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About improv

Wade Jackson, founder of the Covert Theatre shares some thoughts on the art of improvisation.


What is improv?

Improv (also known as impro) is short for improvisation. It’s spontaneous ensemble theatre. It is an art form where the performers make up the theatre, usually comedy on the spot.


History of improv


Improvisation is a centuries old art form that has been used mainly in the performing arts; the acting and music traditions. It’s developed through the ages and today most drama training institutes incorporate improvisation in their curriculum.

The three main pioneers of modern improvisation for the theatre in the 20th century are Viola Spolin, Keith Johnstone and Del Close. From their work, improvisation has developed into a professional performed art form in its own right. Spolin and Johnstone are largely responsible for the modern short form improvised performances, which has influenced television shows such as Whose Line Is It Anyway? and Close is recognised as the creator of the Harold, a style of long form improvisation.

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Types of improv – short, long & narrative forms

There are different types of improv from improv games (often called short form), to improv scenes (often called long form) to full length improvised plays, usually with a genre (often called narrative improv).

Improv games like you’d see on TV’s Whose Line Is It Anyway? is considered short form. Long form shows are usually a collage of scenes that end with a punchline and then a new scene starts unrelated to the last scene. Narrative form is more of a storytelling art form, where you have more time to develop richer characters and relationships and tell a story.    


Covert Theatre’s style of improv

We do all three styles at the Covert Theatre. The styles offer different things and people; both performer and audience alike, have their preferences. The principles of storytelling underpins all that we do so even if we’re doing a short improv game we aim to have strong characters telling a story.

Improv came from the theatre stage, not the stand up comedy stage and so we want our audience to have theatrical experience, not just a comedic one.

When people join the Covert to learn improv, we teach them the principles of improvised storytelling using improv games. Once a member of the theatre, they then learn how to take those principles into long form formats before they learn to take the principles into an improvised play format.

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Benefits of learning improv

Improvisation that focuses on narrative is an art form that provides the opportunity for a person to develop themselves on many different levels. It’s far more than just having the ability to jump up on stage with friends and make some entertaining stuff up.

It sets up a safe and fun environment for a person to undergo experiential self-directed learning. Through the interactive exercises and activities, a person is able to experience learning on an intellectual, physical and emotional level. With regular practise a person a person is able to self-reflect on their learnings and make better choices. This personal growth results in not only being a better improviser but a person is able to transfer this learning to every area of their life, whether it’s personal relationships, or professional work or school.

Improvisation is the wonderful vehicle for leadership development, whether it’s self-leadership or leadership of others, as it imparts crucial life skills that every person needs.    

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Multiple Intelligence Theory


Howard Gardner pictured in 1988, five years after the publication of “Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences.” via  Harvard

Howard Gardner pictured in 1988, five years after the publication of “Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences.” via Harvard

In an effort to broaden the definition of intelligence, Harvard Professor of education Howard Gardener developed the Multiple Intelligence theory in 1983 which states that a person has different types of intelligences. In his 1999 book Intelligence Reframed, Gardner defines intelligence as “a biological potential to process information that can be activated in a cultural setting to solve problems or create products that are of value in a culture.”

The 8 categories are:

  1. Intrapersonal Intelligence

  2. Interpersonal Intelligence

  3. Bodily – Kinaesthetic Intelligence

  4. Visual – Spatial Intelligence

  5. Musical Intelligence

  6. Verbal – Linguistic Intelligence

  7. Logical – Mathematical Intelligence

  8. Natural Intelligence

The term Emotional Intelligence although not recognized by Howard Gardner as it does not fit under his definition is in fact, the combination of both Intrapersonal and Interpersonal Intelligence.

Daniel Goleman, bestselling author of the book Emotional Intelligence, claims that success in life comes down to 80% emotional intelligence and 20% technical knowledge. Whatever the statistic, it is obviously important that as a social being, it is crucial for people to be able to manage themselves and relationships with other people. 

It is interesting to note that most schools focus on developing the Verbal and Logical intelligences over the others. While improvisation develops skills that can be used across all intelligences, there is a focus on the following intelligences:

  1. Intrapersonal Intelligence – hereon called Self Intelligence

  2. Interpersonal Intelligence – hereon called Social Intelligence

  3. Bodily – Kinaesthetic Intelligence – hereon called Physical Intelligence

  4. Verbal – Linguistic Intelligence – hereon called Verbal Intelligence

  5. Visual – Spatial Intelligence – hereon called Spatial Intelligence

  6. Musical Intelligence

Another academic, Professor Robert Stenberg put forward another Intelligence theory called, The Triarchic Mind. He states there are three types of intelligence; 1. Academic (book smarts), Practical (common sense) and Creative (ability to think in novel ways). So we must also look at:

7. Creative Intelligence


1. Self Intelligence

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The exercises and activities in improvisation act as a mirror. They enable for the person participating in them to see themselves and notice their thoughts, emotions, behaviours and capabilities. It is in this way that they can achieve what every philosopher and spiritual teacher has said throughout history – know thyself.  

