Improv comedy and the classroom – what’s the connection?

Steve Frost, Richard Vranch and Lee Simpson doing Experts onstage at the Comedy Store. I'm afraid I don't know the name of the woman in the middle. Can anyone help?

I blogged earlier about my first visit to the Comedy Store in Central London in the early 1990s, which was also my first opportunity to see the Comedy Store Players in action.

Even though I was gob-smacked by the inventiveness of the CSP on stage, I thought it might be possible to adapt some of their activities to the ELT classroom, so I tentatively started using them in the drama workshops and classroom demonstrations that I did in the 1990s.

By using them so much, albeit in the slightly artificial conditions of a demonstration lesson, I managed to work out which elements of the activities worked and which needed adapting. Although I think almost all of their game formats can be used, the following are the ones that work best for me.

1     Superhero, household object and location

In the CSP version, five of the performers tell a story, directed by the sixth. The topic/plot of the story is provided by the audience. In this particular case, it involves the audience giving the names of a superhero, a household object and a location. The five actors tell the story at high speed, when one hesitates he/she is out, and the winner is the last one standing.

 How to do it in class

 Choose a team of five students, who sit in a line. Another student is the director. Ask the rest of the class for the three items you need for the story, and then tell the director to point at someone to start.

Don’t use the elimination process used by the Comedy Store Players. It adds drama and tension on stage,  but is demotivating and can be upsetting in class. Let all the students stay in the team even if they hesitate or can’t think of anything to say.

And that’s it! The great thing about this activity is that if one of the team can’t think of anything to say, the director simply points at another team-member. There should be no pressure on any student to say more than they want to. If they run out of steam, the director moves on.

As I said in my earlier blog, at a CSP performance, the audience is encouraged to shout ‘DIE!’ if one of the performers hesitates. I thought this was a bad idea, but Karenne Sylvester (kalinagoenglish) seems to like it. It’s your choice – but I think the long-term effects might not be beneficial.

An impro activity with high school students in Beijing descends into memorable chaos...

2     Experts

 The CSP version of this game has three of the actors sitting in a line. They are the experts. The audience give the subject that they are experts about, and another actor then asks questions, which they answer. Each actor just says one word.

There is a much more difficult version of the activity, where the three have to say the same words. This is phenomenally difficult and hilarious to watch, but not manageable in the classroom.

How to do it in class

Three students sit in a line in front of the class. They are experts but they don’t know what they are experts about. The rest of the class have to choose their area of expertise.

Let’s say the class chooses ‘fish’. The class then ask question to the experts about fish. The experts answer, but only one word at a time.

Example: What is the best fish to eat?

       Expert 1: I …

       Expert 2: …think …

       Expert 3: … that…

       Expert 1: .. salmon … etc etc

Only three questions per group of experts, then choose a new group and a new area of expertise.

I think I’ve done Experts more times than any of the other activities. It works with all levels and all ages. I was particularly pleased when I did it with a group of 10-year-old Greek pupils at a frontisterion (Marisa – is my spelling right?)

3     Party guests

The idea is that three people turn up at a party and the party host has to try and find out what they do. In the CSP version, one of the actors leaves the room while the audience invent what seem to be fiendishly difficult characteristics for the three party guests – you are a ballet dancer who has a fetish about ironing boards, you are a brain surgeon whose hands shake all the time, etc etc.

The guests arrive one at a time. Through merely chatting with them, the host has to find out their peculiarities. The second and third guests can arrive after a short interval – they don’t have to wait until the host has guessed the first. In fact, it’s marvellous to watch the three guest (who all know each other’s peculiarities) interacting with each other.

How to do it in class

Simplify it so that the party host simply has to work out what the people do. But remind them, that they can’t ask ‘What do you do?’

And finally …

The following are three activities I devised myself which give students an improvisation challenge. I hoped in each case that the language requirement would make the activities achievable even by  elementary students, and I have been proved right time and time again. Students will complete the activities within the language area that they can. In this sense, the activities are self-regulating.

1     Gifted athletes

Anyone who has been to one of my workshops in the last two years will know this activity, because I almost always start with it!

First of all, I ask the members of the group to choose a different name and nationality for themselves and – if they are adults –  an age between 14 and 18. They also choose a sport at which they excel (just for the purposes of the activity- they don’t actually HAVE to excel at the sport).

Now tell them that they are the best in their country at their sport and they have been chosen to go to a Sporting Excellence conference in a hot and sunny place somewhere away from the country where you are (the location in another country is important – get them to think outside the box).

The group choose the location, the time of year, the duration and the start date. Don’t give them ANY of this information – let them decide for themselves. And don’t let the same two or three noisy students provide all the answers.

They imagine that they are at the conference and do the following:

– introduce themselves to five or six other people: I’m X from Y and I’m good at Z.

– arrange to meet in the evening;

– when they meet, one person in the group is late and has to apologize profusely

– they say goodbye at the airport (remember to tell them they may NEVER MEET AGAIN).

