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Competitive Improv Games

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Most improvisational activities are guided by a very loose format. Actors might be given a location or a situation in which to create a scene. For they most part, they have the freedom to make up their own characters, dialogue, and actions. Improv comedy groups play each scene in hopes of generating laughter. More serious acting troupes create realistic improvisational scenes.

There are, however, many challenging improv games that are competitive in nature. They are judged usually by a moderator, host, or even the audience. These types of games generally put a lot of restrictions on the performers, resulting in a great deal of fun for the viewers.

Some of the most entertaining competitive improvisation games are:

  • The Question Game

  • Alphabet

  • World’s Worst

Remember: Although these games are competitive by design, they are meant to be performed in the spirit of comedy and camaraderie.

The Question Game

In Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, the two bumbling protagonists wander through Hamlet’s rotten Denmark, amusing themselves with a combative “question game.” It’s a sort of verbal tennis match. Stoppard’s clever play demonstrates the basic idea of the Question Game: create a scene in which two characters speak only in questions.

How to Play:
Ask the audience for a location. . Once the setting is established, the two actors begin the scene. They must speak only in questions. (Normally one question at a time.) No sentences ending with a period – no fragments – just questions.

Example:

LOCATION: A popular theme park.

Tourist: How do I get to the water ride?

Ride Operator: First time at Disneyland?

Tourist: How can you tell?

Ride Operator: Which ride did you want?

Tourist: Which one makes the biggest splash?

Ride Operator: Are you ready to get soaking wet?

Tourist: Why else would I be wearing this raincoat?

Ride Operator: Do you see that big ugly mountain down yonder?

Tourist: Which one?

And so it continues. It might sound easy, but continually coming up with questions that progress the scene is quite challenging for most performers.

If the actor says something that is not a question, or if they continually repeat questions (“What did you say?” “What did you say again?”), then the audience is encouraged to make a “buzzer” sound effect.

The “loser” who failed to properly respond sits down. A new actor joins the competition. They can continue using the same location / situation or a new setting can be established.

Alphabet:

This game is ideal for performers with a knack for alphabetization. The actors create a scene in which each line of dialogue begins with a certain letter of the alphabet. Traditionally, the game starts off with an “A” line.

Example:

Actor #1: All right, our first annual comic book club meeting is called to order.

Actor #2: But I’m the only one wearing a costume.

Actor #1: Cool.

Actor #2: Does it make me look fat?

Actor #1: Excuse me, but what’s the name of your character?

Actor #2: Fat man.

Actor #1: Good, then it suits you.

And it continues all the way through the alphabet. If both actors make it to the end, then it’s usually considered a tie. However, if one of the actors flubs up, the audience members make their judgmental “buzzer” sound, and the actor at fault leaves the stage to be replaced by a new challenger.

Normally, the audience supplies the location or the relationship of the characters. If you tire of always beginning with the letter “A” the audience can randomly select a letter for the performers to begin with. So, if they receive the letter “R” they would work their way through “Z,” go to “A” and end with “Q.” Ugh, it’s starting to sound like algebra!

World’s Worst

This is less an improv exercise and more of an “instant punch-line” game. Although it’s been around a long time, “World’s Worst” was made popular by the hit show, Whose Line Is It Anyway?

In this version, 4 to 8 actors stand a in line facing the audience. A moderator gives random locations or situations. The performers come up with the world’s most inappropriate (and incredibly humorous) thing to say.

Here are some examples from Whose Line Is It Anyway:

World’s Worst thing to say on your first day in prison: Who hear loves to crochet?

World’s Worst thing to say on a romantic date: Let’s see. You had the Big Mac. that’s two dollars you owe me.

World’s Worst thing to say at a Major Award Ceremony: Thank you. As I accept this major award, I’d like to thank everyone I’ve ever met. Jim. Sarah. Bob. Shirley. Tom, etc.

If the audience responds positively, then the moderator can give the performer a point. If the joke generates boos or groans, then the moderator may want to good-naturedly take points away.

Note: Veteran improv performers know that these activities are meant to entertain. There aren’t really winners or losers. The whole purpose is to have fun, make the audience laugh, and sharpen your improve skills.

Young performers might not understand this. I’ve seen kids (from elementary through middle school) who become upset about losing a point or receiving a negative reaction (“buzzing sound”) from the audience. If you are a drama teacher or a youth theater director, consider the maturity level of your actors before trying these activities.

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