“V” is for “Volunteers”

“Audience volunteers are sometimes conscripted: I once saw fifty people run on to the stage and lie down and make sucking noises while the improvisers pretended to be duck hunters wading through a swamp.”

Keith Johnstone, Impro for Storytellers. New York: Routledge, 1999. p.5


From interactive street theatre and sociodramatic modalities, to short-form competitive games and monologue-inspired long-forms, many improvisational practices invite or require the use of audience Volunteers, those who bravely offer up themselves or their stories to enable spontaneous play. While some might consider audience members in the same category as animals and children – artistic collaborators to be avoided if at all possible – utilizing the right volunteer in the right way can raise your performance to another level. There is something captivating about seeing “one of your own” cross the divide between stage and auditorium, and many improv schools actively seek and celebrate this inclusive and participatory style of play.


Player A: “For this next game, I’m looking for someone to come and join us on the stage who really likes to dance…”

Can I Have a Volunteer?

1.) Choose wisely. There is an inherent risk in bringing an audience member to the stage or making them front and center in an interactive piece. A good choice can make the games or stories that follow feel effortless or magical; a less inspired selection can become an anchor around your neck or scuttle the whole enterprise almost before it’s even started. I’ve found that there are some telltale signs that you might be inviting challenge or disaster to the stage. Be wary of over-eager or aggressive candidates as this selfsame energy will easily overwhelm and audiences tend to root for and enjoy more humble or charming demeanors (the notable exception being if you’re using your craft to address and diminish intense feelings amongst your constituency). The same holds true for overly reluctant guests often “volunteered” by the friend beside them. It can prove successful to enlist this vocal friend instead, but they sometimes belong to the former category of dominating volunteers, so don’t make this a default choice. When volunteers will be closely interacting with improvisers on stage, it’s important that they are fully in control of their faculties – there’s nothing fun about bringing that belligerent drunk up only to then have to run interference for the whole scene or exchange. Everyone on the stage should feel safe. And, volunteers with agendas or insider status can skewer the improv, too. Unless your format actively invites the involvement of other improvisers, for example, bringing a friend or improv student to the stage generally adds an odd dynamic that alienates the rest of the audience who aren’t “in the know.” Such volunteers may also bring other agendas with them – such as a palpable desire to impress their coaches – which puts them unhelpfully further into their heads.

2.) Know what you’re looking for. Every improv game or situation is not created equally, and it’s helpful to have a sense of what particular skills (or lack thereof) will best suit your needs. A young child might prove charming in a Puppets or Moving Bodies scene, but quickly become overwhelmed or unresponsive in Audience Sound Effects, which requires a little more range and finesse. In many cases, it’s wise to let your potential talent pool know the gist of what’s to follow, especially if the task in question requires stamina or an ability to move without risk of injury. Harming an audience member (physically or emotionally) would be wrenching for all involved, so keep safety front of mind. If your performance frame has (or can have) multiple opportunities for audience involvement, take full advantage of this reality and strategize accordingly. While Playback Theatre culminates with volunteers sitting onstage in the teller’s chair sharing an often rather personal narrative, the event starts with smaller bite-sized opportunities for participation that allow the company to get a read of the space and identify those who might need to develop some trust and comfort before offering themselves up. This patient and responsive practice provides a lovely model for welcoming volunteers in general.

3.) Make them shine. Arguably, improvisers should always be working to elevate others on the stage, but this is doubly so when you incorporate audience members into the creative process. It’s disconcerting if someone volunteers to play in a featured capacity only to then watch them become sidelined or largely forgotten by the very improvisers who originally courted them. Johnstone’s example above provides a lovely illustration of an audience acting as a unified ensemble; oftentimes, though, one or two people join the cast and there’s at least a tacit understanding that they will do something of note. It’s standard practice to not throw volunteers truly into the improvisational deep end – it’s smart to test the waters a little to see their aptitude and ability to play, for example – but quickly look for ways to make these brave souls look good. (A good rule of thumb is that it should at least look like it’s primarily the resident improvisers who are being messed with rather than the outsider if such a dynamic is being deployed at all.) Some helpful tips include: assigning a cast member as a chaperone if the game involves some technical finesse, peculiar rules, or staging needs; finding a way to suitably challenge or feature guests during the scenic climax by giving them the final word or chance to make the last significant offer; and celebrating their involvement as the scene wraps up and they return to their former role as observers. A major pet peeve is watching audience members wandering awkwardly off the stage after they’ve lent a hand while improvisers obliviously stand by. When volunteers are used in competitive shows with a scoring system it’s also good form to stress that it’s the other players that are being judged (or perhaps just give the volunteer a generous score all of their own!)

Final Thought

I confess that I rarely slate games with my campus troupe that require audience volunteers, although we often elicit reasonably detailed stories to inspire our long-form, but this is a rather different dynamic. There is something innately tricky when improvisers who are just finding their own stride are then expected to confidently and kindly guide the efforts of novices (who, in this case, are also usually their peers and friends). This is a taxing balancing act that the most seasoned professional can find difficult at the best of times.

Most semesters, however, we’ll schedule an “all play” show where company members play alongside audience members who have put their names in the hat to play random short-form games. Almost without exception, these shows reveal a generosity of spirit as the resident players work diligently to make sure our guests excel. While I can tend to view the use of volunteers as a little bit of a gimmick or public relations stunt (especially in commercial improv houses) such moments remind me that there is an important and innate value in (re)learning how to help others shine and succeed, and that this embracing and celebration of the “amateur” or everyday viewer sets improv apart from so many other forms of performance art where the tools and opportunities for participation are staunchly withheld.

Related Entries: Audience, Looking Good, Shining Antonyms: Ensemble Synonyms: Amateur, Guest

Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2023 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Game: Moving Bodies

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.

2 thoughts on ““V” is for “Volunteers”

  1. Another great post! And such perfect timing as I am starting a new show where the gimmick is to improvise only with members of the audience (one at a time) who have never done/seen improv. Very scary but so thrilling and fulfilling – the best human connection I’ve had in a while, actually. Listening to their stories and making them shine have been some of the highlights of the show. I can’t wait to do more.


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