Improv Exercises for Physical Skills

This is a list of my favourite improv exercises for working with environment, object work, and physicality. (Which is what we’re all about at Improv Illusionist. Click to learn more if you’re new here.) Many are old classics, and some are experimental ones I’ve made up. You might know them by different names — similar games often have different local variations.

I’m listing these in the order I might teach them over the course of a multi-day workshop. The later ones aren’t necessarily more advanced, but they may have concepts that layer onto earlier ones.

Viola Spolin’s Improvisation for the Theater is the definitive source for exercises related to “the Where.” I recommend it to instructors, directors, and team captains. Below, I’ve marked the improv exercises that also appear in Spolin’s book with an asterisk (*) and used her names.

Do YOU have any favourite improv exercises that work well for training these skills? Please send them to me! I’d love to make use of them and include them in this list.


Warm-Up Improv Exercises

Play Ball *

Players stand in a circle and agree on a size/type of improvised ball, then toss it among themselves. Focus on consistency — keep the ball the same at all times. The coach can call out instructions to affect the size and speed of the ball. What do you notice about how people move, and how does this relate to “seeing” the ball?

Hot Potato

Instead of a ball, players toss an improvised hot potato. Play the reality of size, shape, and heat. It’s not something you can hold onto for long, and catching it will cause a reaction. You can try this with other objects of odd shape or discomfort: a bowling pin, a spiky sea urchin, a heavy medicine ball, etc.

Red Ball

Great for new improvisers, similar to Play Ball above. Players toss an improvised ball around the circle, calling out the ball’s colour: “Red Ball.” Call it out when you throw and when you catch. The coach can then add more balls of different colours. Pass-Catch communication is key to keep everything straight.

Transformation of Objects *

Players stand in a circle. Player 1 creates an object and passes it on. Player 2 transforms the object into something else, and so on. Players should receive and play with an object first, to discover a change instead of forcing it. Associations don’t count either — creating a mirror to use with a comb isn’t a transformation. Work with the motion of the previous object to help the transformation.

Energy Ball

Similar to Play Ball above, tossing a ball of energy around the circle. Players can “charge” the ball up or down before throwing. Focus on catching the ball with the same energy as the thrower. For fun, encourage players to add sound effects.

Object Toss

Players name any small object they can think of, and then toss it across the circle, for example, a hammer, a fried egg sandwich, a loose deck of cards, a goldfish in a bag. Try to keep the object consistent as it passes between you. Once the receiving player catches the object, they call out a new one.

Pass 4

Players pass four objects around the circle at the same time: a baseball, an inflatable beach ball, a heavy medicine ball, and a sleeping baby. Play the reality of each object. Everyone should work extra hard to protect the baby!

Yes, Let’s!

Players stand in a circle. One player calls out any activity; for example, “Let’s… play tennis!” All others call back, “Yes, let’s!” Then everyone performs the activity for a few moments. Then another player calls out a different activity, and so on. Encourage players to think creatively about how they show the activity. Avoid the usual clichés. For example, when someone calls out “Let’s play baseball!” nearly everyone either pitches or bats. You could also show us an outfielder waiting, or the umpire, or even someone in the stands watching.

Dodge Ball *

Players in a circle pass around an improvised ball, trying to hit one player in the centre. If the centre player is “hit,” change places with the person who threw it. A hit above the waist is a foul. Allow players to work out judgement calls for themselves. Focus on consistency of the ball, which is more important than “winning.”

“I’m a Tree”

Players stand in a circle. Player 1 enters the circle and poses as a statue, declaring what they are; for example, “I’m a tree.” Player 2 adds to the picture as a complementary feature of the first object; for example, “I’m a bird in the tree.” Player 3 adds another complementary feature; for example, “I’m a cowering worm.” Once you have three, Player 1 chooses one of the other two statues to remain while the others clear. Start again with that statue.

Pinball

Players stand in a circle, using an improvised basketball. Player 1 passes to anyone, calling out a type of suggestion you might ask from an audience, for example, “Location!” Then Player 2 passes to anyone, providing an example, for example, “An office!” Player 3 holds the ball while they call out three elements of that suggestion, for example, “Desk! Computer! Loud co-worker!” Any elements related to the suggestion are fine — they don’t have to be original. When finished, Player 3 passes to anyone, and the cycle starts over.

Encourage spontaneity to keep the ball moving fast. Also, monitor the consistency of the ball. As players stop to think, they may lose focus and unconsciously change the object.

Once players get good at this, the coach can optionally stop them occasionally, getting the player to pick one of their three elements and start a scene.

Note that players often find it just as challenging to select the category and example. This is a good illustration of why we need to think in advance about the suggestions we’ll want to ask for in a show.

