“S” is for “Shivving”

“Discouraged in many improv settings, pimping is an accepted part of many ComedySportz games. The audience almost always responds with delight.”

Amy E. Seham, Whose Improv Is It Anyway: Beyond Second City  Jackson, Mississippi: U of Mississippi P, 2001. p.112


The line between an improvisational character and the improviser themselves is often thin and ambiguous, and many traditions delight in the entertainment potentials of watching the players struggle when creating as much as appreciating the theatrical fruits of this strenuous labor. Shivving refers to a variety of meta-theatrical playfulness in which improvisers joyfully mess with each other a little to add some mischief into the mix. A type of offer or endowment, in experienced hands shivving results in heightened energy and whimsy. Used less adeptly, it can quickly resemble the gagging or pimping described above by Seham in its form and function, diminishing the scenic reality for little more than a droll observation or easy laugh. Shivving tends to target the performer under the character’s façade rather than the character or story itself, drawing upon personal knowledge or observations of the player rather than their dramatic construction. As such, this device strikes me as innately less problematic in venues where the improviser is never far from the vantage of the audience as opposed to those improv houses that privilege a more overtly representational or “realistic” approach. In the former setting, shivving can irreverently add to the fun; in the latter, it risks collapsing the dramatic conceit altogether.


Player A, as is their wont, enters the scene with a recently-acquired wig from backstage.

Player B: (upon seeing A in wig) “I see you decided to wear a wig again…, David…”

Minimizing the Risk of Injury When Shivving

As the very phrasing suggests, shivving provides a sharp tool that wielded carelessly may cause unintended injury. If this performative approach calls to you, consider the following elements as you deploy its power…

1.) Rapport. In my personal experience shivving tends to miss the mark when it occurs in environments where deep trust has not already been firmly established. When I’m the target of this style of choice, a cheeky comment from a fellow player that I know well is likely to land much differently than from a new or guest teammate. Arguably, perhaps the source of a shivving retort shouldn’t matter, but in reality teasing can feel quite differently coming from someone inside your circle of trust as opposed to an outsider – just like in real life. For example, an improviser who knows me well might poke fun of my New Zealand-ness, but it often feels cheap or inelegant from an improviser who has just met me moments before if they decide to do the same. It’s similarly important that players have built a clear relationship with the audience and that they understand some spirited misbehavior is part of the contract of the game or overall experience. I tend to avoid shivving in general as it can be challenging to assess these subtle ingredients in real time especially if I’m not working alongside players where the trust is already deep and unshakable.

2.) Tone. Although I’ve seen some well-seasoned improvisers deploy bullish or curmudgeonly personae onstage with surprisingly appealing results, these energies illustrate exceptions rather than the rule and when it comes to shivving, in particular, an overly aggressive tone or style can often make a barbed choice read as mean-spirited or belligerent. Pursuing a more kindhearted or joyous approach generally yields less problematic results. This energy is a little difficult to quantify, but often includes a rather clear “wink” to all those in attendance that your intent is to playfully jab rather than saltily injure. If you’re inclined to deploy shivving to pointedly address actual performance concerns or frustrations (rather than to jovially mock trivialities or patterns) then it’s likely that the audience will pick up on these darker hues and the choice will land accordingly. Consider saving corrective notes and observations for the postmortem backstage rather than lacing them into your scene – or if an adjustment is warranted, utilize the tradition of speaking your truth or calling it onstage which typically retains the POV and façade of your character.

3.) Irreverence. I nod to this facet in my opening definition, but it’s also important to honor the foundational conceits and energies of your specific performance event. Shivving feels more on point when the general environment and style of play is a little tongue-in-cheek and boundary blurring. If the players are never far from sight during the performance, playful breaches are more likely to add some delightful interplay. (Shivving can resemble “heat” in this way as players might taunt each other between the rounds of a short-form match.) On the other hand, if your venue goals are to craft detailed realistic worlds with finely etched characterizations that mask the performers underneath, frequent shivving might starkly interrupt the dramatic action and plunge the audience into some proverbial ice water for little artistic payoff. With the likely exception of the healing arts, improv without some strategic mischief can easily become pretentious or posturing, but in some situations shivving may not prove the most successful tool for accessing this creative playful spirit. So pay some heed to the stylistic conventions that serve as the bedrock of your particular improvisational enterprise.

4.) Timing. And also consider when and why you’re deploying this technique. Shivving often has a tendency to encourage side games where players riff or circle around a singular moment with comedic musings and brainstorming. Many consider these flights of departure as having an innate entertainment value in their own right, but when this occurs in improvisational scene work it often tends to deflate the drive and energy of the parent scene. Loitering in such moments indulgently or detouring the story abruptly at a pivotal moment may result in some great laughs but ultimately degrade the narrative arc beyond repair. Specifically, shivving might cause more harm than good during the crucial opening moments of a scene as you’re establishing the given circumstances, when the story is building steam towards an energized climax, or as a scene reaches for its closing moment or button. In each of these cases a playful metatheatrical departure can sap the momentum and create unnecessary challenges for players when they inevitably strive to reassemble the scattered scenic jigsaw puzzle pieces.

Final Thought

Linking all of the above observations is the underlying need for heightened awareness: are shivving moves being coded and received as playful by the intended recipients? Shivving without considerable charm is rarely pleasing for anyone involved. Does the audience understand that such choices are part of the greater conceit and are they empowered to equally enjoy these moments? If shivving becomes too “insider-y” it’s much more likely that it will alienate rather than engage your guests. Lastly, is this manifestation of mischief serving the desired tone of your venue and project, or is it abruptly undermining other narrative or artistic goals?

This entry probably reveals my general ambivalence towards this improv tradition. In part I think this is because it’s awfully difficult to exercise this multifaceted awareness while simultaneously balancing the long list of other elements required for generative improvisational play. And, to more pointedly speak my own truth, as an improviser who predominantly plays in a country different from my birth nation, I’ve often been on the receiving end of a panicked or neophyte player using my otherness to grab an easy laugh when nothing else came to mind. That quickly feels icky and marginalizing. In my improv kitchen I’d liken shivving to the ground red pepper on my skill spice rack: a little can certainly add some fun flavor or heat to a scenic dish, but it doesn’t take much to make the whole meal inedible. But to continue the metaphor, I’d also acknowledge that some players can handle and relish much more improv spice than I can!

Related Entries: Commandment #4, Commenting, Endowing, Gagging, Offer, Pimping Synonyms: Heat, Mischief

Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Game: Here They Come

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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