Take an exercise, leave an exercise


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Staff member
I recently got a message from someone asking about coaching and getting inspiration for exercises. So I thought I would start a thread where people could share exercises that they use when coaching, directing or teaching. Here are the guidelines:
  • If you use an exercise from this thread, you are honor bound to leave an exercise for others to use.
  • Describe the purpose of the exercise. Is it warmup? Does it work on agreement, trust, game-of-the scene, character work, environment, etc.
  • Describe the exercise with enough detail that someone could follow your steps easily and use this exercise in a rehearsal without further explanation.
  • Please include tips on what to look for when you are watching the exercise and examples of common problems that pop up.
  • If you know who created the exercise or introduced it to you, give them credit.

I'll work on my first entry for later today.
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This is something I've found pretty hip when working with a group of people who are having trouble listening to each other in scenes. It's an old excersice I took from my brief yet tumultuous acting scool days...

Ask two performers to sit in chairs with their backs facing each other. Instruct them that in the course of this improvised scene one person will say a line, then the other person will repeat that line before adding their line to the scene. For instance:

A: I made us some toast.
B: You made us some toast. I'll get us some juice.
A: You'll get us some juice. I'll set the table.
B: You'll set the table. This looks good.
A: This looks good. I'm glad you like it.

And so on. At no point during the excersice are the players allowed to leave their chairs or look at each other.

I've found what this excersice does is it focuses people directly on what the other person is saying, especially beginning players who are trying too hard to be funny or to create an environment without first investing themselves in what their partner is actually saying. Some things to look out for are people sort of robotically repeating their partner's line instead of actively listening to it and taking it in, and for someone going on for like five sentences with thier line.

Being unsure as to who invented this, I'll just say Thomas Edison invented it. He invented every other friggin thing, right?



for all the cows
I've done that same thing in theater classes, and you're right, it's a great device. Even if you carry that rule into actual scenes, you can still improv some pretty coherent and sometimes even pretty great scenes.

john i think that's meisner.

i've done this following excercise with joe bill and seth morris, and i love it - it helps me get out of my head, and oddly enough the scenes get really specific:

explanaition is simple:

first doing 2 minute 2 person scenes with the whole group.

then shaving it down to 1min 30sec etc . . . until your down to 15 second scenes.

really amazing - and it makes you see the difference in the decisions that are being made immediately.

if this doesn't make sense, i'm sorry
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New Member
Action exercise

Have two people come out, give them a random suggestion, then have them do an entire scene in silence; just physically deal with each other. Stress good object work and connecting with each other.

When they've finished that scene, ask them to do THE EXACT SAME SCENE, except add words. The caveat is that the words CANNOT have anything to do with the actions that they are doing. For example, if the two actors are involved in an archery tournament, they cannot discuss it.

The purpose of this exercise is to: 1) get your team used to the idea of DOING SOMETHING... anything... rather than standing in one space talking to each other. This is especially helpful with teams that do a lot of "talking heads" scenes.

2) It reinforces the need to physically set your environment. It'll help your team do scenes somewhere other than the "white room."

3) It grounds the scenes... I can't explain why, I've just seen it work... it somehow keeps the scene away from argument.


Mark Henderson


New Member
A variation on Rachel's exercise

Joe Bill used to also do an exercise that was similiar to the one you mentioned, Rachel, except that he put a variety of times on slips of paper, anywhere from 5 seconds to 5 minutes. The slips of paper went in a hat. Then Joe would draw the times out, not telling the two on stage.

The purpose? They had to initiate like a mo-fo, because they didn't know if they would be edited immediately, but they had to be prepared to continually heighten and pay attention to initial declarations because they might end up going the full 5 minutes.

I think it might be one of the best exercises out there.

Mark Henderson:worm:
I don't know if this was an exercise or just an emergency damage control drill, but it was the single most helpful moment I've had in class.

Secunda had two people up. They are given a suggestion and they are supposed to have a regular conversation inspired by that suggestion. We were also supposed to define our space while having the conversation. It was just two real people having a real conversation about things that either really happened or that they really believed in.

