This is a dictionary of Improv Jargon commonly used around the Staircase Theatre. This list is by no means comprehensive, or definitive. Each improv troupe has its own definitions/ideas that their improv revolves around, and this list is NOT meant to contradict those ideas.
Almost all concepts in improv are meant as guidelines, and are broken sometimes for the sake of humour, or to save a scene. For the most part, however, following these guidelines makes for better scenes and that breaking the guidelines should be done only with a specific purpose in mind.
You can find all of these and more at http://www.learnimprov.com.
A 1-2-3-4 is both an exercise and a concept in building scenes. Every scene has four steps: build an envrionment, build characters/relationships, build a story, resolution. When done as an exercise, it’s performed as follows , using single sentences to distil the scene to its basic elements:
Actor 1: Create an environment
Actor 2: Create a relationship, single sentence
Actor 1: Create a conflict, single sentence
Actor 2: Raise the Stakes, single sentence
Actor 3: Resolve the situation
The 4th Wall is the ‘wall’ between the audience and the actors on stage are supposed to avoid acknowledging the audience. If the actors interact with the audience, this is known as ‘breaking the 4th wall’, and should be avoided generally.
Acceptance is passive, this is when you see somebody’s ‘offer’, and incorporate that suggestion into the reality of your scene i.e you acknowledge its existence. When you fail to do so, you are ‘blocking’ the offer.
A ‘beat’ is an action or idea that generates a response from the audience. Usually most ideas/actions can be repeated 3 times before they start losing their effect. (The “3 Beat Rule”)
1. When you deny somebody else’s ‘offer’ – the opposite of acceptance.
2. The placement of your body on stage so the audience can see you clearly
A character is the persona an actor assumes when stepping on stage. A character can be defined by physical action, by voice, by status and by reaction to events on stage. Character forms one of the three pillars of an improv scene, the other two being Conflict and Environment.
Commitment is active, this is when you see somebody’s ‘offer’, and you not only ‘accept’ it, but you reinforce and help develop that offer, make it stronger and bigger. It can also apply to the offers you yourself give on stage.
Conflict helps drive a scene in improv, by giving the actors a problem to solve. There are three types – Person vs Person, Person vs Environment, Person vs. Self. Person vs Person is by far the most common. This is the reason why people watch improv – to quote “Audiences pay to see us climb out on to tree branches, then take that extra step beyond what is safe, and see what happens to us.” Also known as the ‘motor’ or ‘game’ of a scene. Conflict forms one of the three pillars of a scene, the other two pillars being Environment and Character. Solving the problem gives us resolution.
Negative conflicts are easier to create, but positive conflicts usually create better scenes.
Environment is the location a scene takes place in, and also refers to objects created within the context of the scene. It forms one of the three pillars of an improv scene (the other two being character and conflict.) Creating an environment is usually the first step in any improv scene, and provides the basic framework for the scene to evolve around.
A gag is a line or an action said solely for its comedic value i.e. a one-liner. It’s a high risk, high payoff strategy – if successful, a gag can get a good response from the audience and end the scene, but, if unsuccessful, it usually stops a scene from progressing. Also, too many gags destroys the effect of each one.
1. Synonymous with conflict/motor i.e. the situation that makes a scene interesting to watch
2. A repeating gag (usually spontaneous) that appears during a scene – a ‘scene within a scene’
An offer is a suggestion or addition to a scene. It’s what an improv actor adds to the scene by their presence, actions, character, addition to the conflict, etc.
An out-line is a form of a gag used to end a scene. Frequently, it’s used as a save, to bring an unsuccessful scene to a close.
A pimp is an offer made to an improviser, that forces an improviser to do things that they aren’t prepared to do e.g. “Sing that old fight song for me”, “Stand on your head like you always used to do”, etc. Asking questions in a scene is frequently a form of pimping and wimping (because you’re forcing the other improviser to do all the work for you), and is thus discouraged
Raising the Stakes
This is the concept about taking the initial offer of conflict, and making it stronger, building tension in the scene (which makes the resolution all that much more powerful.) Equivalent to “Rising Action” in literature plot analysis.
When an offer (in the form of a figure of speech, an action or a character) makes a reappearance in a scene separate from its original scene, this is reincorporation. It’s frequently a gag, and, thus should be used sparingly – but, when used properly, it can be amazingly effective.
The interaction between two characters. Frequently, the most interesting and funny scenes come from the way two characters interact with each other, and how they both interact with the conflict in the scene.
A save is an offer that turns an unsuccessful scene into a successful one. This frequently involves an out-line, ending the scene on a high note, though a good offer can also save a scene.
A wimp is the opposite of commitment; when you wimp on an offer, you fail to follow through on it. You basically end up ignoring/dropping it.