Observed key factors to successful (and unsuccessful) improv

Like anyone, I’m no more qualified to call myself an expert at improv than the next player, especially getting back into it after a couple years away from regular practice. Personally, I feel I’m at a place where bad scenes (where I’m stuck and not sure what to do) seem fewer and farther between, and the good scenes (where my scene partner and I have comfortably connected, and those watching seem to enjoy it) occur more often. I’m once again feeling comfortable with the great improv unknown that is starting and creating a scene from scratch.

As I attend more classes/jams and get back up to speed, I’m focusing more on reinforcing basic concepts in practice, whether they’re from a new perspective or something I learned years ago. Every lesson’s an opportunity to develop positive habits, as long as I take the work seriously.

I watch scenes in class, in jams and at shows looking for what choices help a good scene work and what contributes to the struggles of a poor scene. Lately I’m starting to see the good and not so good funnel towards the same key principles. And they’re not what you think.

One school of thought tells you to establish CROW (character, relationship, objective, where you are). Another approach tells you to find the game of the scene and heighten it. Another tells you to figure out what everyone’s doing and how they’re doing it. Another tells you to slow down and ground yourselves.

All of them tell you to yes-and, to not ask questions or negate or bail or steamroll or wait too long or a thousand other things you sure as hell aren’t going to remember (hell,Mick Napier’s Improvise is famous for saying fuck all of that, but also emphasizes finding a key motivating factor to drive the scene, similar to another school of thought).

While all of these ideas can help make good scenes, there’s no way a good improviser can mentally file through a checklist that long (and at times contradictory).

A lot of top Chicago improvisers studied with several of the Chicago schools (e.g. The Second City, iO Chicago, The Annoyance), yet aren’t at all confused about how to improvise well. Yes, experience and personal charisma/talent combined with finding one’s own style plays a role in that, but watch a lot of improv between multiple productions and you’ll notice that despite thematic differences a lot of them approach scenework in largely similar fashion.

Studying at a bunch of schools alone won’t make you better if you’ve been training for a while and still don’t improvise well. If anything, going from school to school can merely confuse you and set you back further. Experienced improvisers filter all their training and experience into a more intuitively simple and universal, and most of all personal, approach.

A few weekends ago, after a very busy week, I spent an errand-filled weekend waiting for Godot in Evanston. While sitting in my car between errands, I got the impulse to grab my notepad and write down issues I consistently noticed in improv scenes that didn’t work, e.g. not listening, talking over others, bailing on a point of view, ignoring what’s been created in a scene and trying to steer it elsewhere, etc.

At the same time I also restated them as more constructive, positive ideas, e.g. listen, bring in new ideas with goal to build on what was created, never let your POV go, etc.

As I did this, I soon noticed that these notes of improvising well revolve around three central points of focus. Everything else you could possibly tell an improviser to do or no do revolves around these three important priorities.


The vast majority of bad scenes focus on whatever activity or environment the performers are set in, with no attention paid to who the characters are or how they relate to one other. The vast majority of good and great scenes I’ve seen were built, regardless of the surrounding circumstances, around the relationship between the characters on the stage. (I say vast majority because I’m certain you and I have seen possible exceptions to this. But given the larger sample of data, they are indeed merely exceptions… and in many of those cases, I’m sure we still could point out some sort of built relationship underlying it all.)

It can’t be your sole focus, but when it comes to your character work, establishing your environment, etc, your strongest and most grounded choices are going to come back to how your character interacts with the other characters in the scene.


This actually has two parts that go hand in hand.

The first is obvious: Attention to Detail in Action. Good specific offers add character to a scene and give your scene partners something to work with and build on. Vague offers don’t, and on top of it they make it harder for your fellow players to build a scene with you.

However, there is also Attention to Detail in Observation. You also need to *listen and observe* with an attention to detail. Seeing that your scene partner’s character is sad, or has said “I don’t want to go out today” in itself isn’t going to give you much. However, noticing *how* your partner physically carries themselves could give you insight in how to endow them with an offer. Noticing specific things this character says and implies gives you additional material to respond to and build upon, as well as to use to further endow your own character (with specifics, of course!).

It is not enough to listen and pay attention. It is not enough to make a choice. It’s important that you do all these things with an attention to detail.

People harp on TJ and Dave‘s object work as the prime example of their great work, but that’s a subset of their great attention to detail in everything they do, and in observing everything they establish.


It’s not only important that you make or observe a choice, or that you yes-and it in the moment. It’s also important that you, as Mick Napier always says, hold on to what you did.

I’ve noticed that the most deflating moment of most disappointing improv scenes is the moment the player makes a choice to drop or give up on whatever POV they established, e.g. “Okay fine, I’ll give you what you want.”… or in responding to new information, they contradict and otherwise completely forget what details they established for their own character. You’ve just taken this reality you and others have worked to create, and just rendered it all moot. That’s not what any of us wanted to see.

To paraphrase Mark Sutton, no one really wants the bike shop workers in a scene to actually fix the fucking bike. Furthering that point, we’re way more interested in the relationship the scenario has shown us, and if the scenario is shoved aside then what we’re watching has lost its value quicker than the stock options of a bought out startup.

Once you’ve established a tension between characters, you’ve got to resist that trained human instinct to look for a way out of that tense situation. Improv’s greatest moments are what we find when we explore what it’s like to live in and work through that tension. And once we break it, we tell the audience and each other that what’s happening isn’t really worth giving a shit about at all. And everyone tunes out, which is not the point of an improv scene.

Commitment goes beyond what you do in scenework. Commitment is itself a practice. When you do an exercise in class or practice, do a scene, run a long form set, or even do a stupid warm up exercise to start a session… doing it with commitment is going to give you and everyone more than just doing what you have to do.

It’s not enough to show up (though showing up every day you can is a big part of success). You’ve got to show up and, for the time you’re in that space, do the work like you mean it, to grow from it. A half assed effort will produce half assed results in a practice full of great performers who are working hard and pushing themselves as much as possible every chance they get. Why bother if you’re going to eliminate yourself from contention by not giving as much an effort as many others who succeed?

The majority of those who don’t succeed at improv quit. They drop out. They don’t put in the effort. The more of a point you make not to do the best you can, the easier it’s going to become to weed you(rself) out.

The habit of approaching your every improv task with commitment will strengthen your ability to commit to bigger moments when they matter. I can’t expect a person who hasn’t practiced running more than a couple blocks to run a 5K well. And one can’t expect an improviser who doesn’t do much of anything with commitment to solidly commit to a scene, a set, or working long term with a group.


Now, don’t take this as me calling myself some sort of improv expert. Not even close. I have just noticed that these are the common denominator factors I’m noticing in every great scene, every poor scene, and all scenes in-between. I’m not even saying that I do all these things well all the time. If anything, I see that these are things I need to focus on addressing well if my scenework is going to… well, work.

Relationships. Attention to detail (in action and observation). And commitment. Key points of focus.

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2 thoughts on “Observed key factors to successful (and unsuccessful) improv

  1. […] like how I conceived The Improv Diamond, I brainstormed ideas until I found they all revolved around five improv skills. I also provided […]

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