Allowing the body to lead


Had my second improv class this week, and it was even better than the first.

Traffic was good driving into Toronto, so I got to class a little early. Tony, the SCTV and Saturday Night Live alumnus, was also there early and I had the opportunity to chat with him. I was a little awe-struck the first week, but he’s very approachable and friendly. I’m really glad to have Tony in our class – he’s super funny and there’s so much to learn from him. He takes the simplest ideas and turns them into amazing scenes. (see exercise “Exchanging Gifts” below)

As class started, I initially felt a twinge of nerves, despite this being our second week – can I do three hours of this? Will it get harder? But the three hours really went by quickly, and I’m becoming more confident as time goes on.

Warm-ups – Gestures

We started class with a few warm-up exercises. Standing in a circle, Chris, our instructor, made a gesture, and all of us mimicked it. After doing this for a few rounds, Chris then would make a gesture towards a specific person in the circle, and that person would mimic it back to Chris. Then, that student (A) would make a different gesture to another student (B). B would mimic it back to A, and then direct a gesture to another student. It was similar to the “Point, yes” exercise from Week 1, but instead of pointing, a gesture was used, and instead of responding with “yes”, the gesture was mimicked back.

The above exercise evolved into actions using just the face, and then actions using no hands (hands behind the back). It’s interesting to isolate or restrict parts of your body and see what gestures you come up with.

Name Game

After these warm-ups, we played the Name Game. I really like the Name Game. It’s a fun exercise that tests your memory.

It started with Chris. Chris introduced himself by saying his name, and then describing himself with an adjective starting with the first letter of his name. He would also make a gesture. For example:

“I’m Chris and I’m clever” (pointing his index finger to his head)

Then it’s the turn of the person next to Chris in the circle. That person must first repeat Chris’ name, adjective and gesture, and then introduce him/herself. For example:

“I’m Chris and I’m clever” (pointing index finger to head)
“I’m Mitch and I’m mighty” (flexing his arms up beside his head like a muscle man)

Now it’s the next person’s turn. The next person must always repeat the introductions of all the people before him/her, and then introduce him/herself. If you’re the last person in the circle, you have the biggest challenge, trying to remember everyone’s name, adjective and gesture!

Some of the adjectives were really neat. Let’s see if I can remember them all:

  • Chris – clever
  • Mitch – mighty
  • Toni – timid
  • Elise – energetic
  • Mary – morbid
  • Lou – luscious
  • Michelle – mini
  • Mark – marvelous
  • Jill – good (meant to ask if she spells her with a G. She gestured “quote marks” for her action)
  • Nick – noble
  • Steve – stylish
  • Cindy – cheerful
  • Alexa – asymmetrical (I liked this one – very original)
  • Tony – tender
  • Amanda – abstract
  • Kate – kinky
  • Christian – creative (I think 😕 – hard to remember the last one)

Not bad – I remembered everyone’s names, and all but one of the adjectives. It definitely is a good exercise to help in learning names.

Bonus points go to Christian. He came to class late, and with one only viewing of the circle, was able to repeat everyone’s name, adjective and gesture. Like I mentioned in my last post, we have some amazing students in the class.

Allowing your body to lead you

The next exercise set us up for the Freeze Game.

  • Person A is in the centre of the circle and repeatedly makes a motion, like swinging a baseball bat.
  • Person B enters the circle and copies the motion, then, slowly allows it to evolve into a different motion.
  • Person A exits and Person C enters. Person C copies the new motion made by Person B and then allows it to evolve into another motion
  • This continues.

For example, person A is swinging a baseball bat. Once person B has successfully copied this action, then as he allows the action to evolve, the action may end up changing into throwing a pizza pie over the head.

The change needs to be organic and fluid – just let it happen! Do not think about it, but rather let the body lead and see what evolves.

Freeze Game

After practicing the body leading an action, we played the Freeze Game.

Two people are in the circle, acting something out. At any point, the teacher claps his hands, and the two people freeze. The next person in the circle jumps in and takes the place of the person who has been in the circle the longest, and puts himself in the same pose. He must now act something different out, using that same pose.

This was a little different than how I know the Freeze Game, in that the teacher stopped the action by clapping his hands (instead of the person who will jump into the circle, who may stop the action when he or she is inspired to do so), and that the person who was clapped out was the one who was in the longest, instead of choosing either one of the two people in the circle.