Basketball

Treat the space as a basketball court, with nets at opposite ends. Players choose sides and play. The coach should watch for consistency of ball handling. Be careful not to split the ball into more than one. Players who can’t or don’t want to join the game can fill in the stage picture: referees, fans, etc.

Improv Exercise

And now for something meta… an improv exercise about improv exercises! Players spread out as if the space is a large gym, and can exercise any way they wish: weights, jump rope, etc. For added challenge, you can have everyone rotate to different stations. Be careful not to let improvisers strain themselves by “lifting” objects that are heavy. Learn to show effort without physically tensing the muscles.

Butterfly Nets

Imagine the space is a lush garden, filled with butterflies. Players use nets to catch butterflies, take them in hand and examine them, then release. Focus on a delicate touch and light movements. Great for learning to slow down and lighten up your object work.

Follow the Leader / Boot Camp / Tough Mudder

Imagine the space as a playground or army base or obstacle race. Players follow a leader up, down, over, and under various obstacles. Focus on keeping things consistent. Everyone should use the obstacles the same way and in the same place. The Leader should be mindful of mobility and flexibility issues in the class. This improv exercise is very physical.

What Are You Doing?

Players work in pairs. Player 1 asks the other: “What are you doing?” Player 2 replies with any activity; for example, “I’m digging a hole.” Player 1 plays that activity. Then Player 2 asks, “What are you doing?” Player 1 replies with a different activity to the one they’re currently doing. Continue back and forth. You can also adapt this for a large group in a circle.

Solo Improv Exercises

Powering through Obstacles

A single player picks any improvised activity, for example, paddling a canoe, and commits to performing it as realistically as possible. The coach calls out various problems as obstacles to the activity; for example, “The paddle breaks!” “The canoe is sinking!” or “You’re attacked by mosquitoes!” No matter what happens, the player must adapt to keep performing the activity. Avoid “magical” solutions to problems — play the reality as much as possible.

Clothing Trouble

Choose various types of improvised clothes. Players practice putting them on or taking them off. Look for small “trouble” details like pulling on fabric or working with zippers and buttons.

What’s Next?

Single player or a group of players working separately. Choose a simple activity that takes more than a few steps to accomplish, for example, making a sandwich, loading a laundry machine. The coach or observers call out a first step, which the player performs any way they interpret. Then the coach calls “What’s Next?” to get a next step, and so on. Note how people approach activities in different ways — one person’s next step may not be the same as another’s. Have the players use the suggestions from the audience instead of their own ideas — it helps them see things differently.

Breaking Routines

The player chooses and performs an activity routine, which they then perform. Repeat the routine, but this time find two ways to break it (i.e., things go wrong). The first break is minor — they can fix or ignore it and continue. The second break is catastrophic and ends the activity. For fun, you can do this as a Die game — the second break kills the character somehow. Encourage players to avoid the obvious choice (like stabbing themselves while cutting vegetables). I don’t recommend you do this when working with children. They will often make an extreme choice at the expense of the exercise and risk hurting themselves.

Difficulty with Small Objects *

A single player becomes involved with a small object or a piece of clothing, for example, opening a pill bottle, fixing a stuck zipper. This can be expanded to involve two or more players working together.

Focused Work

A variation on Difficulty with Small Objects above. A single player chooses and performs an activity with small objects and very fine detail, for example, needlepoint, painting tiny figurines, building a model airplane. Maintain this activity while carrying on a conversation, with the coach or another player working separately. Watch for repetition or loss of detail, which are hints the player is losing focus.

Trapped *

A single player chooses a small, contained environment from which to escape, for example, a bear trap, a stuck elevator. For added challenge, you could add a character element. How might a mouse escape from a mousetrap? Be careful with this one — players will often strain themselves trying to pull free, which can cause injury. Learn to show effort without physically tensing the muscles.

Yes-And-ing the Use of an Object

I usually teach Showing Who through the Use of an Object (in the Scene Work section below) immediately before this improv exercise.

A single player starts with only an object. They handle the object and let it help them make strong decisions about character and location. Expand the activity to further define Who they are and Where.

Take it slowly. The coach can prompt if the player seems stuck. Some example prompts: “Are you doing it fast or slow?” “Is it important to you?” “Do you like this activity?” Continue to prompt “What does that suggest?”

Exploring Activity Movements

A solo player chooses an activity. As they perform it, choose any single movement that reoccurs as part of the activity. Keeping the overall activity, the player then explores changing up that movement, for example, making it faster/slower, harder/gentler, bigger/smaller. The coach can provide direction if necessary. Notice how changes to the movement can suggest changes to character.

