How early is too early to make a character choice?

I’m revisiting Mick Napier’s Improvise, and I’m taking issue with one of his suggestions, because it doesn’t seem to work.

(I hate to get uppity, because I’m sure Mick Napier knows more about improvising than I do, so I’m probably not following his advice properly. But anyway.)

Even [if] you don’t initiate, snap into a character or point of view or at least an emotional disposition at the very top, right when or slightly before the lights come up. Then you have your armor for the scene, even if your partner literally initiates the content with words.  Now, when you respond to your partner, you already have something to respond through. (Napier, Improvise, p. 33)

It seems to me that it works better to snap into a character AFTER the initiator says his/her first line, not BEFORE.

I mean, I don’t see the harm in having a Plan B in your back pocket (“if I don’t have anything better, I’ll be angry/nervous/excited”), but otherwise, it feels disrespectful to the initiator— 90% of the time, there is an honest response that will make more sense than whatever you picked before the scene started— and having a pre-planned response, especially if it doesn’t work in the new context of the initiation, can make for a much more difficult scene. (I think difficult scenes are trickier to make into good improv. Is that wrong?)

You’re not committed until you DO something, but after you do it, you’re committed. So— if I were to arrogantly give advice here— if you aren’t the initiator, come into the scene neutrally, listen hard, and snap into a character/ have a deal/ have a reaction/ etc. after the first line, not before.

I might be picking nits, but it bugs me. (GET IT? NITS, BUGS?! AHAHAHAHA I’M HILARIOUS)

My inexpert $0.02.

Mick Napier – Improv at home by yourself (5/5: Miscellaneous bonus exercises)

Continued from the past few days, last in a series of five. Find an actual copy of Mick Napier’s Improvise, it’s way awesomer than my summaries.


Miscellaneous Bonus Exercises

(18) Write an Improvised Scene

Write a two-person scene like this:

  • Set a timer for 5 minutes.
  • Never EVER stop typing. Your fingers will get tired. Power through it.
  • Don’t self-edit or worry about grammar/punctuation/spelling. Just keep typing as fast as you can.

Name your characters A and B to speed things along.

Do not worry if the scene is bad or doesn’t make sense. You can go back and apply structure later (LATER), if you like.

If you truly do not stop typing, you’ll find channels of creativity that would normally be closed to you. And with practice, you’ll be able to differentiate and heighten the characters’ points of view.


(19) Songs

Improvise a song while walking down the street. Or in your shower. Whatever. Just start singing.

Don’t worry too much about rhymes at first, but rhyming is the eventual goal.

If you improvise for any length of time, there is no way in hell you will escape having to improvise a song on stage. Start preparing now.


(20) Counting to One Hundred

You are a great speaker giving a speech to a room of 5000 people. But instead of words, say numbers. Ask questions, make declarations, provide variety, count to 100. It’ll help you work on your performance skills without worrying about exactly what you’re going to say next.


(21) Dance

Turn on some music and dance. That’s it. It’ll help you get in touch with your body.


(22) Notes on Good Acting

Watch a good film with good acting (one you’ve seen before, so you don’t get caught up in the plot). Take notes on what makes the lead actor’s acting so good (to you). Do this for a few movies and compare notes. You’ll be able to isolate what techniques speak to you, and apply those notes to improve your own acting.


(23) Non-Fiction Summary

Read a piece of nonfiction, at least chapter or so. (I think Wikipedia articles would do nicely.) Then, as a character and without taking time to gather your thoughts, summarize the concept to an imaginary person.

This is an all-around good exercise to improve your reference level and incorporate specific non-improv ideas into your improv.


(24) Exercise

Exercise. It’s good for you.




Here’s links to all of ’em:


Part 1: Exercises for thinking faster

Part 2: Exercises for unthinking character creation

Part 3: Exercises for physical body and space

Part 4: Exercises to improve scenic improvisation

Part 5: Miscellaneous bonus exercises [You are here]

Mick Napier – Improv at home by yourself (4/5: Exercises to improve scenic improvisation)

Continued from the past few days, #4 in a series of 5, spreading the wisdom of Mick Napier’s Improvise. The book is much more complete than these stupid summaries I’m writing, and plus there are like another 120 pages of improv gold that I’m not even mentioning; I encourage you to buy the book.



Exercises to improve scenic improvisation

(12) Scene

Do a scene with yourself. Sit and launch into a dialogue with another character, and immediately respond as the second character. Continue the scene.

Try to make your characters as distinct as possible. You can try physically shifting your body, if it helps.

DON’T STOP. You’ll be self-conscious at first. Try setting a timer for 30 seconds and forcing yourself to power through.

You’ll likely tend towards simple question/answer scenes at first, but the scenes will grow more complex as you practice.

