Performance Games

Here you’ll find a selection of improv games, along with my thoughts on the best ways to approach them. These games are all suitable for performance in front of a audience. For now, most of the list consists of names and brief descriptions, but I’ll gradually add links with more explanation.

ASK-FORS

A guide to getting suggestions for improv scenes.

AUDIENCE

The audience plays an integral part in the scene.

  • Audience Volunteer – an audience member is invited to be a character in a scene
  • Angry Mob – Audience members are conscripted to play an angry mob
  • A Day in the Life – Players enact the events of an audience member’s day
  • No Laughs scene – Players are penalized if their performance gets a laugh from the audience

CHARACTER

Games which pivot on characters

  • Animal Characteristics – Animal traits form the basis of human characters
  • Animal Imposter – An animal tries to pass as a human
  • Animal Characters – Players are animals, usually ones who talk and behave like humans – eg, two birds trying to decide if they can afford to buy a larger nest.
  • The BLANK Family – A family all share the same attribute (emotion, occupation, animal trait)
  • Emotional Family – A family all have the same emotion
  • Character Descriptions – Players receive written character descriptions
  • Street Interview – A roving reporter describes passers-by then interviews them – players immediately play the character described
  • Awful But Earnest – Players are assigned celebrities to imitate, and play the scene as sincerely as possible
  • Body Image – Characters are based on body tricks – keeping mouth small, clenched fists, etc.
  • Solo Scene – One player performs a story where they must play numerous characters
  • I Love You – Players must convey that they love each other without saying “I love you”
  • Tempo – Each player gets a different speed
  • Character Switch – On the call of “Switch,” players must swap roles
  • Substitution – Players are tagged out by others, who take over the same character
  • Switch Change – Two players in a scene either switch roles or change with a backup team
  • Team Substitution – One team starts a scene and a second team completes it
  • Status Transfer – Players begin with opposite status and switch status during the scene
  • Status Battle – Two players perform a scene, trying to have the highest or lowest status. Audience votes on the winner. .

EMOTION

  • Emotional Options – The scene is interrupted at frequent intervals and a new emotion is assigned to a character
  • More – During scene, audience or players call for “More anger!”, “more hand-waving!” etc.
  • Oscar Moment – On the call of “Oscar Moment!” a player steps forward and gives the kind of overwrought performance that would be shown on an Oscar clip
  • Emotional Transition – Two emotions are suggested – a player will start with one and end with the other
  • Emotional Transfer – Each player gets an emotion, and by the end of the scene their emotions have switched

MUSIC

Games based around music.

  • Madrigal – Simple song where each player sings a word or phrase.
  • Musical – A scene combining dialogue and speech in the style of a traditional musical (Broadway, Bollywood, Rogers and Hammerstein…)
  • Opera – Scene formed in the style of an opera, with continuous singing
  • Sounds Like a Song – On the call “Sounds like a song” players turn their previous line into a song
  • Scene to Music – Music changes lead the mood and action (no dancing!)
  • Interpretive Dance – Players perform a pretentious dance routine to music, based on a title or events in someone’s day
  • Fosse – Scene in the style of a Bob Fosse musical. Enact a person’s day or activity. Player at the front leads, all others imitate
  • Song – A song based on a word or theme
  • Da Doo Ron Ron – A group song using the tune and chorus of the 1963 Crystals hit
  • Look – Look Away – Players stare into each other’s eyes when the music is playing, look away when it stops

PHYSICAL

Games where the starting point is a physical action. In many cases, the games involve players being presented with a physical offer and having to make sense of it in words. (This is much more interesting than the reverse.)

  • Arms Scene – A scene where one player has arms provided by another – arms should lead
  • Arms Expert – An expert, with one player providing arms while the other speaks, fields questions from the audience
  • Physical Exaggeration – Players are given an odd physical characteristic as the basis for their character
  • Machine – Players add themselves to a human machine, then a host explains its function
  • Ritual – A group performs a simple activity as a complex religious ritual – “Let the toothpaste cap be removed!”
  • Dubbing – One player provides the voices for all the players in the scene
  • Foreign Film Dubbing – Two players perform a scene from an imaginary foreign film, while offstage players provide their dialogue when their mouths silently move
  • Three-Way Dubbing – Player A dubs for Player B, B dubs for C, C dubs for A. Confusion reigns.
  • Puppets (Moving Bodies) – One or more players are human puppets, able to speak, but unable to move unless their puppeteer moves them
  • Statues – Players are posed as statues, and this is the starting position for the scene
  • Touch to Speak – Players must make physical contact before saying a line of dialogue
  • Sitting-Standing-Lying Down – At any time, exactly one player must be  in each position
  • Unable to Move – For some reason, one or more players are unable to move
  • Stunt Double – On the call “Stunt Double” a stunt experts replaces the players and perform slow-motion action sequences
  • Guess the Tableau – Players present three tableaus (eg, a movie, a  famous event in history, and the life of a celebrity). An audience member tries to guess each one.
  • I’m A… – Players form a tableau, announcing their position – “I’m a cup of coffee”, “I’m the spoon”, “I’m the drowning fly”
  • Slide Show – Players present the next “slide” which the slideshow host must explain
  • Movie Stills – Players form a tableau based on a scene title, then play a snippet of that scene, then move on to the next one.
  • Picture Book – A storyteller turns pages of a story book, with players presenting the random picture, which the storyteller justifies

REPLAYED SCENES

Scenes where players are directed to replay moments according to certain instructions.

