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Practicing Improvisational Flow

Updated: Aug 15, 2022

To go with the flow, improvisers play games. These are exercises that reward rhythm, freedom of thought, and active listening. They decrease self-censorship and increase adaptability. Now, when I say they “reward rhythm,” I don’t mean that these games are intended for musicians, dancers, and poets - although these folks may have an easier time with them. Colloquially, rhythm may refer to the flow of music and sound, but all good conversation - and just about every activity - relies on rhythm, on identifying a pattern and engaging with it.

Exercise: 1 to 3

In this exercise, improvisers break into pairs, facing each other in a neutral body position. Alternating, they will count to three.

Julia: One Justin: Two Julia: Three Justin: One

The players will continue this pattern until they achieve a mini flow state.

Tips & Tricks This exercise is simple, right? It uses the first three numbers we learn. Wrong. I’ve never met someone who didn’t struggle with this exercise. Why?

It has to do with anxiety. In an improv scene - and in life - we put so much pressure on ourselves to succeed. We ask, “What am I supposed to say? What’s the right thing for me to do?” We get stuck inside our heads because we overdose on what Jacob Joseph, a friend and fellow improviser, calls “Vitamin Me.” So let’s reframe our thinking. Instead of asking, “what is the right thing for me to do?” ask, “what is the task that we are doing together?” Can you hear your partner’s voice as an extension of your own? Can you think of your partner as a collaborator and not a competitor?

Can you compensate for your partner? If your partner says the wrong number - they were supposed to say three, but they said two - can you say three? Can you withhold judgment and go with the flow? Don’t stop to laugh or console, just get back to it.

Can you be kind yourself? Can you persevere? You might have the urge to stop, to comment on how hard the activity is, to laugh at how stupid you are. Don’t. Don’t quit. It is difficult and that’s okay. You are not stupid, you are learning.

Level Up For an additional challenge, put this exercise in your body. Start to substitute numbers with sound and movement. Instead of saying “two,” throw your hands in the air and yell, “yahoo!”

Julia: One Justin: Yahoo! Julia: Three Justin: One Julia: Yahoo! Justin: Three

Instead of saying “one,” do a shimmy. Instead of saying “three,” make a farting noise. Empower the players to create their own kinetic number system. Then, survey the group:

Raise your hand if you thought counting to three using only numbers was the most difficult. Raise your hand if you thought counting to three using sound and movement was the most difficult. Raise your hand if you thought it was a combination of the two.

Invariably, different folks have different experiences. Some struggle with numbers. Some struggle with movement, and others with the fusion. “I don’t know what that says about you as people,” I joke with my students. “There’s no Buzzfeed quiz that tells your ‘1,2,3 Personality Type.’ We are just different.”

Usually, we don’t think of counting - especially to three - as a higher cognitive function, but it is. That simple skill enables us to reason and create systems of logic. Counting, like language, is a highly evolved talent that uses many different parts of the brain. Like counting, movement is also a highly evolved skill - perhaps more ancient in origin, but no less important.

Why bring any of this up? Because when we enter an improv scene, we must use our mind and our body. There’s a misconception that an improviser must be “witty” and “quick thinking.” In fact, a successful improviser must be mindful and deliberate. Sometimes that quality manifests as “wit” and “cleverness,” but these are merely the products of one’s awareness.

Just as we misunderstand improv to be a process that depends on thought, and thought alone, so too do we misunderstand things like conversation, public speaking, and team meetings to be purely mental tasks. They are physical ones too. We don’t just communicate with our words, but with our bodies, our tone of voice, and our eye contact.

To be a successful improviser and communicator, we must coordinate our thoughts with our actions. In the 21st century, that’s a uniquely difficult challenge because the digital age has altered the way we socialize. We spend hours and hours and hours everyday in front of an LED screen. It’s easy to divest from physical space and weaken our connection to the body. However, to be a successful improviser, we must find time to strengthen that somatic awareness, allowing our mind and body to work together as one. Frankly, they are one already, but we have tricked ourselves to see these two aspects of our everyday experience as separate. We’ve compartmentalized. The gym is a time for the body, and the computer is a time for the mind. Playing sports is a time for the body, and Netflix is a time for the mind. Dancing at the club is a time for the body, and sending a text is a time for the mind. We’ve conditioned ourselves to see mind and body as separate. Our task is to decondition. When we improvise, we are not building the mind-body connection, we are recovering it.

Associations Improvising is difficult even when there’s a simple script, like “1-2-3.” How do we coordinate mind and body, while also generating new material? We associate!

