Monday 10 April 2023

A Sort of Apology

This blog has been dormant for a while. It’s not because I have not been thinking about improv; I have. A lot. I just have had very little time to write those thoughts down and edit them into something coherent. I also had an intention to do some of them as video or audio, but this takes even more preparation and editing. I think in here is the essence of why I have done improv for so long, the fact that you just have to turn up. There is no script to learn, no props to bring, no specific outfit to have prepared.

Obviously, I have prepared. I have rehearsed a lot with the group ideally but even this is often just turning up and playing. And I have taken courses, etc to which I had to turn up and absorb. And play.

I am clearly ignoring a big part of the preparation for a show – someone has to find and book the venue, plan who is in it, promote it, organise guests, musicians or other external performers. And for rehearsals, someone has to find and book the venue, organise a coach, make sure enough people can come. But for people who are just players, a lot of improv is just turning up and being there. But it spoils you for when you have do something preparation-heavy such as acting or stand-up, or something post-performance heavy such as video making.

Anyway, this is turning into post rather than a brief note to say there will be more posts coming soon. (Cynical editor: Cue another long hiatus.)

Friday 9 April 2021

Improv with Me is Like… (Sex vs Improv)

There is a fun improv game called “Sex with Me” which explores the extended connections between the act of procreation with a subject the audience deems worthy of comparison. Who am I kidding? It’s a set of sex jokes, puns and innuendo. As I said, it’s great fun. 

“Sex with me is like a writing a blog post: You think about it a lot more than you spend actually doing it.”
Mordsaga show 26/10/2018
Photo by Robin Straaijer

The game allows me a great introduction to a topic I have thought about since I first started improvising: the connections between sex and improv. (Actually, improv has many of the same similarities with any team sport, but sex is funnier than every sport except curling.)

“Sex with me is like an analogy: two things that seem different come together and are revealed to be more similar than at first thought.”

Apart from the obvious starting with “yes” and the fact they have a similarly addictive quality, there are many ways improv is like sex.

Take the whole shortform / longform argument. Some improvisers prefer the quick payoff of shortform, where it is concluded within a few minutes and there’s hopefully a great payoff at the end, lights out. But others prefer longform. This allows for a longer build-up and a much deeper connection with what’s going on. There is still a payoff, but it’s much more about getting there rather than the moment itself. With shortform, once it’s over, there is sometimes a short rest and then you’re off again, but with longform, once it’s done, that might be it for a week. (Note: performing schedules vary person to person.)

The most common configuration of performers is two people, but scenes of more than two also happen. It becomes trickier when there are more people. Giving focus becomes more important as is gauging when to enter and when to withdraw.

There are also plenty of tools and methods we can use to make our scenes better, if we want. Status – one player taking a more dominant or subservient role; the choices of being more physical or more emotional. Many people embrace playing a character other than yourself. And sometimes it is acceptable to use a gag.

Of course, it’s all about heightening. Start small and build. Build to a peak and end here or soon after.

Something we should consider is the audience. Because improv is something people watch too. So now, I guess the analogy has temporarily moved into comparing improv to porn. In general audiences prefer shortform improv. That’s not to say there is not an audience for longform, but it’s largely other performers.

Joking aside, I think the biggest way improv and sex are very similar are in attitudes to how we play. Sure, if you go into the scene intending that you yourself have fun, it can be a good scene. But when it really works best when you go in with the intention of pleasing your scene partner and they go into it with the intention of pleasing you. That’s when you can make truly amazing scenes.

“Sex with me is like an improv blog: it’s an oddly proud feeling when it’s out there for everyone to see.”

P.S. I realise that all this analogising, I am left with one further inescapable conclusion, that solo improv, something I love doing and like to think I’m pretty good at, is basically wanking.

What similarities have I missed?

