A Glossary of Improv Terms

The following is a list of terms used in teaching and discussing improvisational theatre. If you have any additions or modifications you'd like to see made, email me (broehl@improvcomedy.org).
Embracing the offers made by other performers in order to advance the scene.

The process of moving the scene forwards.

The question asked of the audience in order to start a scene.

A unit of action in a scene. A scene is made up of a series of beats.

Rejecting information or ideas offered by another player. One of the most common problems experienced by new improvisors. In conventional theatre, the term is used to mean something different (pre-planned stage movement).

Breaking the routine
Interrupting an action with another action in order to advance the scene.

Making previous action irrelevant. Once an action has been cancelled, it's as if it hadn't happened at all. Usually a bad idea.

The quality that makes an audience enjoy watching a performer.

Stepping out of the reality of the scene by saying or doing something that refers to the fact that it's a scene being played. Also refers to "playing" an emotion rather than feeling it. Should be avoided, though used sparingly it can sometimes be effective.

Complementary offer
An offer that meshes well with what's already gone before (and usually enhances it in some way).

Many (but not all!) scenes are about a conflict of some sort. If there's no conflict, the scene may still be truthful but somewhat dull.

The broader setting for the scene (political, social, etc).

To break up laughing while playing a scene. Usually not a good thing to do.

See "blocking".

Taking over a scene and not letting other performers influence its direction. Makes you an unpopular improvisor.

Assigning attributes to another performer's character.

Explore and heighten
To take an idea and see where it leads, exploring its natrual consequences while simultaneously raising the stakes.

Taking an idea and letting it become the central theme of the scene.

The audience's attention should only be in one place at any given time; that place (or person) is the "focus" of the scene. If more than one thing is going on simultaneously, the focus is split. Experienced improvisors will smoothly share focus, less experienced improvisors often steal or reject focus.

Trying to make a joke or do something funny that doesn't flow naturally from the scene. Always a bad idea.

A nonsense language.

Talking about things instead of doing them. Also, talking about things that are offstage or in the past or future.

The premise for a scene or game.

Making smalltalk instead of engaging in action.

Information overload
Introducing too much information into the scene, making it difficult or impossible to ever find a satisfying ending that resolves everything.

Instant trouble
Making an offer that introduces a problem or conflict but that doesn't relate to the narrative of the scene prior to that point (see "Offer from space").

Interactive Theatre
Any form of theatre in which the audience is not a passive performer. Encompasses a range of different styles, ranging from "spot" improv to loosely-scripted stories such as murder mysteries or faux events (e.g. Tony and Tina's Wedding).

Standing in a place where you can't be seen properly, or in such a way that you're hiding someone else or some important action. Should be avoided.

Making silly faces instead of reacting truthfully. Generally frowned upon.

Identifying characters, objects, places and so forth in the scene.

The story told by a scene. Scenes should have a clear beginning, middle and end.

The thing that a character in a scene is trying to achieve.

Any dialog or action which advances the scene. Offers should be accepted.

Offer from space
Dialog or action that is bizarre and that appears to come from nowhere.

Turning intent into action and movement.

Point of Concentration
What the scene is about.

Discussion of the show by the performers and crew after the performance, in order to identify problem areas that may have arisen as well as things that worked particularly well.

A period during which a scene is not advancing. Usually a bad thing.

The who, what and where of a scene. The success of a scene often depends on having a solid platform.

The list of handles and/or ask-fors to be used in a show. Also called a "running order".

Playfully getting another performer to do something difficult or unpleasant which you probably wouldn't do yourself. Used sparingly, can be quite entertaining. Best strategry is to choose things the other performer does well.

Raising the stakes
Making the events of the scene have greater consequences for the characters. One technique for advancing.

Bringing back an idea from earlier in the scene, or from a previous scene in the show, or even from a previous performance. Stand-up comedians refer to this as a "callback". Always fun, but not something to over-do.

Running order
See "Playlist".

Explaining the handle of the scene to the audience before the scene starts. Also involves doing an ask-for. The performer who does the setup usually shouldn't start off on stage in the scene.

Acknowledging an offer but not doing anything with it, with the intent of using it later. Of course, later never comes.

An object that's used in the scene but which doesn't really exist. A mimed object. In general, anything that doesn't support weight (like a chair) should be a space object.

A character's sense of self-worth. Many scenes are built around status transfers, in which one character's status drops while another's rises. Physical environments and objects also have status.

Stepping out
Breaking the reality of the scene. See "Commenting".

Combining two dissimilar ideas into one, such as hearing two suggestions from the audience and combining them into a single idea that gets used in the scene. Can be fun.

Talking heads
A scene that involves a lot of standing (or worse yet, sitting) around talking rather than engaging in physical action.

Turning something into something else (one character into another, one object into another, one environment into another).

Bantering with the audience during setups.

Overly elaborate mime that's so detailed as to be hard to follow.

Failing to make decisions. Talking about what you're going to do instead of doing it.

Walk-on (or Walk-through)
The act of entering a scene, making a strong offer that advances the scene, and then exiting. Use sparingly.

Doing something cute and silly that makes the audience laugh but doesn't do anything to advance the scene. Very annoying for the other improvisors.

Accepting an offer but failing to act on it.