Learn to Improvise: Making Choices – WHO and WHERE

As an actor in a scripted show we are constantly making choices. If you just reading the script, you are not acting. An actor must make choices to bring a character to life.

In Improv we are always making choices because we do not have a script to lead us at all. So everything we do is making a choice OR reacting to the choices of our scene partners.


I say go big or go home. Now that does not mean we play every choice over the top. This is not a free card for bad over acting. But no matter how subtle you play the choice, make a big one and commit to it.


In life when we fear failure we rarely take chances. No matter how hard we try we could always fail. However, i guarantee if you never try at all you will never succeed.

The concept of MAKING BIG MISTAKES is not asking you to go out and fail, but simply not to fear failure. When we make small mistakes they can easily be brushed under the rug.  We live in denial and avoid correcting the course. However, when we make big mistakes we see it. The world sees it. We have to fix it and we in turn learn form those mistakes.

Any situation that leads to a learning moment is never a mistake to me. It is a chance to learn a better way to fix a problem.

Learn from Mistakes

If you get the ego and insecurity out of the way, now we can be a sponge and learn form our mistakes and the mistakes of others.

RECIPE FOR SUCCESS – Repeat things that work. Correct things that don’t.

If you are open to learning new things, you will grow every day as an artist. The second you think you know it all you are in decline. There is no plateau. If you are not learning anything new you are not challenging yourself.

Improv Choices

The second we take stage in Improv Choices have to be made. We need to have a purpose. When in doubt, keep it simple.

In a scene we will need to make choices about characters and relationships (WHO), setting (WHERE) and actions (WHAT).

Making a few BIG choices about WHO & WHERE in the first lines of the scene will make the entire scene easier to navigate.

Improv Players should never be thinking “WHAT’s GOING ON HERE?” Instead you should be choosing what is going on here and responding to your scene partner’s choices. You could say it is that simple. It is… if you let it be…


Making choices in Improv is not just figuring out what to say. We have to make big physical choices. Perhaps that is more important to word choices. So many novice (a few experienced) players worry about saying just the right words. But when you make the big choices about WHO and WHERE and physically react to the imaginary world in a very real way, the words just seem to come to you. Think of the real people in your life that calculate every word. They often seem robotic or like they are stuck in a radio. But when words organically come from our actions they are sincere.

Even in a scripted show, most audiences react to visual more than than audio cues. This is why we often say that when someone says something important, everyone needs to stop moving. Audience miss important bits of information if distracted. Conversely in a magic show, or perhaps a murder mystery, the important facts may be right before your eyes and ears, but the artists distract you on purpose.

As we start to talk about WHO and WHERE below, always remember we are not talking about what to say. We are diving into submerging ourselves heart and soul into scenes that come to life for our audiences.



One of the hardest tasks for new players is “HOW DO WE START A SCENE”. Here is the best exercise I know to learn how and practice.

Player 1 Enters performing a pantomime of any activity.

Player 2 Enters the scene with the opening statement offering a WHO & WHERE

Player 1 Listens and Responds – strengthen the WHO & WHERE

Player 2 Listens and Responds – strengthen the WHO & WHERE


In a rehearsal, form two lines. We always have player 1 from stage right. After scene switch lines. We play this game at almost every rehearsal. We break down to the basics. Using this same game you can practice any technique. You can let the scenes go on a little longer. Keep it simple but make BIG CHOICES.

In a class room setting, remind students “YES! And…” dialogue and pantomime. Player two should never play against Player one’1 intent on purpose, but if Player Two misreads the activity, respond to the offers of Player Two. Our minds need to be light on our feet and ready to switch gears.

Every time you learn a new skill work that skill into this game.


Every great story has characters. Those characters have relationships. In every book we usually meet the main character (s) in the first few words to the first page. In a live performance we often see a character before we hear the first words. Making choices about THE WHO are not only essential to a great story, these early choices guide us throughout our scenes.


What makes you “YOU?”

How old are you?

How tall are you?

Who do you know in your life?

Parents? Siblings? Children? Friends? Enemies? Frenemies? Teachers? Bosses? Co-workers?

Are you a student? Do you have a job?

Where do you live?

What do you own?

What do you like?

What do you hate?

What clothes are you wearing?

We could ask a 1000 questions trying to get to know you. You would answer “I am… I have… I like…”

When we create great characters, we have to create a life for these characters to feel real. When we attack Shakespeare or lighter scripted works, we spend days, weeks, or even years developing amazing portrayals of the classics and new works we encounter. If you are playing Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Company in London you probably could right a book on teh subject with all the character study and research and experience you have. When I direct and teach theater I have actors write character bios and ask all of the above questions. When you can truly answer the above questions in first person (“I am… I have… I like…”) you start to become the character and live the life of that character on stage. It is such a deeper experience than simply reciting lines you memorized (Helps you memorize lines too by the way)

When we Improvise, clearly we do not have time to say “WAIT! Let me think about this for a few days, then we will start this 2 minute scene…” Instead we have make some quick choices and go to work.