Monday 5 April 2021

Genres: Dystopian Bureaucracy Example

Poster for the movie Brazil (1985)
Brazil poster

For a recent workshop, I did a lot of research into dystopian fiction. Part of which meant rewatching Terry Gilliam’s 1985 classic Brazil. The film has nothing to do with the country, it's just a song that plays a lot in the background. It’s a film where you have to explain the title, but titles have never been Gilliam’s strong point. 

Brazil is a one man against the system comedy / tragedy set in a terrifying vision of the future. It is both a dystopian movie in it’s own right, but also a satire of dystopian movies. I’m a huge fan, but understand that some people dislike that it is trying to be too many things at once. 

But, anyway, there is one scene that I love as a satire on bureaucracy gone wild and the reluctance in such societies to take responsibility. Plus, there’s a slapstick take on surveillance culture. All in one short scene.

As a bonus, enjoy the nod to 1984’s oxymoronic slogans that opens the next scene.


Friday 7 August 2020

Online Improv: Zoomed Out

Very few people would have predicted that we would all be doing our shows online so soon into the future. But that’s what has been happening. And as many of us discovered or are discovering, it’s not the same as doing it on stage. Whilst a lot of the core skills are transferrable, there are some things that are very different.

One huge difference is the lack of an audience and the direct feedback of an audience responding and thus shaping what we are doing. The shows lose a lot of that “live factor” which is a big part of the appeal of an improv show for an audience and is the reason that even the best improvised TV shows have none of the excitement of seeing it live.

Probably the biggest hindrance for performers is not being in the same place as our fellow players. We can’t truly look them in the eyes and get that deep connection. There is a lag in the conversation so our reactions don’t feel in the moment as much as in several moments ago. We can’t often be as big physically as we once were as we’re either performing within a narrow rectangle or we’re sitting down. This leads to a lot of ‘talking heads’ scenes where two actors just stand (or sit) there and talk with little movement or emotion.

Part of what makes it difficult is that we are trying to apply our skills to a new medium. We all learnt the core skills of paying attention and reacting constructively, and at the same time we learnt how to express them on stage, in a theatre setting. We call ourselves improvisers, but we could more accurately call ourselves “stage improvisers,” the same way you talk about “stage actors” and “screen actors.” The main reason we don’t is that screen improvising didn’t happen all that often, and when it did, it was usually done by stage improvisers and the setting was usually stage-like. Or it was done by screen actors and it was only part of a thing that was mostly scripted.

But now screen improvising is happening all the time and we realise they are different beasts.

As an actor, the transfer from stage to screen is often a difficult one. If you are used to performing on stage, you are used to projecting so the whole room can enjoy you. Bellowing like that into a mic will not win you many friends. You are also used to injecting your emotions into your whole body, often exaggeratedly so. In acting on camera, less is more.

The style of improvisation that many of us learnt (cheeky, exaggerated, stage comedy a la music hall/vaudeville) doesn’t really work. We have to take our inspiration from TV acting. It can still be exaggerated and comic, but within different parameters. Acting for screen is smaller, but still there is energy and intensity, it’s just very often internalised.

Sets are another limiting factor. In improv, because the action can be set literally anywhere, a group will either perform in front of a neutral curtain with some plain chairs for everything else or have a million pieces of furniture all lying back stage and a set of stage-hands ready to deploy. At home, the default choice would be to find a blank wall or hand a neutral curtain. As any visible furniture kind of gives a location. If you have the time and your device is portable, you can quickly create a location in another part of your house to best represent the next scene, but again, this is can be a distraction or possible delay although can be impressive if pulled off well.

Now there are virtual backgrounds, but not everyone can use them and quite often they are more of a distraction than something that genuinely sets the location. So be careful. Practice using them with your group but see how you (all) feel about the results. Unless everyone has devices that can handle it well (and not all can) and you know how to set them up quickly, they might just get in the way and take you away from being in a few moments ago.

The place where there is a real win is props. On stage, miming objects makes so much sense. In improv, most of the time we don’t use them, because you either have a large enough collection of them that you can find something usable or you have nothing and mime everything. (The middle ground is where you have a limited set of props because you know the setting / genre beforehand.)

