I am a big believer in the idea of abundance. I don’t want to go all Tony Robbins or anything but having an abundance mindset has always served me well. At the very least, it has certainly served me as an improviser. Or perhaps it has developed because I have been improvising for so long. In any case, practicing abundance through improvisation is a great way of stretching those muscles of imagination and creativity, and as Maya Agelou says “You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.”
When one first starts improvising, one of the first things to get used to is just ‘saying stuff.’ Opening your mouth and letting whatever falls out be enough. This can be hard after a lifetime of trying to say and do the right thing so any exercises that help loosen you up and get used to free associating are helpful. Here’s 3 of my go-tos.
Point and say
- Alternating hands, point at as many things in the room as you can in one minute and say what they are out loud
- Alternating hands, point at things in the room. Start by saying nothing and then always be saying out loud the last thing you pointed at.
- Alternating hands, point at as many things in the room as you can in one minute and once again out loud say anything that they are NOT.
A very simple and extremely effective tool for starting the process of improvising or creative thinking. Great in a small group or even a pair when passed around like an imaginary ball. When you ‘catch’ the ball repeat the word you just heard, when you ‘throw’ it, say any associated word that comes into your head. I aways coach this to use the speed of the ball throwing to remove any time for thinking.
In pairs, one person has one minute to pull as many imaginary objects as they can out of a large invisible box in front of them. Their partner is their cheerleader, giving words of encouragement or even prompts if helpful. E.g What’s that tiny/shiny/squidgy thing?
When both players have had a turn, there is the opportunity to do a shared version. Firstly at speed where you notice each other getting stuck and save each other. Another version is slower but pulling out associated objects. E.g you pull out a cup of tea, I then pull out a slice of cake and we sit down to afternoon tea.
A word on going blank
In people’s first ever improv sessions the universal fear seems to be this idea of going blank/drying up/not having anything good to say. Now, I cannot guarantee that they will not go blank, however I would say that in my experience it’s often not that people don’t have an idea but that they have lots of ideas that they quickly judge and discard before they say something. This is why I will always try to eliminate thinking time. It can seem like you have more time to think of something, but often it has the effect of giving more space to hate your idea and edit yourself.
The good news is, improv really can help silence that pesky inner critic. Plus most of the time, improv is highly collaborative so it’s never up to just one person to come up with all the ideas.
Once you have got a little more comfortable with free associating, it can be helpful to then start improvising category based games so that your brain starts to get used to clumping ideas together or accessing similar ideas quickly. 3 of my favourite exercises for this are
Person a gives person b a category e.g flowers and person b names 8 things in that category while person a counts them off e.g
Person A: Daisy
Person B: 1 thing
Person A: Rose
Person B: 2 things
Person A: Petunia
Person B: 3 things
Etc. etc. At the end I like to get both players to chant ‘Those were 8 things’ while doing air punches, but hey, that bit is optional.
You can also have the category giver ask if their partner would like easy, medium or hard e.g easy = colours, medium = clothing designers, hard = number 1 singles of the 1980s.
No more BLANK
We think Jules invented this game but there are no original ideas and everything has already been invented so who knows? Anyway…
Players stand in a circle. 1 person names a category and gestures to someone across the circle who names something in that category and gestures to the next person and so on. If a player gets passed to and they cannot think of anything else in that category they joyfully shout ‘No more xxx’ and then start a new category. So it might go
Person 1: Makes of car (gesturing to next person across the circle)
Person 2: Toyota
Person 3: Nissan
Person 4: Mitsubishi
Person 5: No more cars! Things you could eat for breakfast…
I’m gonna need
Another circle game in which people make teeny tiny lists of 3 things. Person 1 walks up to person 2 and and says ‘I’m going to need a xxxx, I’m going to need a xxxx and I’m going to need a xxxx. Person 2 then takes the last thing on the list they just heard and uses it to create a new list for the next person. Here’s an example:
Person 1: I’m going to need some jelly, some ice-cream and a party hat
Person 2: I’m going to need a party hat, a top hat and a bobble hat
Person 3: I’m going to need a bobble hat, a pair of skis and a lot of snow
Quite fun to have lots of these happening at once in a circle.
A word on getting things right
With category based games there can be the temptation to try and get things ‘correct.’ I believe that it’s the attempt at getting things right that is fun to watch. Also the letting go of it quickly when we realise we do not have to access to the information that we need in the moment. My favourite bits in these kind of games are when people surprise themselves, get creative or make things up when they don’t have the ‘right’ answer.
Patterns and Re-combinations
Then once we’re getting into our categories we can try some more complex idea generation games. I say complex – these are still hopefully super simple but with an idea on developing the pattern recognition muscle a bit more
3 in a circle
Also known as ‘I am a tree’ this classic game has people stepping into a circle to make pictures of 3 ideas. When each person steps in they try to make the shape of what they are describing with their body.
‘I am a tree’
‘I am a branch’
‘I am a bird’
The first person (the tree) chooses which idea to keep ‘I’ll keep the bird,’ and the tree and branch leave.
‘I am a bird’
I am a goldfish’
‘I am a pet shop’
‘I’ll keep the pet shop,’ says bird person. (and the bird and goldfish step out)
‘I am a pet shop’
‘I am a pot shop’
‘I am a pitch and putt’
And so on. The idea here is to try and pivot as much as possible to develop each picture so we don’t stay in the tree and forest world for too long e.g
‘I am a tree, I am a branch, I am a bird’ ‘I am a bird, I am a twig, I am a leaf’ ‘I am a leaf, I am a trunk, I am some bark’
Lists of lists
One person names the title of a list and the other improvisers populate the list e.g
‘Things not to do on a first date’
- Talk about your ex
- Propose marriage
Then another improviser uses the last item on the original list as an item on a new list or lists
- Things you do when you’re sad
- Alternative words for shout
- Things that might happen as a result of chopping onions
You can alternate lists and items or do a full round of each or do it organically while you are on a roll or reach a dead end. But a fun way of moving back and forth between ideas. Can also be great inspiration for scenes or longform.
Far greater people than I have attempted and failed to explain this game clearly so here’s a great write up form the good folks at improv resource center (yes I did spell that right, it’s American) – safe to say, it’s an absolute banger of a game.
A word on being obvious
With all of these games it is super helpful to be ‘obvious’ Your obvious is not necessarily the same as everyone else’s idea of obvious. So what may seem simple and easy or even boring to you can be a delightful surprise to others. Keith Johnstone writes a lot about being obvious. It’s a whole other blog probably.
Thinking and writing about abundance and variety has made me realise how closely this sits alongside the idea of self judgement and the inner critic. As I said at the start I believe in abundance. In over 20 years of doing and teaching improv I have never yet met a human who isn’t chock full of brilliant and bonkers ideas once they get used to accessing them and sharing them, rather than keeping them locked up until a better one comes along. I hope games like the ones I’ve described here help you share yours (or have an abundance of laughter).