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Improv for Puppets

As a performer, even with puppets, you are going to find yourself having to perform off the cuff at times. The ability to perform at the drop of a hat and not have to rely on pre-scripted or pre-performed skits will make you more professional which means more valuable. This is where mastering improv comes into play.

What the Heck is Improv Anyway?

“Improv” is a short form of improvisational theater. It’s basically an on the spot performance created right then and there with no prior prep, practice, or scripting. The performer has no idea what they’re going to do until they start doing it—they are literally making everything up as they go along.

Where Did It Come From?

Improv has actually been around since the early Roman Empire, when a largely improvised set of performances known as the “Atellan Farce” became a popular form of entertainment.

Is It Only Comedy?

With shows such as “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”, the comedy aspect of improv is in the foreground, but there are both comedic and non-comedic forms of improv; the main focus, since it is easier to be funny with improv, the comedic focus is what you should work toward, because that’s where it will be most effective for you with puppets.

In improv you have two forms, short-form and long-form. Short-form focuses on quick games and small skits that are quick attention catchers to create rapport and catch people off guard such as the ones on “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”

In long-form improv, however, each idea plays out for a longer period time, usually about 15 to 20 minutes and building it up; a great example of this is “Puppet Up” which calls on the amazing improv abilities of professional muppeteers from Sesame Street and the Muppet Show.

Basically, after the host gets a random prompt from the audience, a team of performers, sometimes as few as two on up to as many as six create a story on the spot with no consultation with one another beforehand or during. Cameras are set up at the “stageline” so if the audience only wants to watch the puppet show, the screens only show the puppets while watching the stage, you see the puppeteers also, which their responses are sometimes hilarious.

The only problem that happens with this is that sometimes (more often than not) the comedy can go pg 13 and up real fast, so always know your audience and keep your improv geared toward the viewing audience and not toward trying to get the other improv performers to break character.

How do they Do It?

The number one question I get asked is “How do you know what to say?”

Trust me, when I first started doing improv it was a major issue for me. I have a natural tendency to overthink my responses.

Those that now me know that I used to work as a theatrical technician, but my improv “acting” actually started when doing ren faires. In which we studied improv.

In this practice, we did hours of improv training that basically equated to playing games similar to those performed on “Whose Line is it Anyway?”

Great learning experience and, from this, I was convinced that anyone can learn improv.

Now some are naturals at it. A group I used to work with in Muskogee, OK (HEY GENERATION PUPPETS) had a few naturals. In every group you will find at least one that can, at the drop of a hat, come up with something that is really cool. Isaac was about 14 when he started in our group and, from day one, he could pop off ideas, create characters and work around mess ups and mistakes pretty quick.

Mistakes Happen.

No matter how good a skit is, no matter how many times you practice, Murphy’s law says that anything that can go wrong will go wrong, so expect it.

This is where improv comes in in a non-comedic sense. Too often, a performer or tech misses their cue or a sound track messes up get the idea, but too often, performers freeze up or don’t know what to do when this happens. Improv lets you go with the flow and seamlessly work around situations.

How Do I Learn?

As I mentioned, I used to study improv for renn faire performances where we played many improv games and techniques to practice over and over so that it would be second nature.

If you really want to learn this valuable skill, this is a great book for learning long form.


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