Miming, however does really work on screen. Fortunately, we are mostly performing at home now, so we have within a short sprint, practically a full set of everyday household objects. (Maybe the history of improv ask-fors hqas been leading us to this moment. “Can I have a house-hold object and a room in a house?”) If you know there are things you are likely to want in a scene, it just takes a little thought to have them available within arm’s reach.

One other area, we have to adjust is in our director’s heads. As improvisers, we have different heads: we are actors, co-writers and co-directors all at the same time. But there are big differences between directing for stage and for screen. So instead of thinking about where we are on the stage, we can think about how far we are from the camera and where we stand in the frame. We even have extra choices we don’t often have on stage, such as extreme close-up. We can even play with angles in a way the stage doesn’t lend itself to.

All these are things an audience understands and to a degree expect having been watching TV for much of their lives. We also, really, should be thinking about what’s on screen: i.e. the shot the audience is seeing. A dialogue on TV will usually cut between the two speakers, but the convention for an improv show is that the two people keep their video on. The main problem being that as it usually has to be controlled by the actor and switching your own video on and off is clunky, but some conferencing software allows a host to control what is seen and I’ve seen some shows using live-TV software. Both of these mean that actually means the role of a director (or live editor) makes sense. Very much the way it makes sense to have a lighting improviser in many venues.

A director can swap between views and “pin” specific videos to simulate cuts between actors, they can share pictures or video to set up locations, they can share music for emotional or dramatic moments, especially when there is no dialogue.

Actually, music can be a place online shows struggle. With the lag and the fact speaking often cuts out other sounds in Zoom, for example, it’s impossible to improvise songs, except when the music comes from the same place as the singer. Indeed, speaking over music can be problematic on things zoom unless the speaker is the one sharing the music, which makes it yet another thing that most actors never have to think about.

I’ve very much taken the stance that our inspiration on how to produce content should come from TV. This is my opinion. 

Perhaps we should look at the other online phenomena such as podcasts and vlogs and make things that are less visual and more like stuff to have in the background whilst cooking. This is presumably why many improv groups have gone the way of live discussions about improv as part or all of their online output.

Or we maybe we should look at youtubers and go for lots of short content with running themes, with the emphasis perhaps on editing.

Or we could take our cues from TikTok and simply lip sync to sound clips from Whose Line Is It Anyway.

When I started writing this it was very early in the whole lockdown thing, other things kept usurping it. It seems less good timing with many places going out of lockdown. But with a potential second wave may be it’s pertinent still. Plus, I don’t think the concept of online shows will completely go away just because virus does.


Monday 6 July 2020

Improvisation and introversion

It had been a good, fun show in a cheap room above a popular bar. Chatting with an audience member after, they suddenly said, “You must be an extrovert!” I was surprised at the time, but I’ve heard it enough since that I can now be all cool about it. It is a common assumption that performers are all extroverts. It makes sense. But as you probably know, many, many performers are the opposite. We’re introverts.

The stereotypes are that extroverts are all attention-seekers and introverts are all recluses. These are definitely extreme and narrow views. However, even the standard dictionary definitions of the words don’t do either side justice:

Extrovert: noun: an outgoing, socially confident person.

Introvert: noun: a shy, reticent person.

It gets worse when you look at the synonyms:

Extrovert: outgoing person, sociable person, life and soul of the party, socializer, mixer, mingler, social butterfly, socialite, party animal

Introvert: recluse, lone wolf, hermit, solitary, misanthrope, outsider

You’re either a mingler or a misanthrope!

Graphic by Allison Plume.

The common psychological definitions are somehow better and much less concrete:

Extrovert: A person predominantly concerned with external things or objective considerations.

Introvert: A person predominantly concerned with their own thoughts and feelings rather than with external things.

The original definitions, popularised by psychiatrist Carl Jung, were about where we focus our mental energy, and again a bit fuzzy:

Introverts direct their psychic energy inwards and extroverts, outwards.

