Using Improv to Build Comfort

One of my favourite activities has been improv. It’s also been something that I’ve missed quite a lot because I’ve never found other people who want to do improv, and it’s something that definitely needs a stable location to meet every now and again. But it’s such a fun way to build confidence in speaking and to build more trusting relationships because of its very nature.

Though there aren’t any hard rules, improv does have guidelines. These guidelines usually follow the principles of always agreeing with what came before (unless there is a good reason not to) and to make your partner look good. This second one is great because it means that your goal is, as a participant, to work with everyone to create a supportive and encouraging environment. I love this aspect of it because it definitely builds into the kind of learning spaces that are conducive to growing as an individual and within your community.

Regardless of how many (or few) people participate, you can use improv to create some amazing moments. Because people have to think on their feet, it means that situations can become pretty funny through sheer accident or even as a result of a misunderstanding. The number of times my improv friends have had to help recover a scene because I either misheard or used a different definition of a word is uncountable, but I’m not alone in this. That’s where a lot of the comedy comes from!

It’s also where a lot of new ideas and the further development of old ones can be found, too. Sometimes, in creative writing classes, I would suggest that some of my students take a break from writing when they were stuck and try to do improv games using their story settings as part of an improv scenario. When other people joined in, building on their work in a very quick manner, they were better able to see how they could continue developing the story that they were writing. Instead of forcing a story they didn’t like, they were able to explore possibilities of what their narrative could be while working with other people.

And when it comes to learning a language, it’s great because it forces us to say something quickly. Normally, we spend a lot of time thinking about how to say something or what the correct way to phrase something is, especially if we’re being graded on it. This is something that we don’t really do a lot in everyday conversation. When someone tries to communicate with us as best as they can, we usually pause to think about what they mean or ask clarifying questions when we don’t understand. Improv brings that element to language learning, pushing us to just say something and hope others will either get it or help us clarify what we meant to say.

I’d definitely encourage people to use improv a lot more often, either in offline or online learning spaces. Beneath the cut are a couple simple games to get you started that can be used with two or more people.

There are a lot of simple games to get started, and some of my favourites to use with any age tend to be variations on both the ABC’s game and Fortunately/Unfortunately.

The ABC’s Game
Also known as Alphabet Improv, two or more people start a scene where each word has to begin with every letter of the alphabet. Starting with A and moving toward Z, players will alternate between each other.
To practice, it’s simple enough to alternate between players saying the alphabet. It helps people get a feel for the alphabet again. This is important because, even though we tend to know one of them innately, we sometimes find that it’s more difficult to do with another person. It also helps people to learn which alphabet they’re meant to use (if doing it in another language).

Other practice variations include saying words that follow a theme in alphabetical order. Some easier variations tend to be foods, animals, countries, and occupations.

Thought to be inspired by a children’s book (usually that of Remy Charlip, but others point to Michael Foreman), it’s a game that follows the structure of having two or more players starting statements with the words ‘fortunately’ or ‘unfortunately’. As players alternate between the beginnings, everyone must try to keep their statements related to the statement that comes prior.

Sometimes games can start with the first player stating “Fortunately…” and giving an event, though other structures include choosing an event at random (e.g., “I lost my bicycle”) and people responding to it.