The book includes a number of improv terms and definitions. For easy reference, these terms have been included in this glossary. The number in italics indicates the chapter the term may be found in.
In improv, your “baby” is the idea or concept you enter a scene with. This is not a literal baby but is instead the motivation or character you start with. This may be as simple as an emotion (Glad, Mad, Sad, Afraid) or more defined such as a sad teenager getting over a breakup.
Often reserved for ending a show, blackouts are when the stage lights turn off leaving the performers and audience in momentary darkness signaling the end of a scene, act, or performance.
A button is most closely associated to a punchline of a scene. Built from second beats, callbacks, and game of previous scenes, the button is the final joke or moment before an edit. Often, a button is immediately followed by a blackout which ends a show.
A callback is when a performer intentionally brings back, or refers to, an idea, character, or game from earlier in the show.
Throughout this book, we will talk about passing and sharing focus. Simply put, the person with focus is the person who is currently talking, or doing, the primary thing. Sharing focus is natural during conversation. Passing focus may be done as directly as saying “what do you think” in a scene or meeting, or as subtle as direct eye contact. Throughout the book’s exercises, focus on making eye contact to pass and receive focus.
The “Fun” in Follow the Fun is the interesting, strange, or unique thing that stands out in a scene. This might be a physical tick, a repeated action, or a passing comment. The key is to listen for these things and to follow them. If a scene partner mentions their trust started when they had a pet tadpole, explore that. Follow it. See where it leads. Follow the fun.
Simply put, Game in improv is any repetitive action, saying, or behavior that can be repeated for comedic or dramatic effect. Think of the movie Young Frankenstein. Anytime the Frau Blücher’s name is mentioned, a horse whinnies. While gimmicky, this is an example of a game.
A Gift refers to anything one character in a scene offers to another. This may be something physical (albeit mimed) such as “I found your wallet” where you can respond to this discovery. Or it may be more intangible such as “I never liked your girlfriend” where your character has now been gifted with a relationship. You then choose how you feel about your scene partner not liking your partner.
Grounded refers to a degree of realism and practicality. When we play grounded scenes, or characters we are not looking to be extreme or absurd. Instead, we play and perform in a typical situation. This does not mean everything has to be happy. Instead, it means we play real. The emotions, actions, and responses are those we might actually encounter in life, and not exaggerated for the sake of exaggeration.
A group game is often a short scene in a show where the majority of the team performs together. Group games are not as complete as normal scenes and focus on everyone finding agreement and maintaining energy. This could be as simple as everyone making a noise or more elaborate such as a board-room setting with a short conversation around a central topic.
Two basic types of improvisation exist: short-form and long form. Short-form was popularized with the show Whose Line Is It Anyway and consists mostly of short games. Long-form improv is driven by narrative and character. For the purpose of this book, we will discuss improv through the lens of long-form.
In improv, we sometimes refer to our “improv pants,” referring to the miming of actions. If you take off your shoes, you want to mime taking off your improv shoes. Be warned, if you take off your actual shoes and later need to take off your pants, you might end up half naked on stage. In fact, I’ve seen a performer eat a $10 bill on stage because they made the choice of stuffing real money in their mouth, not their improv money. As the show increased in absurdity, their behavior followed.
I’ve Got Your Back
Immediately before an improv show starts, it traditional for a team to pat their teammates on the back saying four simple words “I’ve got your back.” We repeat this with everyone in our team. It’s a simple reminder that the show is built on our collective success. Next time you go into a workshop or presentation, remind your team that “you’ve got their back.”
An exercise where an improviser performs a 30-60 second monologue about a prompt, named after the speeches given at awards ceremonies where the performer looks into the distance as they thank, recollect, or describe something. This could be as simple as telling the story of a characters first time experiencing something or expressing a deep love. Oscar Moments may be used to set the scene, or connect the dots of memories (think of a grizzled police officer reminiscing of the Cold Case that keeps them up at night)
A scene is any single event or activity in a show. Scenes may be anywhere from 30 seconds to a few minutes in length. Scenes have distinct locations, characters, and activities. When characters or elements from an earlier scene reappear in a new scene, it’s called a Callback. More on Callbacks in Section 5.
A technique for setting the stage, or environment where a show will take place. Performers take turns describing the environment based on the audience suggestion. For instance, if suggested “park” team members may describe “the swing set with flaking paint, the tire swing with frayed tape, the garbage can. And then details may be added like “the bag of dog poop next to the can, but not in it”. These details, while small, layer into the show the performers create.
Second Beats are characters or games that reappear later in a show. Section 5 addresses second beats and callbacks in more detail. If a Private Investigator is solving a murder in the first scene of a montage and drops their hat, a second beat might be the same PI shopping for a new hat.
Sidelines & Backlines
In improv, we often refer to sidelines and backlines. Sidelines are when performers not in the scene stand on either side of the stage. This offers the best vantage point of what is happening and empowers performers to smoothly join or edit. Backlines are when performers stand along the back of a stage but are not actively engaged in the scene. Performers can enter a scene from a backline or sideline by intentionally changing their space through physical movement.
The stakes in improv are the core wants for the scene, or what is at risk. This may be two lovers wanting to reunite, where the stakes are intangible. Or they may be more physical, like robbing the bank and getting away with the crime.
In improv, status refers to the power difference between two characters. Status is not the organizational hierarchy. In organizational hierarchy, a CEO ranks higher than a janitor, and parents rank higher than children. With Status, a CEO may be very mild-mannered, and a janitor literally holds the keys to a clean environment and could be haughty about their work. Parents may “lose” status to demanding children or they may reinforce their status through authoritative behavior.
Structure is the term given to the show’s style or framework. Section 5 goes into detail about some common structures of improv. While helpful to learn, it’s better to think of building blocks for performing. Nothing in improv is set in stone.
A walk-on character is any person or character who is not a central part of a scene but walks on to offer a compelling gift to the characters, or to help drive the narrative forward.