Exploring Activity Attitudes

A solo player chooses an activity. The player continues to perform the activity as the coach calls out various attitudes they must take on. (Try some of these: satisfied, proud, excited, enthusiastic, confident, uncomfortable, bored, resentful, guilty, suspicious, secretive, anxious, disgusted, or any others you can think of.) Try to balance positive and negative attitudes. Notice how changes to the attitude can completely change the activity. You can explore that point-of-view for even more ideas within scenes.

Physicalizing an Object *

A single player chooses an object, animate or inanimate, and handles it. They must communicate the life and movement of the object. This requires use of the whole body, not only the hands. Examples include a yo-yo, pinball machine, or hamster.

What’s Beyond? *

A single player moves across the stage, making an entrance and exit. They must show what location they have left and where they are going to. Think of the stage as a bare hallway you’re using for the transition. No extra action takes place here other than to show what’s beyond the entrance and exit.

Group Improv Exercises

Sub-Locations

This is more of a casual thought experiment rather than an improv exercise. Here we’re thinking about specificity. Choose a generic location and brainstorm as many different sub-locations as the group can come up with. You can choose to expand any of these out into scenes.

Long-form groups can also use this exercise as the basis for improvised plays. Establish characters at different sub-locations, and then have them run into each other.

The Where Game *

An excellent beginner’s improv exercise. Player 1 decides on a location and shows Where through an object or activity. When an outside player thinks they know Where, they can assume a character and enter the location. Players establish relationships with the location and each other through objects. Keep the focus on the environment — character is secondary in this exercise.

Fix a Problem, Leave a Problem

Decide on a location in advance. Each player passes through, one-by-one, contacting all objects established. Each player discovers one problem in the environment that they fix, for example, water puddle on the floor, broken doorknob. They also create one different problem and leave it behind. Players don’t have to establish new objects but will probably have to. There can be more than one problem at a time, but keeping track of too many problems will make things difficult. Watch for consistency of objects: doors opening the same way, etc.

Conducted Story with Action/Colour/Emotion

A game for three players, or divide a larger number into groups of three who take turns within their group. A conductor points to players in turn, each continuing to tell a story from where the previous player left off. Each player (or group) has a fixed responsibility for elements of the story.

  1. Action — something happening in the story.
  2. Colour — description of locations, characters, or events.
  3. Emotion — description of how characters feel about things.

Observe the importance of all these to a well-rounded story.

Murder Chain

A game for four players. All but one leave the room. Player 1 gets a location, an occupation, and an object. Player 2 enters from outside, and Player 1 has one minute to communicate the three items through actions and speech in Gibberish. The coach should update players on the time and encourage them to keep moving to cover all three items. Encourage Player 2 to make strong assumptions. At the end of one minute, Player 2 ends the scene by killing Player 1 with the object they think they have. Player 3 enters and it’s Player 2’s turn to communicate the three items they think they have. Repeat with Players 3 and 4. At the end, review in reverse order what each player thinks the items were, then reveal the originals.

It’s interesting to see how ideas change when passed around. Discuss ways the information could have been more accurately communicated.

Where without Hands *

Two or more players decide on an object, which they have to handle or set in motion without using their hands. Objects or activities that don’t usually need hands (e.g., stomping grapes) aren’t allowed.

Showing Where without Objects *

Think about other ways to show environment without relying on physical objects. Two players show an environment using any of the following: seeing, listening, relationship, sound effects, lighting effects, or activity.

Spolin recommends delaying this exercise until students understand how to Show Where through Who and What.

Animal Characters

Practice as a group. Everyone chooses an animal, and moves about the space as that animal. The animals don’t interact. Take time to play with the physical movements of the animal. Gradually, each player becomes more human while keeping aspects of the original animal. Explore how you can develop characters with animal-like traits. A mousy person might be timid, and alternate between freezing still and darting around the room. A lion might lazily sit around, but become ferocious when bothered. What does it mean for someone to be “bull-headed?”

Exploration of a Larger Environment * / Weather Exercise *

Players choose an outdoor location and agree on characters and activity. They then explore the environment. Be affected by conditions beyond the immediate space. What is above? Below? Be affected by weather and outdoor conditions. For an added challenge, try to show the above without using hands.

Poison-Arm Samurai

The group enacts a sword battle in slow motion. Each player’s outstretched arm is their “sword” — dipped in poison, one touch is lethal. Play everything in slow motion — attacks, deaths, taunting opponents. Watch for players speeding up to strike or avoid a touch. Discuss pursuing a personal agenda (survival) at the cost of the reality of the scene (the slow motion). Challenge players to risk getting caught, or allowing someone to get away, while remaining slow. Emphasize the importance of safety with stage violence.