As you get more and more experience you will not even think about this. But here are some ideas to get you started

JOB – try making a strong choice about your character’s job. In your rehearsals and classes, think about how a banker, lawyer, construction worker, politician, artist, accountant, office manager, scientist, police, military, fire rescue,  or other person with a job would act in a situation.

AGE – Play with ages. How does a 18 year old college student act differently from a 100 year old. Think about how people change once they become parents.

PHYSICAL ATTRIBUTE – How does a deformity or injury effect the way we react to our world? How does height and weight change a person? Maybe our characters walk funny because they hold stress or have physical pain form working hard. Be careful not to bully a type of person. Making fun of an affliction is heartless. However, digging deep and using a physical trait to define our character.


So this category gets its own headline because relationships in Improv have more meaning than individual character traits to scene work. How your character relates to those of your scene partner matters more than your individual performance. That is not to say forget about everything else above. The exact opposite. The stronger we play our characters, the stronger our relationships will appear.

But often when we say “Let’s establish THE WHO” players will say “HI I’m Bob and that’s Tim”

Names only represent characters. unless you now who Bob and Tim are those name have no meaning.

But let’s say we start a scene with “Mom, you burnt my breakfast again!” We have started to establish a strong relationship. As soon as you say “MOM” everyone in the audience will think about their own mother. And the audience will react based their own relationship with their own mother. This unique way of experiencing Improv is one of the aspects that draws me to the art form.

Establishing the relationship gives both players a point of reference. In fact I demand all novice players play scenes involving characters that know each other. In a play, most of the characters know each other long before we meet them in the opening scene. We see a moment from their lives, but they had lives long before and, in most cases, long after we visit via the drama.

Same in an Improv. We will talk more about ARC and STARTING IN THE MIDDLE in later posts, but for now, create characters that have a history. And in your opening lines we can indicate history with a few relationship choices.

“Mom, you burnt my breakfast again!”

I use this line often when I demonstrate the THREE LINE EXCHANGE game mentioned above. Not only do we have a mother / son or daughter scene established, we have created a history and conflict. This could go a number of ways depending on how your scene partner “MOM” responds. But regardless of how they respond, they have a strong offer to which to respond.

If you enter aloofly saying “HEY”. You might get a few chuckles. But you for certain gave nothing to your scene partner to work with.

If you enter with “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” you put all the work on your partner.

Enter with “SO WHO ARE YOU AGAIN?” I assume you just do not care at all.


FAMILY – Mom, Dads, Sisters, Brothers, Aunts, Uncles, Grandparents, cousins, and more all come with a lot of preconceptions.

WORK – Bosses, Employees, Co-Workers (Competition and Team mates), clients etc

COMMUNITY – Sales People, Police Officer, Postal, Teachers, Principals, neighbors, friends, etc

Everyone of these relationships sets up ideas. If you are starting a scene, pick a relationship in your first offer to your partner. And then as you listen and respond to each other the generic offer will be come very specific.


When I teach acting or directing educational theater to young talent I always tell the actors to pick three things about your character that never change. Maybe they always wear the same hat. Maybe they always fidget when nervous. Maybe they have a limp from an old war injury. They blink too much, grind their teeth, always lean when at rest, or wear clothes that are too tight. Maybe they are self conscious, to open with verbalizing thoughts, talk loudly or too softly.

In the course of your Improv scenes try to do the same. In longer scenes you will be making 100s of choices potentially, but pick three early one and stick with them.

“YES And…” your partner’s choices.

“Oh, Bob, that limp is getting worse again. you should see the doctor.”

With a few dialogue choices we strengthen our physical choices.

But many things an actor does to prepare never become common knowledge to the public. They help us become these other people or focus our talents to the task at hand. Other characters are defined by these choices.

Richard the 3rd is defined visually by his curved back (not a hunchback) makes him hideous looking and his life of being over looked because of his deformity leads to his depravity.

More obvious would be the Hunchback of Notre Dame, himself.

Lieutenant Commander Phillip Queeg in the “Caine Mutiny” is defined by his use of stress balls – two small metal balls rolled in his hand in times of stress.

The Elephant Man, Phantom of The Opera, The Man who Laughs, Long john Silver, Captain Hook, are just a few Golum classic characters with distinct physical traits. Think about all the memorable characters of literature, theater and film. AS you create memorable characters of your own make a few choices, as the great writers do.

And then just as if you were playing characters form a play, stick with these choices.


Another aspect of story telling usually presented in the first few lines of a book is setting. Sometimes before we meet a character we get pages of description as the author paints the setting with words.