There was no game. There was no heightening. But it showed me that the best character choice you can make is yourself. And that character's decisions will never be wrong because they come from you. It's the only "Aha!" moment I've had in improv thus far.

Now let's hear from some damn teachers and coaches.
(I'm staring at you Mullaney):wishy:


Among Men, Dunford
One exercise that I liked came from Ari.

It was an exercise to focus on object work. Two-person scene, and he wouldn't let you out of the scene until you OVERDID object work five times. Finger-phones, the phony drinking that we all do, etc...all were encouraged, for the purpose of easing us down the road in re: getting out of our heads with object work.


IRC Administrator
Staff member
This is an exercise I used in my level three class this week. I often used it in level 1 as well. It works on initiations, creating characters and the game-of-the-scene all at the same time. It was introduced to me by Amy Poehler in a workshop she did in Chicago a few years ago.

Have the class form a back line or semi-circle around the playing area, and give them the following instruction: "One at a time, walk forward and tell us something true about yourself. It can be important or it can be trivial, but it must be true."

Examples: I have brown hair. I went to Lincoln Grade school. My first car was a Monte Carlo. Etc.

After everyone has had at least a couple of chances to say something true, give them this instruction: "One at a time, walk forward and tell us something that you believe is true about the world. Again it can be trivial or important."

Examples: I think people should walk 30 minutes or more 5 times a week. Cigarettes are sexy. There will always be wars. Powerpoint is severely lacking certain real world features.

For the third round, say this: "Now I want you to think of things that you don't believe is true, become a character who does believe these things and come forward and speak a few lines as this character."

Examples: "I think that dogs make great lovers. My dog Spencer and I started sleeping together 6 months ago and I have never had such an attentive, generous and vigorous partner." or "Suicide is often the best choice after a breakup. I've had three friends who have committed suicide after getting dumped and it was clearly the best solution for them."

Now, do some 2 person scenes, where the initiator creates one of these characters who believes something different from themselves. The second person can deal with them in any way they choose.

Things to watch for:
  • Encourage the players to put the scene someplace and have the characters doing something. It shouldn't just be a speech where one character tells the other what they believe.
  • Encourage the other person to either have a similar point of view or to challenge the strange point of view. They shouldn't be neutral about the first character's point of view.

Keep them coming everyone. These are great.
Rebecca Sohn broke my brain with this one...

I'll just call this game "The Arc". One person becomes The Listener. Five other people form a semi-circle around The Listener, with a radius of about three steps; these people are The Questioners. Get a location where lots of people would be asking questions to one person -- our suggestion was a workplace. All questions asked will relate to the suggestion.

One at a time, each of the Questioners approaches The Listener and asks a question that cannot be answered with a simple "Yes/No" answer. Once answered, the Questioner returns to their place in the semi-circle. This process continues until everyone feels comfortable.

Then two Questioners approach simultaneously. As soon as The Listener answers one of The Questioners, another Questioner comes forward and asks another question. The Listener must hear and respond to all questions asked. In this way, at least two Questioners are in play at all times.

After a while, up the running total to three simultaneous Questioners... then four... until finally all five Questioners are assaulting The Listener.

Teaches: how to listen like a mutha, the damages of overtalking, recognition of your personal acting mechanism when you panic onstage, multitasking story threads on the backwall, and to not ask questions.

And if you listen carefully, from the brain of The Listener, you'll hear a faint *pop* like the tungsten in a burnt-out light-bulb when the exercise is over.
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King of the Visigoths

I learned this one from Liz Allen. It's goal, essentially, is to get the individual to understand how small specific things can represent broad themes and, in turn, how those broad themes can be represented by small specific things.

This is one of those exercises for groups that do solid scenes but need to find thematic unity in their longform piece to make it a single piece rather than a collection of scenes and games. It also helps the players understand how their specific scene has a universal message.

It goes like this:

* The players move freely throughout the space. The coach says a general theme (like "freedom" or "fear of the unknown", etc.) one at a time. The players then, while maintaining proper give and take, name specific objects that represent those themes (like "broken handcuffs", "the American flag", "a check for a million dollars" or "a snoopy nightlight", "college diploma", "a blindfold", etc.). This goes on for several themes.

