Improvisational theatre and music games

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Gareth James, CC BY-NC

What is improvisational theatre? Don't be surprised by this question - artistic activity of "improv" is to many countries a foreign fad or a threat to mimes. Here let's focus on a subfield of improv games ("a set of rules that control players to spontaneously create a play"). Let's have a look to get musically inspired.

Situation of similarity

Social function of games for music and for theatre is similar in nature although different in scale. Both work as a small group activity, privately or as spectator events. For amateurs both music and theatre games are either just fun or a personal development tools, as they involve participants creatively, performatively and intelleactually and also both activities don't require much prior expertise to be picked up. For practicioners games might be a kind of professional training which develops improvisation skill or is a playful version of drill excercises. Then, if you're good, you can record albums of music games or do your improv full-time.

The similiarity can be seen also in scale of operation for both types of games. The fact that both types of games are to be at least potentially staged requires you to take into consideration spatial aspects of the game. Though in music games the focus of visual attention can sometimes narrow down much more than any theatrical prop allows.

Improv full-time

With theatre improv it's interesting where it landed as for it's popularity. Sure to mention here is a TV show Who's line is it anyway? - developed in UK (started as a radio programme in 1988, with John Sessions and Stephen Fry as key performers) then peaked in US (with Drew Carey, Ryan Stiles, Colin Mochrie, Wayne Brady…). Crazy popular even when aired against Friends (where Lisa Kudrow was herself revolutionising sitcom, getting to the show straight out of improv troupe).

How could improv be so popular as music games will probably never be? First and foremost, by design: Keith Johnstone was developing his improv games with explicit focus of engaging the audience and his main inspiration was actually… wrestling. This activity of "professional wrestling" (staged fights with jumping, shouting etc.) is also alien to some cultures, we will not describe it here in detail, but the aim of this form of entertainment is indeed to appeal to enumerous spectators.

Although improv was not designed specifically as a comedic form, that focus is now dominant. Two main routes to comedic scene would be developed characters or reference (according to Martin Short and Stephen Colbert in their interview). Both tactics are based on familiarity, but even within this closed frame, possibilities are vast and that allows for spectacular skill to manifest itself. This improvisers' skill is a huge part of the appeal (contrary to intentions of improv orignators that stressed content more than just skill).

In the field of music games there's not much to resemble that "familiarity" effect. Surely, skill is to be appreciated and there are games where rule-based solos are played to typical accompaniment or with Zappesque games based on genres. But at their origin game pieces were to escape the genre, they were a way to widen musical horizons. It would be hard to reduce the field of music games in such a way that it gets along well with modern popular music scene, but let's not be discouraged by that.

Improv music games

In a popular improv setting there is an instrumentalist (or a small ensemble) that provides musical context for improvising actors to play with or against. These musicians surely play hard. The situation requires a particular set of skills like genre-juggling, sound-scaping and following both rules of the game and cues from actors. Viewing that situation in our context, you get a loosely defined and complex music game; unfortunately extremely demanding. Music there might be great, but it also might be cliché and… no-one actually minds as the music in improv rarely takes the foreground.

It's also worth noting that there are improv games that deal with music directly. In an online table of such games for 44 titles only 6 are tagged as "No words", and there are 13 games in "Rhyme" category. In general, words are key part of musical improv games and you can safely treat here the word "musical" as in a "Broadway musical", not only "related to music".

Only two widely used games would fit in our wiki library: "Acapella harmonies" and "Harmony duets". These two can be easily de-acapella-ised to widen the scope of used instruments, and look how familiar they seem from the musical point of view:

Acapella harmonies

Players [… ;)] start to sing held notes
Every person should be singing at the same volume to create a group chord
It can sound horrible, or beautiful. Embrace both. […]

Some variant of the one above you can see at almost any free improvisation workshop and as an intro to every second kraut rock concert ;). The next arrangement is a bit more gamey in appearance, probably because it's turn-based. It works well musically if you add some percussive context providers that play continously.

Harmony duets

Person 1 sings a short tune (can be la-la-la)
Person 2 joins in the second time with a harmony line
Person 2 repeats their line on their own
Person 3 joins in with Person 2 with a harmony line. (Person 1 can now go and make a cup of tea)
Person 3 repeats their line on their own

Unfortunately for us, many musical improv games are precomposed simple pieces with words to fill. Here is an example of a notorious music game for improv: "Irish Drinking Song".

Current bond

First general similarity is audience participation. In the example above viewers call a theme for a song to be performed next. Even when there is no actual audience at the music game meeting, people that don't perform music in a given game might start games by choosing a variant, assigning roles for players or deciding on a theme for the game. That pulls performers towards the edges of their comfort zone.

In a more staged situation it's easy (and I would encourage you to do so) for audience members to participate in games themselves, often even without producing sounds but as Conductors. In some games with subjective aspect, they can serve as Judges and might even be encouraged to interfere with the performance collectively, for example decide who should "lose" in a given round of a game (like in theatre improv "die!" games).

Improv mechanics worth using in music games is tagging out. When only some players perform in a given game, they might be at any point swapped by another player. This might work as the critique system - queued up player picks the person who in one's opinion did worse in that round and replaces him or her in a piece. Of course tagging out can just serve a purpose of mixing things up and then you pick a player who's role you can take over or to follow any specific idea you have.

You can also use a typical improv arrangement as a variant ending: one person selected before the game is responsible for choosing when to end the piece. This again has a positive effect of stretching performers' creativity out of well-known areas. Running out of ideas when a leader prolongs the game is just the moment for your development. This optional ending may be used in many free-form activities from our library.

Direct inspirations are already present in our library. Entitled piece is a take on "audience suggestion" idea. Two-headed soloist is based on "Three-headed Broadway Star" improv game. Adaptation was simple: in theatrical improv game, players sing one word at a time where as music game version requires you to play one note of a melody. The 3-split free-form is like "Sitting Standing Lying" improv game (and its variants). Spatial qualities were translated to musical, and that's the approach that can be employed more often to further enrich our library. Try it yourself!

The fields are also bonded personally. One of the most historically important figures to mention would be W. A. Mathieu who is an ex-musical director of the first ongoing improv theatre groups in U.S. — Second City from Chicago.


Inspiring for music games is also the amount of theory that got built around improv in it's quite a long life. Check out the community developed sets of tips for newcomers (so called "Rules of Improv") which quite surprisingly often apply also to musical free improvisation. Here are some:

Say Yes-and! (accept ideas and develop)
Focus on Here and Now
Change, Change, Change!

Be vulnerable, Trust and support your partners, Misbehave in a playful way

Avoid judging what is going down except in terms of whether it needs help (either by entering or cutting), what can best follow, or how you can support it imaginatively if your support is called for.

Another thing is a full glossary. Vocabulary used to describe specific ideas is great for speeding up development, but this amount of useful theoretical baggage is still ahead of music games. It's worth noting that much of jargon is not only technicalities, but touches on the topic of key theatrical qualities of impersonation and story development. These sort of matters seem harder to conceptualize in the context of music games, the musical parallel would be to classify basic improvisation interactions and examine which generate engaging (?) and dynamic (?) music — difficult, if possible.

Thank you to Sebastian Świąder from the Association of Theatre Pedagogues (Stowarzyszenie Pedagogów Teatru) for suggestions regarding this text.

And maybe to you? Please comment to make this text better.

Sources / recommended follow-up

Keith Johnstone, Impro for Storytellers - Viola Spolin's approach described - lists and rules of music games - games, glossary, "rules of improv" - Martin Short at The Late Show with Stephen Colbert talk improv

Mark for clarification

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