Associative thinking is the process of linking one idea to another. Typically, our associative thoughts are divergent or convergent. Divergent thinking occurs when we imagine many possible outcomes based on a single input. It’s brainstorming. Think of a seed becoming a tree. Each branch is a possibility. Convergent thinking occurs when we imagine an outcome that connects two or more ideas. It’s synthesizing. Think of a handshake to form a single bond or the blending colors to make a new one. Divergent thinking explores thought. Convergent thinking brings thoughts together.

In an improv scene, performers are constantly using associative thought to navigate the world that they are co-creating. However, it’s not an improv-specific skill. All of us constantly make associations, whether we are aware of it or not. Every time you problem solve, interact with another person, and even when you sit quietly by yourself, you are making associations. In later chapters, we will explore some advanced techniques to strengthen our associative ability, but for now let’s start with a simple exercise.

Exercise: 5 Things

In this exercise, a group of players form a circle and brainstorm ideas based on a category. The game begins when one player prompts another by saying “name five ______.” After each idea, the whole group will clap and count until five things are named. The group will end by clapping their hands four-times, chanting: “These Are Five Things!”

Brandice: Name five colors Katie: Red Group: 1 Katie: Green Group: 2 Katie: Orange Group: 3 Katie: Purple Group: 4 Katie: Blue Group: 5. These-Are-Five-Things!

The point of this game is to decrease self-censorship. We want to develop immediacy and fluency over accuracy. We want players to be quick and rhythmic as opposed to slow and correct.

Tips & Tricks This activity engages divergent thinking. There are no wrong answers. If Brandice says, “Name five rivers,” and Katie says “The Atlantic,” which is objectively wrong, we are not going to stop and admonish her. In this game, any answer given quickly and with confidence is the right answer. If players are struggling, encourage them to say any word at all, or simply say what they see in the room.

Occasionally, a rogue student will try to be as random as possible, avoiding the prompt altogether. This misses the point of the game. Try to be right, but give yourself permission to be wrong.

Encourage difficult prompts. “Name five stars in the sky.” “Name five Russian oligarchs.” “Name five titles of a movie based on your life.” If players are stumped, encourage creative responses. Personally, I don’t know the names of five stars. I know types of stars, like red giants, dwarves, neutron stars, pulsars, Death Stars. I also know qualities that stars have: bright stars, twinkling stars, distant stars, shooting stars, exploding stars!

Be sure to make eye contact when you give someone a prompt and when making your associations. If you are leading the exercise, you may have to call out when players are staring at the floor or out into space. You may want to assign a player to be the referee and call a foul when eye-contact is missing. I often make students repeat their turn, if they have failed to make eye contact.

Listen for verbal fillers. If a player frequently says “umm” or “ahh” before saying their idea, have them repeat their turn.

Observe judgmental body language. If a player says a word and then shakes their head “no,” laughs nervously, or scrunches their face, then the point of the exercise is defeated.

Remember, whenever we are in the brainstorming phase of the creative process, there

are no bad ideas. If we limit ourselves before we begin, we rob ourselves of creative opportunity.

Level Up

Name five reasons. “Five reasons why you were late to work.” “Five reasons why you hit that deer.” “Five reasons why you chose that outfit.”

Describe something five ways. “Describe an apple.” “Describe an elephant.” “Describe friendship.”

Brainstorm dialogue. “What are five things you would you say if you were angry at the grocery store?” “What are five things you would say if you were happy at a funeral?” “What are five things you would say if you fell in love at a coffee shop?”

Exercise: Words of Wisdom

In this game, a group of players form a circle with their hands clasped or in a prayer position. One word at a time, they will create a piece of advice, perhaps like something you would find in a fortune cookie or in a self-help book. When the sentence feels like it’s done, the entire group will bow their heads in unison and say “ahh” or “mmm.”

Claire: Don’t Mark: Trust Lilly: The Sue: Mailman Tyrel: Because Ant: His Trent: Package AJ: Is Claire: His Mark: Penis Group: Mmm Tips & Tricks Stay present and attentive. Listen for what was just said. Don’t anticipate or plan.

If the group is succeeding with shorter syntax, encourage longer and more complex sentences.

Follow the speaker with your eyes. By directing the group gaze, we encourage more buy-in from our collaborators.

Level Up Instead of words of wisdom, tell a story, consisting of multiple sentences, still speaking one word at a time. Remind the players that a story has a beginning, middle, and end, something like “Once upon a time there was a character. One day something happens to the character, setting off a series of related events, until finally there is a resolution.” At the end of each sentence, the group may punch towards the inside of the circle and yell, “period!”

Instead of moving in a circular fashion, give the current speaker permission to select the next one. They can do this by pointing a finger or passing a ball.

Eliminate a clear system by which the next speaker is chosen. Allow each speaker to self-select. In other words, see if the order in which people contribute can be completely random. Avoid long pauses and avoid speaking at the same time as someone else.

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