Warm Up By Doing

I am a fan of warming up for improv by doing brief scenes. I am not a fan of warm up games. This is because scenes closely resemble what you are warming up to do, while warm up games don’t resemble in any meaningful way what you are about to do. Pavel Tsatsouline refers to it as ‘greasing the groove’, i.e. If we want to get better at something, we must do that something.

Seattle dance artist Elia Mrak once (inadvertently) summed up my feelings on “warming up”.

is breakfast warm-up eating? is washing hands warm-up showering? are “good morning” warm-up words?

no. they aren’t warm-ups. they are just the first part of the entire meals, hygiene, and talking situations. and that first part should always include the elements of the whole.

you practice eating lunch by eating breakfast. you practice showering by washing your hands. you practice sentences with phrases. you practice in the doing. you practice full. from the start.

a “warm-up” doesn’t exist in life. so why does it exist in movement?

let’s look at what you do.

getting ready to dance? start dancing. getting ready to run? start running. getting ready to play tennis? start playing. getting ready to lift weights? start lifting your (body) weights.

f the warm-up. don’t do lunges unless you are about to do lunges. don’t do high knees unless your activity involves high knees.

just start at 10% of your full range of movement possibilities. start slow. start soft. start small. but start full. with all of the movements you will be performing later. and remember, 10% only refers to a tenth of your total energy output. 10% energy is still 100% of your movements. now gradually build that into 20%, 30%, 40%, etc…

(great. hope you enjoyed said activity)

now, getting ready to warm-down? no you’re not, cause that doesn’t exist either.

just taper your activity level down from its climax, gradually back to 10%, arriving at slow, soft, small. but always full.

like a good meal.

The application of games like Wordball and Kitty Cat Careers to improv don’t make much sense to me. Yeah, I suppose they work on initiating action, basic communication with players and reacting to players… but so does tossing a ball back and forth. Or, hey, improvising scenes.

Are we in class to study the performance of passing noises and gestures to each other for an audience? Are we about to go on stage and spend 60 minutes pretending to be a cat doing a human occupation while the other players guess what career we’re emulating?

No. So why the fuck are we warming up to do that instead of playing improvised scenes?

There appears to be among those in favor of warm up games a mythos against warming up with brief scenes, like we’re not ready to do them yet when the session starts and to do so would be somehow damaging. What’s going to go wrong if we do simple, basic, brief low-pressure scenes just to warm up, without being “ready” to do scenework? So what if these short warm up scenes are clunky, not good, not deep, not interesting? Is the Improv Police going to shut down the theater for doing scenes without officially licensed, sanctioned preparation?

Warm up games are like basketball players warming up for a contest by standing in a circle and tossing a balled up towel at each other. Or football players warming up by lifting boxes and carrying them across the field. Or baseball players warming up for baseball by making pizzas and swatting houseflies. While some of the instincts practiced may generally apply to what they do, these tasks are not at all like what they’re getting ready to do.

In reality, baseball players warm up by throwing the ball, running the field, taking batting practice. Basketball players warm up by taking shots with basketballs. Football players warm up with field runs, tossing the football and running agility/contact drills in full gear. Note that these tasks all closely resemble what they will need to do in games.

It would thus make sense that improvisers are better served warming up by doing scenes, since that closely resembles what they will need to do in shows, classes and practices. Brief two person scenes, 30-60 seconds, no notes or judgment, about whatever the hell you want (within legal parameters and reason), and your only goal is to start and maintain a connected scene. Everybody does 3-4 of these scenes.

Warm up games are one thing if you’re preparing to learn or perform short form games. Even then, the games should be similar to the scene-based short form games you’re about to practice once you’ve “warmed up”. Zip Zap Zop and Pass The Chlamydia aren’t really warming up the scenic skills you will need to play these short form games, whether or not they’re warming up your awareness. In fact, it may make more sense to just warm up with scenes anyway.

Playing simple, brief two person scenes will do just as much to engage your needed awareness and reactivity… as well as your improv lizard brain and the scene building skills you need to do actual improvised scenes. The best way to prepare to practice improv scenes is to practice improv scenes.


Warm Up Games are one of the more divisive and controversial topics in improv. Some swear by warm up games and can’t imagine doing away with them. Some hate them with a passion and insist there’s a better way to warm up.

You can go ahead and lump me with the latter, though “hate” is a strong word for my opinion on warm up games. In fact, when I have to do them I have as much fun playing these games in the moment as anybody.

I just don’t find warm up games relevant or productive. Usually, once done, the players are nowhere closer to ready to play than they were when the games started.

Here’s a couple of ideas behind what I suspect is the real M.O. for people who support warm up games:

For many younger players still intimidated by improv, or who still struggle with it, warm up games are merely a fear-driven forebearance of the dreadful moment they’ve finally got to go up on stage and make scenes for real. This opening practice is done under the guise of getting “ready” for a task they mentally will never be truly “ready” to confront. Basically, they’re an excuse to put off doing actual scenes, for now. The games are a “safe” way for players to begin practice, if nothing else a ritual for ritual’s sake.

To the ritual or routine idea (and I respect the value of routines), I say any routine can be a ritual. So why not make doing brief scenes your opening routine or ritual? It will actually get you into the needed mindset, unlike Bippity Bippity Bop.

And, if you’re not comfortable jumping off the street into scenework, the only way you’re going to get comfortable jumping into scenework is to practice starting your sessions with actual scenes until you get used to it. If you’re not comfortable jumping into them, that’s something you can only work out by confronting it and developing the habit of jumping into it.

Secondly, conversely, for many coaches and teachers, games are a way to clear the heads of their players. The idea is to overload or preoccupy their minds with the involving inanity of a game (especially more advanced versions of Big Booty, Zip Zap Zop or Bippity Bippity Bop, with all the extra house rules). To the credit of those who reason this way, focusing on following all the rules can mentally fry players to the point where their improv lizard brains then take over for their tired out cerebral minds.

But this is more of a temporary mini-aversion therapy approach to addressing the issue of getting players out of their heads, rather than developing in players the practice and skill to immediately jump into scenework. I have found that the brian-fry effect of warm up complexity is only temporary, and still leaves players struggling to make scene-building choices once it’s time to practice. They may not be as mentally preoccupied, but the scenework is often just as diffused and difficult. Meanwhile, warming up with scenes does a stronger job of getting players into the rhythm of scenework.


So there’s my opinion on warm up games. Take this or leave it, and obviously none of this ever has or ever will stop me from participating with full commitment in warm up games. But I don’t find it efficient, let alone the best way to get people ready to make up improv scenes. I prefer to warm up by doing: Warm up for improv scenes by doing improv scenes.


2 thoughts on “Warm Up By Doing

  1. […] I had a class with Pad Connelly, and during a class warmup he made a very good point, which probably gets to the root of the problem I have with warm ups in general. […]

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