Benefits: Improvisation develops one’s:

  • Confidence and self-acceptance

  • Ability to focus and concentrate

  • Ability to adapt to ever-changing circumstances

  • Ability to be courageous and vulnerable

  • Awareness of how one thinks

  • Awareness of the quality of one’s inner voice

  • Awareness of one’s emotions

  • Awareness of personal responsibility from choices made

  • Awareness of one’s strengths and areas of opportunities to develop

  • Sense of fun


2. Social Intelligence

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The exercises and activities in improvisation require people to connect and interact with others to achieve a common objective – usually to tell a good story. The objective cannot be met if people don’t work harmoniously together. In order to reach this goal, people develop the skills and understanding of what is required to work effectively together and how to enjoy it. 

Benefits: Improvisation develops one’s:

  • Trust with team members

  • Ability to create and sustain rapport

  • Ability to see things from new perspectives

  • Ability to accept other people’s ideas and points of view

  • Ability to sacrifice one’s ego for the sake of the group


3. Physical Intelligence

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Improvisation develops an awareness of one’s body, how it moves through space and read other’s body language. The mind and body are one; you cannot affect one without affecting the other, so you can influence your thoughts and action through the way you use your body. An awareness of physical expression is also very important for effective communication.

Benefits: Improvisation develops one’s:

  • Confidence and assertiveness through physical expression

  • Ability to communicate non-verbally

  • Ability to exert assertiveness when needed

  • Ability to relax others non-verbally

  • Ability to build rapport non-verbally

  • Ability to physically blend in and feel comfortable in any environment


4. Verbal Intelligence

Improvisation imparts essential communication skills that have a positive effect on daily life. As a human being you can’t not communicate (apologies for the double negative), for everything you say and do reveals something about you. Improvisation that focuses on narrative and different ways of telling stories helps people realise the elements that make a good story.

Benefits: Improvisation develops one’s:

  • Narrative ability and how to engage hearts and minds through story

  • Empathetic listening skills so that one truly understands others

  • Ability to express oneself more effectively


5. Spatial Intelligence

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In improvisation people create imaginary objects, environments and even people in the space. In order to acknowledge and honour the things created, one must be aware of where they are in space. Sharing the stage means that people must know where others are and what they’re doing.

Benefits: Improvisation develops one’s:

  • Awareness of space

  • Ability create and share focus in space

  • Ability to create imaginary objects and environments in space

  • Ability to hold imaginary objects in the mind


6. Musical Intelligence

In improvisation people sing and may improvise music. These skills require an understanding of rhythm, tempo, pitch and tone.

Benefits: Improvisation develops one’s:

  • Ability to vary vocal pitch, tone, volume and tempo

  • Ability to create and maintain rhythm


7. Creative Intelligence

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Human beings have a basic need to grow as people. Creative expression, in any shape of form is fundamental to our physical, emotional, spiritual wellbeing. The result of creativity is personal growth. Creativity is like a muscle, it needs to be worked in order for it to be developed. Improvisation develops one’s creativity, mental flexibility and thinking skills in numerous ways.

Benefits: Improvisation develops one’s:

  • Imagination and ability to generate new ideas

  • Spontaneity and ability to present without preconceived ideas

  • Ability to take risks and overcome fear of failure and being judged

  • Ability to detach from any expectations and set ways of thinking and acting

  • Ability to embrace and explore ambiguity and different ways of doing things

  • Ability to tap into one’s intuition and trust one’s natural creative instincts

  • Ability to delay acting on one’s judgments of others and the situation

  • Ability to be open to other ideas, support them and build on them

  • Ability to justify which creates new things by putting them into a context and giving them a reason to exist

  • Ability to solve problems in new and different ways


Downside to improv

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The barrier to improv is low; anyone can do it and while this makes it accessible to all which is incredibly positive, the downside is that there can be a lot of bad improv if quality tuition is missing. This is why improv is disliked by some people – they’ve seen bad improv, which can be the case when it strays from its theatre roots. Admittedly, there can be a lot of bad improv out there, but there is also a lot of bad stand up and dramatic theatre too. Improv is not immune to bad art.


But is it art?

Because improv is usually not dramatic, it can wrongly be thought of as not being theatre or a legitimate art form by itself. In some quarters improv is seen as a poor cousin to both comedy and theatre as it sits in between, or improv is only a tool to be used in rehearsals or training. This is to misunderstand improv.

Improv is a legitimate art form by itself. And because improvisation is an art form, it is a life-long journey of exploration and discovery. Although it is not something you ever master, its riches are constantly being unfolded as a reward for committing and persevering to the art form.


What is improv really?

While improvisation develops your self-creation, self-discovery and self-expression, ultimately improv is about connection. Every person has a basic human need to be connected to something bigger than themselves. Improvisation meets this need as people are able to work together to achieve something they could never create by themselves. 

A stand up comedy audience is voyeuristic – they’re watching a comedian do their practised routine. Whereas an improv audience is more participatory – they’re a part of the moment when the magic happens, so it feels more inclusive. (And yes, most audience members are silently praying they don’t end up as part of the show).  

Improvisation forces you to be in the present moment so it frees you from the chains of the past. But unlike a meditation where you become present with yourself, in improv you become present in the moment with another person. So it’s an active form of mindfulness. You are fully connected in the moment with another human being and it feels liberating.   

Connection lies at the heart of spirituality – whether it’s a connection to a higher being, nature, the universe or in improv, to your scene partner. This is why for some people, studying the art of improvisation is their spiritual practice.  

And most importantly, improv is a fun way of traveling on the journey to self-actualisation. Laughter and friendship are just two of the natural by-products of studying the art of improvisation.