“M” is for “Material”

“The habit of responding to audience suggestions and accepting all premises make improvisational actors curious, informed, and keen to the changes in their cities, their country, their cultural landscape. The practice of tapping into their own supply of subconscious material opens new territory for them as writers, directors, and as lone performance artists.”

Janet Coleman, The Compass. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991. p.299


The reach of improvisational performance is considerable and all-encompassing. While scripted works, by necessity, become static and subsequently slow or unable to purposefully respond to changes in the sociopolitical landscape, improv’s immediacy can quickly weave news and cultural shifts into the performance event. This ability to adapt proves to be both an innate strength and challenge for the form as improvisational Material is simultaneously enticingly responsive and potentially overwhelming in its limitlessness. A playwright can rework and privately reject earlier attempts; improvisers, however, do not enjoy this level of premeditation nor after-the-fact reflection and revision. Furthermore, content parameters are often moving targets with boundaries being reset after new infractions or ruptures have been discovered in the heat of performance.

Although all of this can feel daunting as a practitioner when it comes to accessing and molding creative inspiration and content, there are tried and true approaches to help shape and direct this potential limitlessness…


Two improvisers stand on an empty stage…

Sources of Material Inspiration

Content can emerge with ease as you respond and react to numerous impetuses, including:

1.) Your life. It’s an oft-quoted adage that authors should “write what they know” and this is also excellent advice for the improv stage. While fantastical adventures in fictional worlds certainly have their appeal and place in our craft, it is frequently sufficient for improvisers to just bring themselves – their stories, passions, fears and experiences – to the stage for exploration. When unsure how to react or respond, an improviser’s honest and personal reaction will nearly always be enough to keep the creative spark thriving. That being said, improvisers are best served by not settling for just bringing what they know today to their work. Players benefit from actively pursuing a spirit of intrigue: players who are interested in the world typically make interesting players and characters. If a scene reveals a lacuna in your knowledge, by all means accept this as an invitation to find out a little more about the topic at hand and do a little (or more than a little) research.

2.) Your scene partners. A potential pitfall of the above advice is that you might privilege your own knowledge base or experiences over those of your fellow players. When crafting spontaneous material also actively look for ways to prioritize and support the stories of others. Whether you play as allies, foils or foes, there are ample opportunities to elevate others’ voices and narratives. In these moments it remains helpful to merely react openly and honesty as the action emerges. And don’t overlook the importance of simply giving others’ material the space it needs to flourish – some scenes will thrive more fully when collaborators knowingly and lovingly support it from the wings. When you throw yourself bravely into the unfamiliar fray, also be open to adjustments and feedback. If a fellow player observes a blindness or limitation in a character (or, perhaps, in your assumption or knowledge as a player) by all means accept this as a chance to learn more about the human experience from a perspective other than your own.

3.) Your audience. Improvisational theatre often receives a launching point (or many) from the audience in attendance in the form of ask-fors and suggestions. These provide a great way to push you out of tried and tested patterns and scenarios if you are imaginative in how you both elicit and then utilize these prompts. As I discuss at greater length here, the manner in which you pitch your question will greatly influence the range – or lack thereof – of outcomes, so it’s worth your time to consider how to help your audience keep the improv inspired and fresh. Similarly, while it’s a wise approach to trust your obvious instincts and reactions when responding to these prompts, there can also be a value in “skipping a step,” especially when it comes to launching the scene. Not all scenes inspired by “plumber” need to begin in a bathroom, nor do all scenes responding to “elevator” need to feature a mechanical break-down between floors. As you strive to make material vibrant, throwing out the stale opening salvo goes a long way to keeping everyone on their toes. Maintaining a heightened awareness of your audience, their expectations and reactions during your scene work can also helpfully create content parameters. If a family audience encourages more “wholesome” content, by all means embrace this as a challenge and frame your storytelling accordingly.

4.) Your frame. Content inspiration and guidance frequently emerges from game or show structures and their inherent potentials. It’s important to know and honor expectations built into the improvisational event. It generally won’t prove effective or helpful to drop an intensely heavy topic into a Canadian Cross during a short-form giggle-fest or share your most trivial or scatological observation in the midst of an earnest healing arts performance. Just as it’s important to know your audience, it’s equally important to know the intent and spirit of your event and to let this inform your content choices. In many cases, specific games or improv dynamics will also unlock new material in exciting and dynamic ways. Rhyming games, for example, can open up delightfully unexpectedly pathways as players juggle story and language needs. If an improv structure invites a new way of looking at or organizing your material, by all means capitalize on this opportunity to approach familiar problems in fresh ways.

5.) Your world. Lastly, as Coleman observes, improvisers should find inspiration in the very world and spheres that they occupy. Improv is a theatre of the here and now and is subsequently framed by current affairs and events whether or not this is the explicit intent of the performing company. A scripted piece can’t suddenly change to address a tragedy in the news (although it might call for a modified curtain speech or lobby announcement); an improv work, on the other hand, will be marked (or marred) by whether or not such an event has been taken into consideration. An effective improviser needs to be informed if for no other reason than to avoid pulling a scene into terrain that will cause your audience undue injury (or to phrase this as a positive, can mine a whimsical recent event for its comedic gold.) So, I repeat, pursue a spirit of intrigue. Watch or read the news. If a recent event potentially casts a new light (or shadow) on an established game, character, or approach, apply your best judgment and reassess the most responsible and responsive path forward.

Final Thought

As you contemplate how to best coax and shape material, boundaries may feel suffocating or restrictive, and yet creativity exists in a fruitful tension between boundless chaos and sculpted form. Some traditions esteem “saying the first thing that pops into your head” regardless of whether this “first thing” is well-informed, hurtful, or perhaps even just distastefully ugly. I believe it’s possible and healthy to pursue spontaneity and new material while simultaneously acknowledging certain parameters that can help shape and elevate the journey. Improvisers should feel no compunction, for example, editing out thoughts that might cause self-harm or carelessly trigger other participants. What’s more, playfully accepting some artistic boundaries – whether these come from our partners, audience, the structures through which we create, or the sociopolitical world around us – will often inspire rich new reactions and stories.

The concept of censorship in improv is complex: it is important that players do not edit their choices based on debilitating fear, and most of us seek spaces where passionate voices can be emboldened rather than silenced or further marginalized. When it comes to content, I think it is prudent, therefore, to acknowledge that as we serve as our own playwrights, we also assume a degree of responsibility for what we present to the world and what we willingly or absent-mindedly exclude from our stages.

Related Entries: Obvious, Speaking Your Truth, You Antonyms: Cleverness, Over-Originality Synonyms: Content

Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Game: Word Association

Published by improvdr

A professional improvisational practitioner with over thirty years experience devising, directing, performing, teaching and consulting on the craft of spontaneous (and scripted) theatre and performance.

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