* The players continue to move throughout the space, but now the coach provides specific items and the players shout out the various themes that object might represent. This goes on for several objects.

* Next, the players do a series of two person scenes. The coach sidecoaches them as needed, ensuring that at some point (when the who, what and where are established) one of the characters speaks to the theme of the scene.

A lay-on to this exercise is to have the characters compare themselves and their particular situation/feelings to a historical figure.


For a Quick Energy Rush

First, just live my life.

Second, when my life has its downs, especially before a performance or rehearsal in acting or improv or otherwise, I find a little game called <b>"Czechoslovakia Boom Chicka Boom"</b> most efficacious.

I have never used it at UCB, just because I let all the other people choose their games. "Czechoslovakia Boom Chicka Boom" will get your energy up as high as or higher than a regular game of Crazy 8's or Crazy 60's will.

It is a clapping game. If you're interested and don't get these directions, just ask me.

The rhyme you say over the clapping, sounding the syllables on the beat, is:

<i>Czechoslovakia, Boom Chicka Boom
Yugoslavia, Boom Chicka Boom
We've got the rhythm in our hands, Two, Three, Four
We've got the rhythm in our hands, Two, Three, Four
We've got the rhythm in our feet, Two, Three, Four
We've got the rhythm in our feet, Two, Three, Four
We've got the rhythm in our eyes! WHOO!
We've got the rhythm in our eyes! WHOO!</i>
(repeat from beginning, faster, until you can't go any faster)

You start slow, with a group in a circle. You start by clapping one hand of each of your neighbors, then clap your own hands, in and out, just like that (simple).

For the "hands" part, you clap your own hands on beat for "Two, Three, Four." For the "feet" part, you stomp your own feet on beat for the "Two, Three, Four." For the "eyes" part, you just throw your hands up in the air as on a roller coaster and say "WHOO!"

It is extremely more fun as you move your body around spastically doing this, all the time maintaining claps. The faster you go, the more manic energy. You can probably get in about 4 rounds before it is just too fast to keep up and you are then RUSHED WITH ADRENALINE ... and you might have sore hands, if you're standing next to me (not the object, mind you).

It is fun to say "Czechoslovakia" before every performance.

P.S. Given to me by Doreen Dunn, late-1994, in rehearsal for <i>The Cherry Orchard</i> at college.
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transcendent listening exercise

I did this one in an Armando class recently:

The focus of the exercise is listening. 2 chairs are placed back to back. 2 actors are then asked to improvise a scene in which there is a clear who, what and where while remaining seated, back-to-back. It should be a lot like an old radio show in the sense that we hear a story happening, the characterization is strong and an environment is clearly implied.

I thought this was a great exercise. You're really forced to listen to your scene partner absolutely. This may as well be a scene in the dark (I guess sitting back to back is a way to do a scene in the dark when you're working in a room with a lot of windows). All you have to go on is the sound of your partners voice, so the exercise encourages really active listening. To establish an environment requires language concise enough to communicate the idea without the use of anything visual. So there are challenges to deal with by virtue of the fact that you can't see each other, but it's also freeing to simply listen and create a scene. It was like improvising in a dream state: Free of the body, released to play in the arena of the mind; Or perhaps like taking a walk in the mind of a brilliant, but autistic child; or it was just a kick ass exercise. Huzzah!
Perhaps it's more of a warm-up drill than an exercise, but I found this very helpful:

In a Rob Corddry workshop, he had us do these short scene descriptions, where we filled in these blanks:

Student 1: I am ______ (who). I am ________ (doing some activity).

Student 2: I am _______ (who). We are ________ (where).

Student 1: I feel ___________.

Student 2: I feel ____________.

He made us keep them simple and to-the-point. The exchanges weren't supposed to be funny. We had two lines of people -- students from one line initiated and students from the other line responded. Then they would get back in line in the opposite line, to keep things mixed up. It was a great drill for learning to establish relationship, character and POV early on in the scene.
Originally posted by macoule30
I don't know if this was an exercise or just an emergency damage control drill, but it was the single most helpful moment I've had in class.