In film and theater we often see the scenery before we hear a single word of dialogue. Think about all those urban set movies where we get a pan of the famous skyline of New York, London, Paris, Los Angeles, or Chicago.

In the show, NYPD Blue the producers would say New York City was a vital character to the show.

Scenes on a farm feel different more than look different to a city.

Think about how much location affects you daily.

How do feel at work versus at home?

How do you feel in your bedroom versus the kitchen, living room, or bathroom?

How do you feel at the park, in the country, on the subway, in a bank, in a court house, at school, on the bus, driving on the high way?

How do you feel at night, day, morning, evening?

How do feel when it is sunny, raining, snowing?

How do you feel in a cramp space versus an wide open field?

In Improv we call of this THE WHERE

THE WHERE is important  for two reasons. Settings change how characters act and they give audiences a point of reference. As artists we basically stimulate the imaginations of our audiences. And in the process we stimulate emotional response. Our audiences laugh, cry or feel excitement on the edge of their seats, as long as we do not bore and put them to sleep.

In Improv we get to be 3D painters with our pantomime. We most often do not have sets, costumes or props. Instead we have the audiences imagination. We get to create worlds by reacting to them. This is why so many Improv Companies work out of Black Box Theater spaces. Not just because they are cheaper than traditional theaters. The black box is totally blank. Nothing distracts the audience from being transported to another world.


Like a great novel, establish the where early on in the scene. You will give your scene partner a point of reference as well as the audience.

“Mom, you burnt my breakfast again!”

The other reason I like to start with this line is we establish a kitchen setting. Mom is there cooking and you, the spoiled rotten kid relationship and setting is now stronger with one line. You and Mom now have plenty of options and a whole world of appliances and cooking tools to work.

Make a strong choice and then discover that space.

If you are sitting at a bankers desk, fidget with the stapler. Make the blank convas come alive. Look around at the room. Maybe you do not talk about funny artwork on the wall or other people in the bank but they are there. We notice them when we go to the bank ourselves. Your characters want to live in real worlds too.

Maybe you are working on a farm. Pick vegetables, milk the cow, carry heavy bails of hey…

Maybe you are stuck deep in the forest hacking your way through the vegetation, surrounded by nature – insects, snakes, river…

Maybe you are driving down the high way. There are street signs, other drivers, stranded cars…


Keep you choices simple but keep making them. But hear is the light at the end of the tunnel. Once you make a few key choices early on in a scene, the next choices become obvious. Perhaps your obvious choices differ from my obvious choices, but once you have relationships and setting established, we have a starting point that leads to more choices. And Improv gets exciting as two artists collaborate and bounce choices off each other.

The stronger your choice, the more your scene partner has to work with and give great choices back to you.

So we say improv is a series of offers. But really it is a series of choices. At first these may seem very mechanical. New artists, f truly working on getting better will seem rigid as they try new techniques. And then as these techniques becomes second nature to you, your scene work will be as seamless as a wonderfully directed scripted work, with far mor fresh spontaneity


An actor’s homework is 24/7. To become a better performer, we need to study life. Where ever you go, observe people. Hard not to look creepy sometimes, I know. In New York City, I tell my high school students to start observing people on/at the Subway, Bus, School Cafeteria, Mall, Park, classroom, and home. Look at how people gather together. Observe how some people isolate themselves. Observe how people change from one place to another. Observe how jobs and relationships change individuals in a variety of situations. When you dream, wake up and jot down a few notes. We are most creative when we sleep and Iwonder how many AMAZING movie ideas are lost because someone did not record their dream.

The study of the arts is psychology and sociology. In Improv we play writer, director and performer all at once. The more we experience life the better we can portray real people and situations on stage.

Keep a journal. I may be repetitive but I cannot emphasize enough how much we need to keep a journal as artists. Our path of discovery is very subjective. The journal grounds us and gives a place to record life and experiences. It makes our subjective world measurable and objective. And writing organizes our thoughts into useful ideas. We will remember the things we learn because we have a secondary way to connect the experience.

I remember and episode of SAVED BY THE BELL. I think the same scenario has appeared in many shows. SILVER SPOONS perhaps… Zach Morris, fearing failure on a test, wrote cheat sheets. He spent all night and hid the sheets on his shoes and else where. But when he gets to the test, he does not need to cheat. In his preparation to cheat, he actually retained the material and aced he test. Of course for comedy he puts his feet up on the desk revealing his intent to cheat.

I often use my journal and / or note cards to create cheat sheets for lines in a scrip. I read the script. I try to write the sentence from memory. I look back as needed to get the line correct. Then read the line out loud a few times. Next day at rehearsal I am off book. I have a back up of index cards of my lines if need be, but like Zach, I don’t.

As we observe life, our record of our own lives becomes our own text book for acting. Or even more so if you go on to direct.

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