– there is another conference for gifted athletes in another hot and sunny place next year. Again, THEY choose the location etc, NOT you!!

– you tell them that they have all been given a grant to go to the second conference.

– they have a joyful reunion with their friends from the first conference.

The activity should therefore finish with a scream of delight as they meet their old friends. It usually looks like this:

Teachers in Vigo, Spain at the end of the Sporting Excellence activity - recognise anyone?

2     Be someone else

The teacher brings a student to the front of the class and asks her 4 questions.

       What’s your name?

       Where do you come from?

       Where do you live?

       What do you do?

 The teacher then asks the same questions again, but the second time, all the answers must be different. The student becomes someone else. She then answers questions from the rest of the class about her new identity. Then SHE chooses someone to come and join her at the front. She becomes the teacher – and this can continue for as long as you like. Teacher rest time!

This activity requires NO preparation time and in fact works best if the students have no time to think about what they are going to say. You will be amazed by the fully-formed other identity that comes out. And the students are much happier answering questions about the new person!

3     Where are you and what are you doing?

 An activity with mobile phones.

Everyone writes an action (eg: I’m cooking supper) and a location (eg: on a mountain) on separate pieces of paper.

 The actions are put in one box and the locations in another. Bring two students to the front of the class with the two boxes in front of them. They pick up mobile phones and begin a conversation: ‘Hi, how are you?’ etc.

 Then Student A asks: ‘Where are you?’ Student B takes a piece of paper from the Locations box and reads the answer: ‘I’m on a mountain.’

Student A then asks: ‘What are you doing?’ Student B takes a piece of paper from the Actions box and says: ‘I’m cooking supper.’

Student B then asks Student A the same questions. It’s really funny and if you like, you can stop the activity here. However you can add an element of improvisation by telling the students to ask ‘Why?’ Then they must explain how they come to be doing such weird things in unusual locations! And they find the most amazing reasons.

Conversations go something like this:

       A:  Hi! Where are you?

       B:  I’m on a mountain.

       A:  What are you doing?

       B:  I’m cooking supper.

       A:  Why are you cooking supper on a mountain?

       B:  Because I’m climbing a mountain and I’m hungry!

The level of creativity in these activities seems immense, but it’s actually quite simple. Very often, you just have to say the first thing that comes into your mind. But the feeling of achievement IS immense!

There is another hidden advantage of this activity. When students embark on these flights of creativity, the rest of the class listen with enormous concentration, as people do when they are watching their favourite comedian, or a comic actor in a movie. Getting students to listen to each other is often hard, but not when you are playing games like these.   And there is a LOT of laughter. And laughter is, as we say in English, a great aide memoire. 😛

Teachers at the ISTEK conference in Istanbul, watching the 'Where are you...' activity. Notice how intently they are listening...

32 thoughts on “Improv comedy and the classroom – what’s the connection?

  1. Regarding who the woman is in the picture at the top of the page – her name is Suki Webster. She regularly performs with the Players in London and does Paul Merton’s Impro Chums with him when that show happens. She also happens to be his wife…. Very funny lady 🙂

    1. Thanks, Nicole! I guess I should have known that, huh? But if you don’t know, you gotta ask, and hope that at some point, a Samaritan like you will come along.

      1. No problem! Nah, that’s fine. I’m just slightly have-to-know-everything about the Players. 😀 I can’t see them in real life so… A Samaritan? Hee. It was a very interesting article at any rate.

  2. I’m going to have WHERE ARE YOU activity at my lesson with 3 groups of 13-year-olds. Very curious about the effect…Ken, are you going to post some more activities from the book. I can’t find the book so far

    1. I can’t really put any more activities from the book here, Alicia, the publishers will barbecue me! I will send them your email address…

      1. …to barbecue it?

        Beware of starting and finishing the day with the computer and blogging…I’m doing it.

  3. That’s such a great photo of high school students in Beijing!

    Many thanks for these activities! Looking forward to trying them out and I know just the group of students to experiment on! 🙂

    Now, just need to add a book to my wish list…

  4. Hi Ken, thanks for the ideas.
    Something i saw the “Whose line is it” group do that i think works quite well in the classroom, especially as a way of practicing questions, is the press conference.
    One student sits at the front of the class and on the board behind them we write up a unusual event they have just experienced (e.g. rescued from inside a whale).
    Everybody else plays the World’s press, gathered to ask questions about the event.
    e.g. “Good Morning, Paul Jenkins, Fishmonger’s News Seattle. How long were you there for?”
    The interviewee answers in any way they like.
    Eventually the interviewee can try to guess who they are.

    1. Nice one, Chris… if you do what I did, you will start a list of ‘adapted’ ideas, and when you get to 100, you write a book!

  5. Hi, Ken!
    I tried WHERE ARE YOU activity with 2 groups of my students. It was very hilarious, esp. in the 1st group( they liked knitting socks in a toilet v. much) My students had some difficulties answering the 3d question. They wanted to give some funny answer, but it’s not so easy even when you speak your native l-ge.
    explaining the task before the activity I asked the students of the 2nd group to try to use in their answers some new words and expressions we’re learning now(there were too many toilets in the 1st group).
    Then I checked grammar in the answers before putting the notes to the boxes and showed the mistakes to the students.
    I think, this activity can be used twice or more times in the same group. Am I right?