Really, introvert and extrovert are best defined, as I see it, by answering this: where do you get your energy?

Extrovert: A person who gets energy from being with other people.

Introvert: A person who gets energy from being on their own.


So an introvert can be happy in crowds, be the life and soul of the party, but they will go home for alone time to recharge, whereas an extrovert will get energy from being at the party and will get more quickly bored of being alone.

That is not to say people and parties can’t energise an introvert or that extroverts don’t like alone time. As we see with many human classifications, things are not defined as being completely one thing or another. We all have introvert and extrovert sides to us, but very often there is one end of the spectrum we tend to be. People you meet will never be entirely at the end of the in/extrovert spectrum as the extremes are actually disorders.

In a very unscientific poll of improvisers I made, the numbers of introverts and extroverts were pretty close, but over half the people identified as in the middle or ambiverts, having both sides in more or less equal amounts.

We’re currently experiencing a huge test of ex/introversion: the lockdown challenge. Those people coping very well, and even secretly enjoying lockdown more than they feel they should, are almost certainly introverts. If you were tearing your hair out after 2 hours, you are probably an extrovert.


it’s very difficult to tell who is an introvert or an extrovert on stage. Especially with seasoned performers. But you might get an idea at an after party, but even then, not for sure. Plenty of introverts love being at parties; some will be the so-called life and soul of said same party. And it’s possible to be an extrovert AND shy and retiring.


In the so-called “West,” we seem to favour extroverts. You are expected to be fun at parties, overjoyed to be part of a large crowd, and sparkling at interviews. And whilst you don’t have to be the life and soul of the office, it is frowned upon if you miss too many of the unnecessary meetings, social events, and teambuilding ordeals.

Improv, despite the fact a large number of performers are introverts, is really no different.

In fact improvisational theatre is often described in very extrovert terms. I was always told my energy should be outwards when improvising. It is definitely about focussing on other people. And of course we all know being in your head (a classic introvert move) is bad for improvising. All of which implies improv is for extroverts, even though a lot of us introverts are pretty good at it.

And offstage, there is a very social aspect to improv. It sometimes feels as though it is frowned upon if you go to very few social events and don’t hang out too much after shows. Of course, you should do some of that social stuff and many of us introverts enjoy it. Up to a point.

Nowhere is this more apparent than at improv festivals. I love festivals, but they are often framed as very social endeavours where there is an expectation that you will be there for every social activity, after party and meal. I do pretty well at festivals because socialising that much is a novelty and actually fun for a few days. Fun, but totally exhausting.

Now, it’s a fact of life that going to social events improves your integration into a community. There is probably no way to avoid this without devaluing human contact which is not my intention. I am all for human contact. But at some point, as an introvert, you’ve had too much of it, and you need crawl off back to your cave.

It does seem that extroverts rule the world, but that’s not surprising cos we’re pack animals and consequently social creatures and have built a society where social confidence is highly rated. Plus as an introvert I’d hate to rule the world. Far too many meetings.

My purpose here is not to vent; my only purpose with this post is awareness. (All right, maybe a little venting, but mostly awareness.)

It’s often hard for us to understand what goes on in other people’s heads as we tend to assume the other’s brain works the exact same way as our own, just with a different set of experiences. But given we had to program our own brain from scratch since the day enough cells fused together to make half a dozen synapses, it would be weird if two people did think alike.

What I would like ultimately is awareness that if someone leaves an after-party early whilst not being tired to the point of near death or so drunk they need to immediately check into a rehab clinic… or if they stay but are quiet or hard to talk to… they should not be considered anti-social, boring, reclusive, a bad member of the community or snooty.*

They might need to recharge their batteries.

Note: * Of course they might be one of these things as well or instead, but never assume. Be kind.



