What is Improv?

From Improvology
Improv is a type of theatre where the actors act out scenes based on audience or a directors suggestion(s) without a script or rehearsal. This is not to say practice is not involved. Improv is a great skill that is only cultivated and improved through practice of improv exercises and acting skills. The most well-known form of improv is most likely short-form comedy improv as portrayed in the show “Whose Line Is It Anyway.” However, there are multiple improv formats that range from short (three minute scenes) to long (half hour or longer scenes) formats. The formats may be solely comedic in nature to completely dramatic and everything in between.

From Wikipedia
Modern improvisational comedy, as it is practiced in the West [and the East!], falls generally into two categories: shortform and longform.

Shortform improv consists of short scenes usually constructed from a predetermined game, structure, or idea and driven by an audience suggestion. Many shortform games were first created by Viola Spolin based on her training from Neva Boyd[1]. The shortform improv comedy television series Whose Line Is It Anyway? has familiarized American and British viewers with shortform.

Longform improv performers create shows in which short scenes are often interrelated by story, characters, or themes. Longform shows may take the form of an existing type of theatre, for example a full-length play or Broadway-style musical such as Spontaneous Broadway. Longform improvisation is especially performed in ChicagoNew York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles. One of the more well-known longform structures is the Harold, developed by ImprovOlympic cofounder Del Close. Many such longform structures now exist.

A Brief History of Improv
Improvised performance is as old as performance itself. From the 1500s to the 1700s, Commedia dell’arte performers improvised based on a broad outline in the streets of Italy and in the 1890s theatrical theorists and directors such as Konstantin Stanislavski and Jacques Copeau, founders of two major streams of acting theory, both heavily utilised improvisation in acting training and rehearsal.[2]

While some people credit Dudley Riggs as the first vaudevillian to use audience suggestions to create improvised sketches, modern theatrical improvisation is generally accepted to have taken form in the classroom with the theatre games of Viola Spolin in the 1940s and Keith Johnstone in the 1970s. These rehearsal-room activities evolved quickly into an independent artform that many consider worthy of presentation before a paying audience.

Spolin can probably be considered the American Grandmother of Improv. She influenced the first generation of Improv at The Compass Players in Chicago, which led to The Second City. Her son, Paul Sills, along with David Shepherd, started The Compass Players and The Second City. They were among the first organized troupes in Chicago, Illinois and from their success, the modern Chicago improvisational comedy movement was spawned.

Much of the current “rules” of comedic improv were first formalized in Chicago in the late 1950s and early 1960s, initially among The Compass Players troupe. From most accounts Elaine May was central to this intellectual effort. Mike Nichols, Ted Flicker, and Del Close were her most frequent collaborators in this regard. When The Second City opened its doors on December 16, 1959, Viola Spolin began training new improvisers through a series of classes and exercises which became the cornerstone of modern improv training. By the mid 1960s, Spolin’s classes were handed over to her protégé, Jo Forsberg who further developed Spolin’s methods into a one-year course, which eventually became The Players Workshop, the first official school of improvisation in the USA. During this time Jo Forsberg trained many of the performers who went on to star on The Second City stage.

Many of the original cast of Saturday Night Live came from The Second City and the franchise has produced such comedy stars as Mike MyersChris Farley and John Belushi.

Simultaneously, Keith Johnstone’s group The Theatre Machine, which originated in London, was touring Europe. This work gave birth to Theatresports, at first secretly in Johnstone’s workshops, and eventually in public when he moved to Canada. Toronto has been home to a rich improv tradition.