Starting an Improv Group

It's easy to start up an improv group, since the only requirements are an empty space and perhaps some lights. Everything else is created from the imaginations of the actors and audiences.

The Performance Space

More specifically, you need a space with good visibility (no obstructing pillars), a number of chairs for the audience, and a few chairs for the performers. It's important that the space be the right size for your audience! You'll have a much better show if you have 40 people squeezed into a room that comfortably seats 35, than if those same 40 people are rattling around in a room that seats 150.

You may want to consider having a concession stand with pop and snack foods. Once you're well-established, you might even start merchandising (T-shirts, cast photos, etc).

Lighting

Lights are not absolutely essential for an improv show, but they do add a lot to the performance. Lights serve to define the scenes in space and time (in space, since the lit area is where the action generally is, and in time, since the scene begins with the lights coming up and ends with the lights going down). Lights also make the show seem much more polished and professional.

The person running the lights is, in a sense, a member of the cast. They can determine when the scene is over, and they can change the direction or mood of the scene by altering the lighting. In any case, good communication between the performers and the lighting person is important; usually a "lights down" gesture is agreed on beforehand so that cast members (even those not onstage) can let the lighting person know when to end the scene.

One simple technique that adds a lot of polish to the show is to bring the lights down after the suggestions have been taken, pause for a second, then bring them up again to mark them beginning of the scene.

Music and Sound Effects

A good keyboardist is a valuable asset to an improv troupe. Like the lighting person, the musician is a member of the cast. In addition to providing support for improvised songs, musicals and operas, they can set a mood for a scene by their choice of background music. They can also make musical offers during a scene, which the improvisors can use to take things in a new direction; the musician can also act to reinforce the choices the actors make (for example, by playing a love theme at a romantic moment).

The musician also provides pre-show music, and sometimes plays during intermission. If you have no musician, a tape can be used for these purposes instead. In any case, the music chosen for pre-show should be lively and upbeat, to raise the energy level of the audience before the show formally begins. The intermission music can serve to keep the intermission from dragging on too long (which saps the energy of the audience). In addition to all of this, the musician can provide little musical "bridges" between scenes.

If your musician uses a synthesizer, they can provide sound effects as well. If not, you can have a sound technician with a selection of short, leaderless (possibly continous-loop) sound effects tapes. Some troupes have a "foley artist" with a collection of sound effects devices (doorbells, gongs, buzzers, gravel with shoes, etc) who works the way old-style radio sound effects people did.

The Host

A good host is critical. The host welcomes the audience, explains what it is they're going to see, and generally breaks down the fourth wall and makes the audience feel at ease with the idea of giving suggestions.

The host also keeps track of the time, decides when the intermission should take place, and wraps the show up at the end (thanking the cast and crew, and usually introducing them by name).

In some troupes, the host also sets up all the scenes, while in others, the performers take turns.

Costumes

Costumes should be very minimal, and easy to put on and take off. Hats are great, as are glasses and perhaps jackets and shawls. Anything else takes so long to put on that by the time you're ready to enter the scene, the moment has passed.

Troupes that use costumes will often build up a collection of assorted items, usually kept on a coat rack or offstage table.

Promotion

It's really important to let people know you're there. Start off by inviting friends, relatives, and anyone you've ever known. Send press releases to local radio stations and newspapers, and put up a few posters. Get the word out!

It's showtime!

One last, important piece of advice: always remember you're there to have fun!