  6. Thanks very much for writing these up, Ken. They’re great and I love the way you have suggested simplifications for EFL learners. I was particularly struck by these lines: “The level of creativity in these activities seems immense, but it’s actually quite simple. Very often, you just have to say the first thing that comes into your mind.” As I understand it the key might be for participants to adopt a ‘Yes,….and…’ approach, rather than ‘Yes, but…’?

    1. I’ll think on the implications of that. Vicki. Meanwhile, try the yes-but game. Sts mingle and ask inverted questions. Regardless of the truth, recipient must reply; “Yes, but…”

      Do you speak Italian?
      Yes, but I don’t practise enough.

      The more they do it, the more ambitious the answers. Sts should make a mental note of the best answers, and write them down for homework.

      If you think that thinking up multiple questions might be too difficult, provide them with a handout of questions first.

      Have a great weekend.

  7. Improv comedy has been influencing workplace education and training – team building and change management stuff mostly, I think. The main messages have been take a leap, open your mind and be willing to go with the flow, as I understand it.

    Meanwhile in conversational research, ‘Yes but…’ is up there as the most common way we disagree. Participants on the education and training courses are generally encouraged to adopt a ‘Yes…and…’ approach instead, so to be ready to abandon their ideas and pick up on other suggestions fast and adapt to them instead.

    I think it poses a bit of a dilemma for the English teacher. ‘Yes, but…’ is cognitively easier for the students, and more likely to represent what folks say. But ‘Yes…and…’ might be a better approach to life in general and getting things done.

    Damn, this has started going a bit deeper than I meant, but if we ever meet up somewhere Ken, let me buy you a beer and I’ll explain what I mean.

  8. I’m not sure if this works in the classroom or not, maybe you have experience thereof, but a technique that can work in improv (Monty Python’s Cheese shop sketch being an example) is to reply No.
    “Good morning do you have any Brie?”
    What about Stilton?
    I’m afraid not.

    etc etc

    1. @Chris, I tried Cheeseshop in class and I gave the shopkeeper 3 minutes (or sth) to last – if s/he failed, the customer won.

  9. Hey, I remember ‘gifted athletes’ activity! You started ACINE 2008 with it. Even though it is a simple one, for the beginners, we teachers had great fun with it. The hugging part is a nice ice-breaker.

    1. Thanks Agi! 😛

      It’s simple and yet the teachers loved doing it. Sounds like the perfect classroom activity!

  10. Hello Ken, thank you again for all the fine ideas.
    I came up with an idea in class for the hospital intro that you did at the SOAS gig.
    YOu know how you made us select the Parameters of the buiding: where is it? how many floors? how old? how many nurses? doctors? beds?
    We are currently ‘studying’ cloning in my 3rd year French oral class and I had 6 students.
    I asked them who wanted to be the nurse, doctor, parents,.. and the 2 clones.
    THe parents come back to see their ‘clones’, but there has been a problem and they look different to each other.
    They have a few questions for the doctor and nurse.
    It got a bit emotional and funny, and brought in questions of ethics (that’s the whole point of the cloning debate); because the doctors said that they could have both or neither of the clones.
    The mother was a bit distressed…
    It was quite hilarious.

    Anyway, improvisation has been a Godsend because my students actually TALK french and it provides an atmosphere of immersion in the target language.
    I actually feel like I’m an impro warrior now.
    Kindest Regards

  11. Another thing Ken, (sounds like “I was thinking”)
    How did you make your blog look so colourful and clear. Would you mind having a look at mine ( iltl ) and give me a few quick pointers.
    Cheers, Julien

    1. Hi Julien – congratulations on the adaptation that you did of my Hospital activity – it sounds ambitious and impressive.

      Re your blog: as you are also with wordpress, you have the option of other styles of presentation. You could change your appearance to any of the others, free of charge.

      Just click on ‘Appearance’ on the dashboard, and you will see the options. They are, as far as I understand it, all free.

  12. Hi Ken, Thank you for writing up these activities for stimulating the imagination and getting the laughter going. I can see doing “where are you and what are you doing?” anytime there’s a lull and we could all use a boost!

    Another idea from “whose line” is to present the players with several odd, unidentifiable objects. Pairs (or small groups) take an object and go into a huddle to think of crazy uses for it. They think of as many as they can. Each group returns to role play using their object in the different ways on their list. The group with the most ideas could win, but maybe the class could vote for most original or silliest too.

    A few months ago, I watched some improve for the first time since taking up teaching English. Using those eyes, I was struck by how incredibly “communicative” the process is. The participants are always open to whatever comes their way and they try to build on it. It seemed to me like an excellent model of good listening in conversation! I think that openness is what sets the stage for creativity. Maybe in conversation too?

    Thanks so much for bringing the topic up!

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