Seven Signs of Good Improvising

RfG Newsletter, Volume 4, Number 2, Winter/Spring 1995

“If you enjoy working [on stage] with someone, they’re a good improviser.”

— Keith Johnstone

Clear boundaries

Players make and respect clear boundaries that define the play context and what is permissible in playing. Players are clear with themselves and one another regarding the distinction between player-as-person and player-as-character.

Balanced contribution

There is frequent contribution from each player and a balanced sense of contribution, an equality of give-and-take. Players are observant and responsive to the offers of one another; they listen and don’t talk over one another.

Character acceptance

Players give and fully accept character, making others look good without imposing conditions for how they themselves appear. They put developing the improv ahead of showing off or hiding out.

Wide expressive range

Players “physicalize” in a grounded way corresponding to the story; they fully use their expressive range, according to the spirit of the situation.

Strong character

Players stay in the present moment when they don’t know what is happening or when their imagination is blank. They do not become defensively self-conscious or utilize familiar protective behavior (e.g., breaking character to apologize to the audience, panicking, quitting the scene, blaming other players) unless they playfully incorporate such actions into the scene.

Positive outcome

Players are often surprised and pleased by the outcome of the scene; they enjoy having cocreated and shared an adventure and like each other at the end of the improv. They accept and learn from what occurred and quickly let go of judgments of self and of others.

Spontaneous idea development

Players develop the first idea offered, make specific offers, are willing to allow both the obvious and the irrational or unconventional, and justify these offers, making them work in the scene (i.e., they do not censor or block the offers of their own imagination). Players are not planning ahead, but are making it up as they go; they remember where they have been and reincorporate previously-used story elements.