When you’re doing a scene with a partner, you might find yourself thinking of what to say next while your partner is talking. This exercise forces you to stay in the moment.


(13) Scene with Emotional Shift

Same as #12, but now each character has a different emotion (ex. gleeful/sad). Practice both extremes of these emotions (ex. anger = shouty) and subdued expressions (ex. anger = clenched teeth).


(14) Scenes of Status Shift

Same as #12 and #13, but instead of different emotions, shift between high/low status.

A lot of us tend to play within the same status. Status in a scene is super-important, and knowing how to handle both sides of it is a good thing.


(15) Heightening

Start a scene— a dialogue with an imaginary scene partner who is responding in gibberish (don’t actually speak the gibberish). Each of your lines should build on the previous one, heightening the energy or point of view you established in your initiation.


Hell of a weather system we’ve had this week.


I’ve never seen so much hail in one day.


True, at least it melted before the tornado on Tuesday.


At least we’ll be prepared for the frogs and blood tomorrow.

I made that up, it might not be a good example, but the point is to get you to heighten your own thing without depending on someone else to do it for you. (Napier preaches the idea of “take care of yourself first, because that is how you take care of your partner” earlier in the book.)


(16) Read a Character from a Play Out Loud

Reading plays is a great way to learn about scene construction and character attributes, and learning how to act/play roles will give your improv an edge it needs. So find a play, and don’t just read it, but read a character out loud. Don’t worry about how well you’re acting— not yet, anyway— just read it. Notice how the character’s point of the view heightens and flourishes and is unwavering. How can you bring that to your improv characters?


(17) Film Dialogue

Watch a random movie with the sound off. Improvise the characters’ dialogue.

This is more an endurance exercise than anything; you must keep talking as long as the film characters are talking. You can start just improvising one character’s dialogue, but aim to build up to improvising all the characters for at least half an hour or so.




Here’s links to all of ’em:


Part 1: Exercises for thinking faster

Part 2: Exercises for unthinking character creation

Part 3: Exercises for physical body and space

Part 4: Exercises to improve scenic improvisation [You are here]

Part 5: Miscellaneous bonus exercises

Mick Napier – Improv at home by yourself (3/5: Exercises for physical body and space)

Continued from yesterday, #3 in a series of 5. Again, I’m paraphrasing a chapter of Mick Napier’s Improvise, but he says everything wayyyyyyy better than I do, and you should buy the book.

Exercises for physical body and space

(8) Environment

Stand in the middle of a room. Without thinking, reach out in the air and grab an (imaginary) object. Truly challenge yourself not to preconceive the object. When your hand hits that object, let it inspire you to choose what it is, then use the object.

Ex.: You reach out and grab something, and you see your hand and think, “torch,” and now you have a torch in your hand. Start using it to walk through a dark room. After you’ve used the object for a bit, set it down (take note of where you put it) and pick up another object somehow inspired by the first object. (Maybe a set of keys.) Set that object down, and find a third object inspired by the first two objects… at this point, maybe we’re in a dungeon, and you find a heavy chain. Continue for about 10 objects.

Bonus points: revisit all 10 objects.

Goal: When you begin with nothing but the act of reaching out, you learn to immediately come up with something, and eventually it’s not so scary.


(9) Body Parts

Walk around a room. Think of a body part (e.g. “chin”) and lead with that body part. Give it presence; stick it out a little; walk forward. After a while, pick a different body part and lead with that. Continue until you’ve covered every body part you can think of (nose, chest, pelvis, ear, left elbow, right knee, shoulder, etc.). It can help inspire characters that might not normally occur to you.

After you’ve been through this exercise a couple times, make character sounds that feel appropriate for that character’s walk. After you’ve done THAT a couple times, give these characters a whole monologue.


(10) Breakfast

Lie on the floor. Wordlessly create a character who wakes up and gets ready for the day. Let it evolve, so each moment brings more information about the character. What kind of clothes does she wear? What’s his bedroom like?

Make breakfast. What does the character eat? How does he prepare it?

After breakfast, what does she need to get out the door? A hat? Coat? Metrocard? Car keys?

This can help you develop a character by committing to a detailed environment.


(11) Object Monologue

Write 20 objects on slips of paper and put them in a hat. Launch into a character monologue. Every once in a while, grab a slip of paper. Continue the character monologue and integrate that object into the scene— don’t focus on it, but treat it as an incidental prop.

Why? Because a common rookie mistake is to just talk about the environment or the object they’re holding, and you don’t want to be a rookie. To quote, “practice in having the environment be incidental is invaluable.”




