Spontaneity and Improv

“When you act or speak spontaneously, you reveal your real self, as opposed to the self you’ve been trained to present.”

Keith Johnstone, Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre

Keith Johnstone's Impro book.

The cover of Impro, a book on improvisation by Keith Johnstone.

Improv class: I’m currently in week 4 of 6 weeks of improvisation class – “Foundations 2” or the second level of improv at the BATS School of Improv in San Francisco. This past Thursday night, the small class of 7 students plus teacher and TA worked on the improv concept of spontaneity.

Being spontaneous has never been a strength of mine, but over the 3 hour session, I explored parts of myself and got to act out a few scenes myself. Apparently, I haven’t been traditionally good at it because I haven’t practiced it enough.

I refer to Johnstone since his book “Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre” is required reading for the course. Johnstone is British, pontifical and hilarious. Along the lines of spontaneity, Johnstone also says, “If you improvise spontaneously in front of an audience you will have to accept that your innermost self will be revealed.”


My scene, which I played with a male classmate, Rob, started out with a suggestion of a location.

“Ice skating rink!” yelled one of our improv classmates.

Rob and I stood in an awkward pose, with me half-bent over, as if falling, and he reaching out his arm as if to hold me up. The scene starts, and I immediately justify the pose.

“Whoa, almost fell there!” I exclaim.

“You’re catching on pretty quick,” Rob says, “learning how to ice skate. You’ll have it down in no time.”

I smile, as we continue to hold arms and pretend to skate across the stage. “Yeah – best first date ever!”

We just created a scene – I’m doing improv – and, obviously, as a single woman, this common theme has spilled out from me onto our scene: dating.

Somedays, improv is like group therapy, where you get to reveal and discover parts of yourself that are locked up, showing yourself for the raw, vulnerable human being you are. And this is yet another reason why improv is amazing.

Bonus: improv games that you can try at home – some of which we play in my class.


Jen Burstedt

Why You Should Take A Beginner’s Improv Class

You – yes, you – should take a beginner’s improv course.

CROWE - the 5 principles of improv.

A good improv scene has these 5 items established.

The course I took in improv has been one of the most impactful experiences in the past year of my life. A strong statement, considering that I have undergone a breakup, two moves and a shift to a new company in the past 7 months – but among top experiences, learning to let go, forget to be nervous while performing in front of others and remembering how to play is an experience that I would recommend all adults have.

When do we stop playing? There is a time that most of us decide to grow up and stop having so much fun. It has been proven that adults smile and laugh less than children, and certainly easy to observe that adults play less games than kids.

Improv tears these habits apart, forcing you to play, make mistakes and laugh at yourself.

My journey in improvisation began when I enrolled in BATS Improv, a local improv school located in San Francisco, this past December. Beginner’s improv class was like learning how to fail again:

– We played games like “Ball”, where the object of the game was to keep the ball in the air… and clap widely when someone messed up when they managed to miss the ball

– We went around in circles in the game of “Three Things”, demanding that our neighbor tell us three things about a category that we make up on the spot (“name three things that fly”), with the goal of this person rattling off three answers, while looking us in the eyes, without worrying about being right

– We practiced and mocked the idea of status with a game where we pretended to be ‘high status’ or ‘low status’ – taking a deep and reflective look at society and the artificial constructs that constrain us

– Tons  of other games

There are so many ways in which mainstream American education teaches us to be afraid of failure, new and different ways of approaching problems and spontaneity. Beginner’s improv was six weeks of an experience to remember, again, how to make mistakes (that’s how you learn! and it makes for good comedy without even you needing to force it), how to play and how there are more than one ways to skin a cat.

Have you taken an improv course before? What was your experience in the class?

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