forces your partner to do all the work by coming up with idea after idea. In the example above, B has stopped the flow of the scene by rejecting A's offer. If he had accepted it, the scene could continue quite easily:
A: Wow, did you see that elephant over there?
B: WOW! That's the biggest elephant I've ever seen! Where do you suppose it came from?
8. Yes, and
This is a nice little game that trains students to accept offers and add to them. Like in the second example above, B accepts the existence of the elephant, and offers a question as an addition to his acceptance.
1. Divide the class into two even lines, call one line A, and the other line B. Have the two lines face each other
2. Begin with the students who are at the top of the lines. Ask the student in the A line to come up with an offer. The student in the B line must accept and add to it. A must then accept B's addition, and add to it again. e.g.:
A: Would you like to cut my hair for me?
B:Yes!I have a hairdressing set in my room, let's do it there.
A: Great! I'll bring a picture of what I want it to look like.
3.When they're finished, each student will go to the end of the opposite line (i.e. The student from line A will go to the end of line B, the line B student will go to the end of line A), and the next two students will have their chance to go.
4. Keep this game going until all students have had a chance to be in both lines.
RULE TWO: Keep Questions Direct
Open-ended questions can really stump your partner as you are essentially forcing them to do the work in the scene. For example, starting a scene by saying
- What's going on here?
means someone else has to supply the information for the scene. A better way to go about it would be to say
-Why are you shaving that pygmy?!
Here, you are still asking a question but are also supplying your partners with information while you do it.
9. Come Again?
This game is designed to get students out of the habit of asking open-ended questions and show them how to easily turn them into questions that are useful.
1. Have the students form a circle.
2. Ask whichever student is going first to come up with an open-ended question. e.g:
- Who are you?
3. Now ask the student beside them to turn that open-ended question into a more useful one. e.g:
- Hey! Aren't you that guy whose always begging on Main Street?
4. Now ask the same student to come up with another open-ended question that the student beside them will turn into something useful. Continue in this way until everybody has had a chance.
Theatre is essentially storytelling, and improvisers have to come up with stories on the spot. It is good to introduce the art of storytelling at this point with some fun games and exercises.
10. Seven-sentence story structure
Most stories can be boiled down to seven basic sentences. These sentences begin like this:
Once upon a time....
And every day...
Until one day...
And because of that...
And because of that...
And from that day...
It's good to use examples when explaining this, I will use 'Hannah Montana: The Movie' here:
- Once upon a time there was a girl who was secretly a pop-star.
- And every day she was careful not to let anyone know her secret.
- Until one day she met a boy, and he discovered her double life.
- And because of that he was angry and felt betrayed.
- And because of that Hannah felt awful.
- Until finally she owned up to her double life.
- And from that day the people from her home have known and accepted her secret, and she and the boy are very happy.
1. Have the students sit in a circle and ask them to come up with one sentence each from the story structure. If you have more than 7 students you can just begin from the first sentence again once you reach the eighth student.
2. Once you've done this you can broaden the exercise and take away the 7-sentence restriction, allowing students to tell the story in as many sentences as they like.
11. Story, Story, Die
This is a very fun game and one that can be altered depending on how extroverted or introverted the students are at this point.
1. Ask for 5 volunteers to come to the top of the class. These will be the storytellers.
2. Ask the class to come up with a title for the story they will tell.
3. Set yourself up as the 'conductor'. You will kneel in front of the storytellers and point at them. If you point at a student, they must tell the story for as long as you hold your finger on them. They must stop speaking the second you move, and the next student you point at must begin where they left off.
4. If the students are confident and extroverted you can turn this into a game. In the original version the class can shout 'DIE!!!' at a student if they pause, run out of things to say, don't begin where the last person left off, continue speaking when the conductor has stopped pointing at them etc. That person then acts out their own death, and is out of the game.
If you have a group of younger teenagers it is a good idea to substitute Out for Die, and if it's a shy group it's best not to introduce this aspect of the game until they're feeling more confident.
It's always a good idea to finish a class on a game and let everybody blow off some steam. This is a favorite with all my classes:
1. The students form a circle and each one mimes holding a water gun.
2. You call out student's names one by one. If a student's name is called they must duck, and the two people on either side of them must try to shoot each other by pointing their guns and shouting 'SPLAT!'. If the student whose name you called does not duck quick enough they are out. Otherwise, the the last one to shout 'SPLAT!' is out.
3. Game play continues in this way until there are only two students left. At this point they must go back to back in the centre of the room. Ask the class to choose a category (e.g. vegetables) and call out words from that category. With each word, the students must take one step away from each other. When you call 'Splat' they must turn and shoot each other. The first person to shoot and shout is the winner.
This is the end of the lesson plan. Hopefully by now the students have an idea of what improv is, have grasped some of its most basic rules and are comfortable with them.
An Excellent Further Resource
One of my all-time favorite improv resources is Augusto Boal's Games for Actors and Non-Actors. It's absolutely filled with great games and exercises that Boal learned from people all over the world. Many of them are extremely simple and low-pressure – perfect for first timers! The first exercise I refer to in this article (1,2,3 counting) originally came from that book.
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Do you think Improv is a good tool for growth?
© 2012 Emer Kelly