Trading Punches

Another exercise for practicing slow motion violence. Have players pair up and practice trading punches, back and forth, in slow motion. Encourage them to move even more slowly than they think they should. Players should never physically connect, even slowly. Let the receiving player practice “taking” the punch, being careful not to strain.

Scene Work Improv Exercises

NOTE: For some scene exercises, spoken dialogue is optional. This can help beginning students focus more on the environment. Introduce speaking scenes gradually.

Showing Who through the Use of an Object *

Three players decide on a group of characters or a simple relationship, for example, scientists, cleaners, guard/prisoners, tourists/guide. Then, through the use of one or more objects, show the audience who those characters are. Discuss specific objects or actions that clearly communicate information. I usually follow up this exercise with Yes-And-ing the Use of an Object (in the Solo Exercises section above).

Location Tour

Spolin has many improv exercises involving detailed stage floorplans. This is a lighter version. Give students homework to study a room in their home, office, or other familiar place. They commit to memory as much detail about the furniture and objects as they can. In class, they describe the layout of the room as an improvised set. After describing the room, add other students to perform a scene in that location.

Use this exercise to introduce the concept of Visualization vs. Invention. It’s likely that the “owner” of this location is Visualizing to recall the environment. Are the others trying to do the same? Does this make it easier or harder to do the scene?

Location Tour with Movie Scenes

Similar to Location Tour above, except here students study a clip from their favourite film or TV show. Commit to memory as much detail about the scene as possible. In class, describe the environment as an improvised set. After describing, add other students to perform a scene in that location. If special effects or camera tricks are used, can you replicate them?

Where with Set Pieces *

Create a list of props and furniture. Teams of players create different scenes using the same list of objects. The players should try to let the Where create the scene, rather than impose a scene on the objects.

Conversation with Involvement *

Two or three players. They agree on a simple topic of discussion and keep it going while they eat and drink a large meal. Keep the focus on eating and talking so that this doesn’t become a “scene” that avoids the exercise. Show the objects on the table. Chew and swallow your food!

Try this also with a larger group as a dinner party. Players can decide who they are as a group and individually. Everyone should stay engaged in a conversation, even if there is more than one around the table.

Finding Objects in the Immediate Environment *

Three or more players agree on a simple group relationship and a topic of discussion. While the discussion proceeds, each player must handle objects found in the environment. Try not to invent objects, but rather discover them. Keep the discussion going! There should be dozens of objects by the end.

Create an Object, Say a Line

Two or three players. Like Finding Objects in the Immediate Environment, but players can choose any location, characters, and activity. They can speak a next line of dialogue only after they have established a new object in the environment. It must be a new object, not a new activity or new use for the same object.

Aligned/Misaligned Characters

Two players choose a relationship and an activity they can do together. Throughout the scene they handle objects related to the activity. Observe each other and handle objects the same way (aligned). At some point, the coach calls out “Misalign!” and the players now handle objects in different ways of their choosing (misaligned). Talk about how the relationship and dynamic appear to change, even if the characters change nothing else about their behaviour.

Follow-on Scenes

One group of two to four players does a scene establishing a location with several objects. Then a second group plays a scene in the same location, at some time after the first. Location starts as it was at the end of the previous scene. The second scene will likely have some relation to the first, but it doesn’t have to. Watch for consistency of the objects and activities.

The Specialized Where *

Players get a generic location, for example, office, classroom, kitchen. Then they decide on a more specific setting to show the audience, for example, swamp office, outer-space classroom, a kitchen in Hell. They can agree in advance on Who they are and What they’re doing. Of course, you can experiment, but this is usually best played by carrying out the common activities of the generic location, layering on the added perspective of the unusual setting.

Stage Picture (Background)

Two or three players in a location where other people are commonly present. As they play a scene, other players should step in to occupy the background, filling in the stage picture. They can be stationary or passing through. Background players should be “alive” but not distracting.

Human Props

Two or three players start a scene with any information they want. Throughout, they create objects or creatures in the scene. Other players join to become those objects, which the characters handle. Outside players can also jump in as objects and allow the characters in the scene to discover what they are.

Scene-Painting Intros

Practice setting up scenes by quickly describing two or three things about the location to the audience. Then play the scene, making use of the described objects.

Scene-Painting Curveballs

Have players start a scene. At one or more random points, have someone outside the scene describe something in the environment; for example, “There’s a beautiful portrait of her mother on the wall,” or “A large window looks out over the city skyline.” Be careful about abrupt changes, which draw focus and alter the scene; for example, “A rock crashes through the window.”


Share your improv exercises for physical skills!

Do you have any favourite improv exercises for teaching environment, object work, and physicality in scenes? Please send them to me! Instructors are always looking for new ways to train their groups. Help out your community by contributing to this list!

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