Learn to be a better improviser by using physicality

By Stuart Moses

My love language is learning. It’s the most reliable thing I’ve found to lift my spirits. It works whether I’m the teacher or the student.

I think we should always be learning new things. When you’re new to improv, feel free to take as many improv classes – from as many teachers – as you can. You’re learning a new set of skills so I encourage you to dig deep.

When you’ve been improvising for a while, you should widen your horizons. There are many skills adjacent to improv that will make you a better improviser including (but not limited to): acting, clowning, mime, puppetry, dance, laughter yoga and physical theatre.

Two teachers performing at the British Improv Project
Me using my physicality to react to offers made at #BIPSpring22. Photo by Luke Cousin.

The more improv I’ve done, the less I’ve been interested in communicating verbally. There are often too many words in improv scenes. If you’re playing with a large group, one of the best gifts you can give is to not add more verbal ideas, but to accept and deepen the offers already made. During the teachers’ show at the last British Improv Project I found myself reacting with my ‘big expressive face’ to the offers that had been made. This was an expression of my ongoing desire to develop my physicality so I can react with my whole body rather than just the words from my mouth.

In April, I attended an Introductory Course held by Frantic Assembly, self-proclaimed makers of thrilling, energetic and uncompromising physical theatre, perhaps best known for their The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time production.

I’d been a fan for a while, watching the Frantic Assembly videos, reading The Frantic Assembly Book of Devising Theatre and listening to The Frantic Podcast, so I was already familiar with many of the techniques we explored, but when it comes to physical theatre desk study is no substitute for practical experience.

It’s true that some of the things we learned are easier than others to translate to an improv setting. However, Push Hands would be useful exercise to run in a rehearsal.

Two hands belong to two different people touching as if they were playing Push Hands
Push Hands was one of my favourite exercises and can easily be used as an improv exercise.

Here’s how to play Push Hands. First you get into pairs. One person holds out their hand palm downwards. Meanwhile, the other person puts their hand underneath, facing upwards. The person with their hand below adds pressure in an upward direction, while the person on top pushes downwards. This creates some tension. The person with their hand on top is leading and moves with their partner around the room. Once you’ve mastered the basics you can begin to explore different levels and pace. My favourite step is the one where the person whose hand is below closes their eyes and relies on touch to be guided around the room.

The lifting exercises we explored in the Frantic Assembly were amazing and intense, but probably not something I’d recommend trying to bring to your improv group. 

You don’t need to learn with Frantic Assembly, though for me it was an unforgettable experience, but I do think you need to keep learning. By bringing the skills and knowledge that you’ve learned from outside improv into improv, you can keep things fresh and help maintain your enthusiasm – and perhaps, best of all, these things will mark you and your group as different from all the other people and groups who have only been learning from improv teachers.

Find out more about Frantic Assembly.

The next British Improv Project is sold out. Join the BIP Improv 4-6 Nov 2022 waiting list here.