  • If you want to read more about what makes an introvert an introvert, there is an excellent book on the subject called “Introvert: The friendly takeover” (“Introvert: Den tysta revolutionen”) by Swedish author Linus Jonkman.
  • I found several useful articles on and and the dictionary definitions are on
  • And naturally, we leave the last word to Audrey Hepburn: “I have to be alone very often. I’d be quite happy if I spent from Saturday night until Monday morning alone in my apartment. That’s how I refuel.”

Wednesday 16 October 2019

Genre Guru: Tips for Playing Horror

It’s the season when many a good improv group says to itself, “Let’s do a horror show!” To help you scare responsibly, here are a few tips.

Take your time at the beginning. Most horror movies have a slow build. There is also a bit of time before the scary things start happening. Use this time to set up your characters and relationships and only hint at the horror. After all, the more we care about your characters the more we will want them to succeed and the more we will feel the wrench if they get sliced.

Start small and build. In most horror, there is a real build in not only the level of things happening, but the tension. The first scary things that happen (such as books falling off shelves, a dead bird being found, etc) are barely noticed by the protagonists. Practice building tension. Tension is hard to maintain in a comedy show as laughter is a big releaser of tension.

The same is true of the protagonists fear. Obviously they must be afraid otherwise the horror has no impact, but it can start small and build. Your character will be terrified, but you don’t have to be so from the start. It’s tiring for the actor and it’s tiring for the audience.

In movies, there is often a scare at the start: a kind of prelude to the coming horror. But the main reason for this is otherwise, there is 30 plus minutes with very little horror which is hard on a movie audience who wants the horror now! Unless you are doing a 2-hour show, you don’t need to worry about doing this, although it is an option to have a little taster of what’s to come.

Scepticism is allowed. Normally being sceptical or not believing what is happening or being said is a real killer for improv scenes, but it’s okay for the protagonist to be sceptical in the early stages of the horror. It is very much in the genre for the hero to not pay attention to the books falling off the shelf, or to attribute weird sounds to everyday occurrences. In fact, there’s a built-in game of scary thing happens and giving it increasing implausible explanations. Of course, at some point the protagonists must realise the horror is real.

Allow characters to die or disappear. But again, don’t rush this and remember this is a big moment.

You only need one type of monster. Improv stories tend to have too much of everything, and improvised horror is no exception. You don’t need to have a vampire and a werewolf and a zombie and haunted clock; you only need one.

Sometimes it’s scarier not to show it. Makers of low budget horror movies have realised that they can’t compete when it comes to special effects. But they don’t have to compete. Some of the scariest movies have hardly shown, or not shown at all, the monster. It can be more effective to show someone scared of the gorgon or someone recoiling in horror at the sight of the gorgon than have the reality completely destroyed by someone pretending to be a gorgon. (See especially The Blair Witch Project (1999), Paranormal Activity (2007) and Night of the Demon (1957).)

Do not play just for laughs. There has to be some jeopardy and some fear. Depending on your show, you might go more for the jokes, but you need characters to be scared. If it’s all jokey, then it’s a lame parody of horror. Given that most improve is dedicated almost entirely to getting laughs and little else, the more scared you allow your characters to be, the more like a real horror show it will be and the more your show will stand out. My advice would be to rehearse pure horror cos your team probably doesn’t need to practice the funny and when you have an audience the funny will slip out of its own accord.

The evil can be defeated. Finding a way to kill it, remove it or send it back to whence it came is an important part of the story. It gives the remaining characters hope. It doesn’t mean you do kill it, it means you can try. In many stories, you will succeed, in others you fail. However, even if you succeed, you might do so only to find that was just the tip of the iceberg or you merely angered something bigger and scarier.

Have fun. Enjoy playing a scared character. Enjoy being frightening. Enjoy being part of a rich story-telling tradition.

Peter is performing two horror shows in the coming month and has a super mega genre workshop coming up real soon. Contact him for details.

Wednesday 24 July 2019

Rutger Hauer on choosing a character

'Good guy' or 'bad guy', hero or anti hero; doesn't matter to me, what role I play, only the character have something magical. -- Rutger Hauer