Exchanging Gifts (between three people)

The last exercise before the break was my favourite of the class: Three people giving gifts to each other

Three people are in the scene, sitting in chairs next to each other. The premise of the exercise is that each person gives the other two a gift (therefore six gifts are given in this exercise). It could be for any occasion. It could be three people with the same birthday (ie. triplets), it could be Christmas, just because, whatever.

The rule is that the person who receives the gift, loves the gift, and decides what the gift is. For example, the receiver opens the gift and says “I love it! I’ve always wanted a swiffer sweeper.” Or “How did you know I’ve be looking for an ancient dinosaur fossil.” It doesn’t need to be creative, it could be anything. Then, the other two people (the giver and the observer), each need to give a reason why the gift is ideal for the recipient.

Things to keep in mind are the weight and size of the gift being presented. It should make sense what comes out of the gift once it’s unwrapped.

This exercise was so much fun to watch and to perform in. There were many ways in which the scene could develop, by unwrapping the gift, using the gift, etc.

My favourite gift given was to Tony. He took his time opening the gift, and it was a bar of soap – Zest in fact – so simple, and also so unexpected. His partners gave reasons why soap was a good gift for Tony. He agreed, saying he could use more soap. His delivery was so honest and pure, and the whole class was in stitches! What I noticed about Tony was that he accepted all offers so effortlessly, and added to them, but let the scene evolve, without changing the direction it was going in. It sounds easy, but I’m realizing it takes a lot of skill to do this.

The part of this exercise that worried me was will I be able to come up with an idea for a gift quickly?

I was amazed when Jill was given a really long gift, and without skipping a beat, she opened it and was thrilled that it was a dance/stripper’s pole. Jill set it up and started using it, and it was a great scene. I found it creative and believable.

Seeing my classmates come up with these great ideas, I tried to resist the urge while watching to think of ideas of what I could open (if it was small, big, heavy, light) when it came to be my turn. This is the opposite of what we are meant to do. Improv is about getting out of your head.

I was impressed by Toni. She really took her time opening the gift, allowing herself time to figure out what the gift would be. She unwrapped, took out lots of packing peanuts, got to another box, then took her time being amazed at what the gift was, thanking her gift givers, asking how they knew how much she wanted it. There was a lot of anticipation of what the gift would be. In the end, it turned out to be a coin that belonged to her late father.

Watching her, I realized I should allow myself the time I need and not panic to try to come up with an idea quickly. Anxiety is not helpful (which I am prone to feel).

When it came to my turn, I had a lot of fun. I even got a few laughs, which I wasn’t expecting. It’s nice when they do happen!



At the end of the first class, Chris gave each of us a homework assignment – to learn how to mime one common household activity.

After break, each student presented their mime. After miming out the action one time, Chris asked us to mime it again, this time having difficulty with the action, and really paying attention to all the intricacies that are involved with performing the activity

What I noticed, was the mimes I enjoyed the most were the ones that were simple. Jill mimed out painting her nails with nail polish, and this was really good. Alexa mimed waxing her legs. When she did it with difficulties, the wax burned her, got caught in her hair, it developed into a terrific scene.

The mimes that had many actions involved were harder for me to follow or understand what the action was, especially when it was done quickly. But overall, all of the mimes were really enjoyable to watch.

This is the part of class I really like, when most of the time is involved in watching! (We did this for over an hour, most of the time as spectator to our classmates)

For myself, I mimed putting contact lenses in my eyes. I’m not overly confident with miming, but I heard a few mutters of “yeah, that’s exactly what happens” and I had someone ask me if I wear contacts, so I got the feeling that I did an ok job.

One mime that was really funny, was Christian shaving. During the part where he had difficulty, water didn’t come out of the sink. He tried the shower, and that also didn’t work. After much deliberation, he mustered up his courage and did the unthinkable – splashing his face with water in the toilet. It was priceless!

Lessons Learned 

  • The simplest ideas and actions often are the most believable and can result in the funniest scenes
  • Allow your body to lead you into your next action or idea. Go with the flow of energy and do not force the process. Just see what happens.
  • When you let go, that’s when magic happens
  • Take your time 🙂

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