Here’s links to all of ’em:


Part 1: Exercises for thinking faster

Part 2: Exercises for unthinking character creation

Part 3: Exercises for physical body and space [You are here]

Part 4: Exercises to improve scenic improvisation

Part 5: Miscellaneous bonus exercises

Mick Napier – Improv at home by yourself (2/5: Exercises for unthinking character creation)

Continued from yesterday, #2 in a series of 5— paraphrased exercises you can do at home, from Mick Napier’s Improvise. Again, buy the book, it’s better than my lame-ass summaries.

Exercises for unthinking character creation

(4) Solo Character Switches

Begin a character monologue. After 30 seconds, without pausing, switch the character to something completely different. Repeat indefinitely. Make sure there’s a chair in the middle of the room, so you can use it/not use it as the character dictates. And make sure there’s lots of variety— if you’ve just done two quiet characters, change things up with a loud one.


(5) Character Interview

Think of ~15 questions you might ask another person. Ex.:

“Where did you grow up?”

“What’s your favorite movie and why?”

“What was a sad moment in your childhood?”

Write them down on strips of paper and put ’em in a hat. (Ignore them for now.)

Begin a character monologue. After about a minute, pull a question out of the hat and answer the question in character. Continue as you see fit.


(6) Styles and Genres in a Hat

On slips of paper, write down 20 styles/genres/authors/playwrights (ex. “romance novel,” “action film,” “horror,” “Shakespeare”) and put ’em in a hat. Begin a character monologue. After 30 seconds, pull a slip of paper out of the hat, and have your character immediately be affected by that style or genre.

Ex.: Your character is an ice cream man. When you pull “romance novel” out of the hat, the character starts talking about his love and passion for Dove bars.

The goal: Your understanding and comfort of literary styles will expand your toolbox for scenes, and bring more variety to your work. (And maybe familiarizing yourself with various authors and playwrights and genres isn’t a bad idea, either.)


(7) Sound to Dialogue

Make a sound, any sound. Let that sound slide into a character dialogue, and go for ~10 seconds. Then make another sound and slide into another character. Do this for about six hours. No, do this for two minutes.

Ex.: “Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhkey-dokey, I’ve packed the shotguns!”




Here’s links to all of ’em:


Part 1: Exercises for thinking faster

Part 2: Exercises for unthinking character creation [You are here]

Part 3: Exercises for physical body and space

Part 4: Exercises to improve scenic improvisation

Part 5: Miscellaneous bonus exercises

Mick Napier – Improv at home by yourself (1/5: Exercises for thinking faster)

You should buy this book.

My local library had a copy of Mick Napier’s Improvise. I like it. A lot. It’s got tons of information for a slim 130-page book, but more importantly (to me), I like the tone. (The blurb describes it as “irreverent.”)

I’m especially digging the chapter on “Exercises to Do at Home.” For the sake of trying to preserve copyright but still disseminate this awesome information, I’m just gonna summarize the exercises here. For better and more in-depth explanations, find the book. (It’s good.)

I’ll also split this into a few posts. I didn’t realize until I started writing that there are 24 of these, which would be overwhelming to take in all at once. (They aren’t numbered in the book.)


Exercises for thinking faster

(1) Dada Monologue

Launch into a nonsensical Dadist monologue. Make sure it makes absolutely no sense (e.g. if you say “jolly,” do not follow it with “giant,” because that starts making sense). Ex.:

Lamps are cats when vitamins take the frog outside. Back in the pot, my crabby melons cried to three weeks. Do you realize the flappy bat song? Modicum of freelancing forever tastes in campy wallpaper. Coated tape scrolls, right?

The point is to free up your brain to make random and absurd associations you couldn’t normally make.


(2) Word Association

Look around and find an object. Say the name of the object out loud, and immediately start talking about the object. Describe it, or (preferably) talk about some experience it inspires. After ~10 seconds, without pausing, interrupt yourself with the name of a new object, and launch into another 10-second description. Continue for a while (at least 10 objects).

(Eventually, the starting words can be drawn from the ether, instead of taking physical objects in your view.)

DON’T pause. Often, people will say the word out loud, repeat the word as a buffer to give their brains time to catch up, and THEN launch into the 10-second association. The whole point here is to practice talking and catching up with yourself, honing your ability to talk about anything.


(3) Gibberish

Do a scene in gibberish:

Pick a character, and speak a line of gibberish from that character’s point of view/energy (“Meeny tocka fleek marni!”). Then respond as another character with a totally different PoV (“Noop wock.”)

The purpose is to get you to stop worrying about what you’re saying and start focusing on how you’re saying it.




Here’s links to all of ’em:

Part 1: Exercises for thinking faster [You are here]

Part 2: Exercises for unthinking character creation

Part 3: Exercises for physical body and space

Part 4: Exercises to improve scenic improvisation

Part 5: Miscellaneous bonus exercises