Secunda had two people up. They are given a suggestion and they are supposed to have a regular conversation inspired by that suggestion. We were also supposed to define our space while having the conversation. It was just two real people having a real conversation about things that either really happened or that they really believed in.

There was no game. There was no heightening. But it showed me that the best character choice you can make is yourself. And that character's decisions will never be wrong because they come from you. It's the only "Aha!" moment I've had in improv thus far.

Now let's hear from some damn teachers and coaches.
(I'm staring at you Mullaney):wishy:
Hey--I'm just a student, but I've done this exercize a few times, in Ali's level 1, with JRBowie, and in Secunda workshops a couple of times. The only thing I would add is that any good conversation has games and heightening in them, and it would behoove the improviser to listen for these elements. (I believe the rules of improv still apply to conversational scenework, as the rules of improv apply to life--no one likes arguing, questions should offer information, etc.) Anyway the last time we did this exercize with Secunda he pointed out games and heightening which cropped up in the conversation. Though we eventually settled on something, if we had chosen to pursue one of them earlier it may have made for a tighter "scene". As an interviewer I think you'd need to listen for these elements to keep your audience interested. It'll also make it less meandering. Some conversations are more interesting than others, right? This certainly has held true in the exercise and in every day life. Maybe these are reasons why.
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Ric Borelli/2nd City Exercise

Another listening exercise:

Three chairs are lined up in front of the audience. The subject sits in the middle and two scene partners sit on either side. Each partner is given a suggestion and then they each carry on a conversation with the subject. The subject is required to answer each person quickly, and take a position/make a decision, yes and..ing as they would in any typical scene. It is a bit conversational in nature, as they two partners can discuss things close to them or from their perspective.

It's a lot of fun as you are carrying on two conversations at once and you are required to listen hard.

"Up Your Listening"
-Matt Dwyer

PS Reply if I've left something out of this exercise.
The Dirk Diggler

This is something I came up with when working with Funny Outfit in Kansas City.

Two people up. Each takes a turn facing out (towards the audience, but not actually speaking to the audience) and speaks as if into a mirror. What they say are things to psych up the character ("Debbie, you are a dynamic world beater. With blond hair like this, you are going places," etc). If you've seen Boogie Nights, Marky Mark does this a couple of times in the movie, thus the name.

Once they feel like they've got a sense of the character, they start the scene.

If at any point in the scene they feel like they've lost the character, they go back to the mirror and speak to themselves some more.

The point of the exercise is to get people listening to themselves and accepting the fullness of what they've already said in the scene.

Too often people are disconnected from what they say in a scene, and are so focused elsewhere that they lose the power of their initiation and their character space.

This exercise tries to eliminate the disparity between what people say and how they act. (e.g. I said I was smart, I should act smart. I said I was hungry, I should act it.)
My 4 faves

The four execises that stand out in my mind are;

1) Slow motion harold, can't remember where or who or when, tedious, impossibly so but shit if there's no question as to listening, it's so damn slow, you're sure the audience heard, so you're going to listen, if only not to feel embarrassed (probably spolin).

2) J.Bowie - The 50's musical warmup - it's damn fun to watch a disparate group of people, attempting to do syncronized improvised out of the water swimming, done while staring in the mirror watching what everyone in the group does and either doing the exact same, or the exact opposite. (who knows?!)

3) Corddry - The three/four line scene execise outlined by tanouye. Corddry never did seem to get the line vs. line math right (It seemed I was always playing with Mark L.), although "head-putting" as per discusions with Eric scenes became a breeze to initiate and or establish relationships with scene partners for a good 2 weeks thereafter.
(Truth in Comedy - "Three line scenes exercise")

I love that damn exercise,

4) P.McCartney - Comedia Exercise re: contrasting emotional corners -

Happy vs. Sad
Angry vs. Scared

each in their own corners

Got my non-actor ass into a quasi-actor mindset, in terms of establishing environments and beliving them.

(Arlechinno, Columbina, Pulcinella or some other 16th century bastard - Look into Moliere.)


it's bedtime, nighty-night -

and call the exterminator bout them bugs...
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