  • Shoulda Said – On the call of “Shoulda Said”, players must undo what they just said and make a different choice
  • More Specific – When “More Specific” is called, players repeat their last line with more detailed information. On “Less Specific” they repeat in a vague way.
  • Forward-Reverse – On the call of “Reverse,” players must replay their dialogue and actions in reverse. On “Forward” the scene moves forward again.
  • Reduction Scene – A scene is performed in a minute, then repeated in shorter times

NARRATED OR DIRECTED SCENES

These games have one person providing direction for others. This can help players get out of an inactive rut.

  • Typewriter – An author types a story, providing key moments in the action for the onstage players
  • Movie Critics – Two critics review a movie, showing key scenes, which are played by the other players
  • Movie Night – Two film enthusiasts watch a movie at home, skipping ahead to the parts they like best, played by other players
  • He Said, She Said – Players provide narration for each other, describing the other player’s actions
  • And Then He Said – Variation on He Said, She Said, where players describe their partners actions, ending with, “And then he said…”
  • What Comes Next – At intervals, the player or players pause and ask the audience “What comes next?”
  • Options – A director pauses the scene and asks the audience for suggestions on how it will continue
  • Narrator – One player (who may also be a character) provides narration for the scene

STAGING

  • Entrances and Exits – Players enter or leave the moment their assigned word is spoken
  • One Character on Stage – Only one character can be on stage. If a second enters, the first must leave (although they may continue as an offstage character, heard but unseen)
  • Scene Played among the Audience – A scene is played entirely in the audience area
  • Sideways Scene – Players lie on the stage, and the scene is played as if from a bird’s-eye view
  • Balancing the Stage – Imagine the stage is balanced on a central pivot: two players must keep the stage balanced as they move around
  • Split Screen – Scene played as if the stage is a TV screen that has rolled sideways. Characters walking off on the left enter on the right (played by different players)
  • Stage Mirror – Two sets of players performing the same scene. One makes with physical choices, while the other provides dialogue. Roles switch back and forth.
  • Stage Zones – Various games where a player’s position on stage corresponds to an emotion or status

 TECHNICAL

These are games led by choices of lighting or sound.

  • Sound Effects – Sound effects are added to a scene and players must make sense of them
  • Audience Sound Effects – An audience member is given a microphone and asked to provide sound effects for players as they  play violins, walk in leaves, hammer nails, etc. (Another version does not use a microphone and has the whole audience making the sound effects.)
  • Small Voice – One player, on a microphone, plays an invisible character
  • Lighting Booth – The lighting booth operator makes unusual choices which the players must make sense of. (Eg, if a spotlight appears, someone moves into it to give a speech.)

VERBAL

  • Radio Play – Players gather around a microphone to perform an old-style radio play.
  • Scene in the Dark – The scene is played in pitch darkness
  • Phone Conversations – All players are talking on phones, and during the scene, they give and take focus, usually revealing some overlapping stories
  • Group Story – Several players tell a story, stepping forward to take over the narrative or add details
  • Commentary – Sports style commentators provide coverage of an ordinary activity or event (changing a light bulb)
  • Poetry Translation – A foreign poet reads one of his famous poems (in gibberish) and a translator provides the English version
  • Foreign Film Translation – Players perform a foreign film scene. They say their lines in gibberish, then offstage players provide an English translation
  • Actor’s Nightmare – One player reads from a play, while another tries to justify the lines. (A variation is to use someone’s phone texts.)
  • Pillars – Audience members stand on the stage as pillars (or sit on chairs) and provide words to finish a sentence, which the players incorporate into the scene.
  • Hesitation (“Uh…”) – Players pause in mid-dialogue and say “uhh… umm…” to the audience, who shout out a suggestion for the next few words.
  • Lip-Reading – Similar to pillars, but the audience member is only allowed to mouth the words. The player does their best to lip-read what they’re saying.
  • Line – At intervals, players shout “Line!” as if they’ve forgotten their dialogue. An offstage player then provides a compelling line.
  • Paper Chase – Lines of dialogue are written on slips of  paper and scattered over the stage. At intervals, players pick up a slip and read it as their line, then justify it.
  • Rhyming Scene – Dialogue is in rhyming couplets. More fun if one player starts each rhyme and another finishes it.
  • Scene Without Words – A scene where the characters could speak, but never do.
  • Three Words or Less – A mostly-silent scene where players can say short sentences.
  • Silent Movie – A scene in the style of an old silent movie
  • Talk – No Talk – On a signal, players can either talk freely, or are silent (their characters could talk but choose not to)
  • All Questions – All dialogue must be in the form of a question
  • Question-Statement – Players take turns to speak. Each player holds the turn until they ask a question.
  • Open-Mouth – Another turns-to-speak scene, where a player holds the turn until they close their lips together.
  • Question Time – At any point, the audience can call “Question!” and ask a question about the scene. (“Your character seems really angry. Why is that?” “I just broke up with my fiancée.”)  The player’s answers affect how the scene unfolds.
  • Calling Out – All dialogue is shouted. Get a suggestion which makes sense of this. (Eg, people who live in facing apartment buildings.)
  • Stage Whisper – All dialogue is whispered. Again, get a suggestion that fits it – defusing a bomb, in the presence of a sleeping baby, etc.
  • Numbered Sentences – Each player is given a number and must complete each sentences in that many words (There are many variations on word-limitation games)
  • Talking Numbers – Every line of dialogue must include a number
  • No S – Dialogue must not include the letter S (or T or another common letter)
  • Sounds Good to Me – One player’s dialogue is a script of four positive comments
  • Word-at-a-Time Scene – Two players play a single character, taking turns to speak one word at a time, and acting out the scene they describe.
  • Story Die – Players line up and tell a story a word at a time. If they hesitate or repeat a word, the audience yells “Die!” and the player is eliminated from the line
  • One-Voice Scene – Two players are a single character, and perform a scene. They talk together, saying the same words at the same time.
  • One-Voice Expert – A group of players is a professor, fielding questions from the audience

GENRES

Scenes in different film or movie styles

  • Genre Options – A scene switches to different suggested genres as it progresses
  • Genre Day in the Life – Replay an audience member’s day in the style of a certain genre
  • Genre Replay – The same scene is played in three different genres, taking different turns in each

These are a few genres which can make good choices for scenes

  • Commercial
  • Amateur Theatre
  • Shakespeare
  • Film Noir
  • Game show (Quiz)
  • Reality Show (American Idol)
  • Investigative Documentary
  • Nature Documentary
  • Horror
  • News story
  • Japanese monster movie
  • Pre-School puppet show
  • Movie Trailer
  • Performance Art
  • Soap Opera
  • James Bond
  • Star Trek
  • Superhero
  • Western

GUESSING

There are many variations on guessing games, where one player is sent from the room and returns to guess information provided by the audience

  • Three Activities – Player must guess and perform three activities
  • Guess the Crime – In a police interrogation scene, the guesser must figure out what odd crime he committed, where they did it, and who his celebrity accomplice was
  • Party Guests – Guests are each assigned a character or quirk, and the host must guess each person’s details.
  • Workplace Excuse – Work colleagues give the boss an excuse for a colleague’s absence (getting audience suggestions). The guessing player then enters as the absent worker, and must guess the details, as the boss grills him, and the colleagues give silent cues in the background
  • State Trooper – Similar to Workplace Excuse, but instead of a boss, the interrogator is a State Trooper who has pulled over a car
  • Chain Murder Endowment – Guesser must figure out their location, a weapon, and their victim’s profession, then commit the murder. Murderer now becomes new victim and the sequence is repeated with the next guesser.
  • Talk Show – Guesser must figure out what famous person they are, what recent scandal they were involved in, and the unrelated subject of their new book

MISCELLANEOUS

  • World’s Worst – A category is announced (eg, World’s worst dentist) and players jump forward with different examples of how they sound. As ideas run out, announce a new category.
  • Ninety-Nine Penguins Walk into a Bar – And the bartender says… Players try to come up with a punchline.  Substitute an audience suggestion for penguins.
  • Most Uses of an Object – Players try to find as many different uses as possible for an object
  • Rant – A row of players takes turns to rant about a certain subject
  • Fairy Tale in a Minute – A fairy tale (or other well-known story) is performed in one minute.
  • Freeze Game – Players perform a short scene. On the call “Freeze!” they hold positions, and new players replace them, taking the same positions but in a different situation.
  • Pan Left – Three players perform three different scenes, with two players in each scene. On the call “Pan Left” or “Pan right” they move, putting a different pair of players in front of the audience, and continuing their scene.
  • Scene Three Ways – A short scene is (loosely) repeated three times with different situations – in different historical periods, different emotions, etc.
  • Time Jump – Starting with a moment between two characters, the scene jumps forward by increasing amounts (days, months, years) and we see how their lives unfold.