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An improvisational comedy troupe performing a shortform game based on direction from the audience; in this case spoofing a hard rock band performing a song made up on the stage.
Improvisation is the practice of acting, singing, talking and reacting, of making and creating, in the moment and in response to the stimulus of one's immediate environment and inner feelings. This can result in the invention of new thought patterns, new practices, new structures or symbols, and/or new ways to act. This invention cycle occurs most effectively when the practitioner has a thorough intuitive and technical understanding of the necessary skills and concerns within the improvised domain. Improvisation can be thought of as an "on the spot" or "off the cuff" spontaneous activity.

The skills of improvisation can apply to many different abilities or forms of communication and expression across all artistic, scientific, physical, cognitive, academic, and non-academic disciplines. For example, improvisation can make a significant contribution in music, dance, cooking, presenting a speech, sales, personal or romantic relationships, sports, flower arranging, martial arts, psychotherapy, and much more.

Where the improvisation is intended to solve a problem on a temporary basis, the 'proper' solution being unavailable at the time, it may be known as a stop-gap. This particularly applies to engineering improvisations.


Philosophically, improvisation often focuses on bringing one's personal awareness "into the moment," and on developing a profound understanding for the action one is doing. This fusion of "awareness" and "understanding" brings the practitioner to the point where he can act with a range of options that best fit the situation, even if he has never experienced a similar situation. The study of the skills and techniques of improvisation can strongly influence one's competence in business, personal life, and/or in the arts .

The mental and emotional states needed to practice the art of improvisation are very similar to the practice taught in the religious and philosophical art of Zen, and many of the same concepts are used in both practices . Although it is not necessary for the study and practice of either improvisation or Zen, the study of one often gives new insight into the practice of the other . Keith Johnstone, a teacher of improvisational theatre, often relates the two when teaching about improv .

Techniques of improvisation are widely trained in the entertainment arts; for example, music, theatre and dance.

To "extemporize" or "ad lib" is basically the same as improvising. Colloquial terms such as "let's play it by ear," "take it as it comes," and "make it up as we go along" are all used to describe "improvisation."

Musical improvisation

Improvisation is usually defined as composing music while playing an instrument at the same time. In other words, the art of improvisation can be understood as composing music "on the fly". This of course requires great skill and knowledge, and is a very important aspect of music in general, for any experienced musician. Musical improvisers often understand the idiom of one or more musical styles—e.g. blues, rock, folk, jazz—and work within the idiom and music-theory of the certain style to express ideas with creativity and originality. Improvisation can take place as a solo performance, or interdependently in ensemble with other players. When done well, it often elicits gratifying emotional responses from the audience. Very few musicians have ever dared to offer fully improvised concerts such as the famous improvised piano recitals by classical composers/pianists like Franz Liszt. The origins of Liszt's improvisation in an earlier tradition of playing variations on a theme were mastered and epitomized by Mozart and Beethoven. However, some have managed some very poignant attempts similar to these precedents, one of the most successful of these is Keith Jarrett. He is a jazz pianist and multi-instrumentalist who has performed many completely improvised concerts that have captivated audiences all over the world. In the same creative aesthetic as such named masters, including the late innovator and guitar master Derek Bailey, comes a new breed of improvising musician. Pioneers like cellist Eugene Friesen have brought improvisation to traditionally classical instruments. A few pianists have given modern recitals of improvisation in the baroque style, which may be less intimidating because of its stricter development and range of modulation and yet, on the other hand, more daunting because of its polyphony. One of the masters in the style of baroque improvisation was Glenn Gould. There have also been a few other exceptional improvised solo piano concerts in Stuttgartmarker, Southern Germanymarker in the 1990s. In the realm of silent film music, there are also a small number of musicians whose work has been recognized as exceptional by critics, scholars and audiences alike: Neil Brand, Guenter A. Buchwald, Philip Carli, Stephen Horne, Donald Sosin, John Sweeney, and Gabriel Thibaudeau, all performers at the annual conference on silent film in Pordenone, Italy, "Le Giornate del Cinema Muto." Their performances have to match the style and pacing of the films they accompany, often at first sight, and demand a knowledge of a wide range of musical styles, as well as the stamina to play for films which occasionally run over three hours in length without a pause. It is used in drama to ast out charaters.

Singing improvisation

This is very similar to instrumental improvisation, the main difference being that words can be used as well as simple vowel sounds. It is very common in Jazz and blues.



Dance improvisation as a choreographic tool: Improvisation is used as a choreographic tool in dance composition. Experimenting with the concepts of shape, space, time, and energy while moving without inhibition or cognitive thinking can create unique and innovative movement designs, spatial configuration, dynamics, and unpredictable rhythms. Improvisation without inhibition allows the choreographer to connect to their deepest creative self, which in turn clears the way for pure invention.

Contact improvisation: a form developed 37 years ago that is now practiced around the world. Contact improvisation originated from the movement studies of Steve Paxton in the 1970s and developed through the continued exploration of the Judson Dance Theater. It is a dance form based on sharing weight, partnering, playing with weight and unpredictable outcomes.


Sculpture often relies on the enlargement of a small model or maquette to create the final work in a chosen material. Where the material is plastic such as clay, a working structure or armature often needs to be built to allow the pre-determined design to be realized. Alan Thornhill's method for working with clay abandons the maquette, seeing it as ultimately deadening to creativity. Without the restrictions of the armature, a clay matrix of elements allows that when recognisable forms start to emerge, they can be essentially disregarded by turning the work, allowing for infinite possibility and the chance for the unforeseen to emerge more powerfully at a later stage.

Moving from adding and taking away to purely reductive working, the architectural considerations of turning the work are eased considerably but continued removal of material through the rejection of forms deemed too obvious can mean one ends up with nothing. Former pupil Jon Edgar uses Thornhill's method as a creative extension to direct carving in stone and wood.


The director Mike Leigh uses lengthy improvisations developed over a period of weeks to build characters and story lines for his films. He starts with some sketch ideas of how he thinks things might develop but does not reveal all his intentions with the cast who discover their fate and act out their responses as their destinies are gradually revealed, including significant aspects of their lives which will not subsequently be shown onscreen. The final filming draws on dialogue and actions that have been recorded during the improvisation period.


See main article - Improvisational theatre

Improvisational comedy is a common art performed throughout the world and throughout history.

Some of the more famous improv theaters and training centers in the world include: iO (formerly ImprovOlympic) in Chicagomarker and Los Angelesmarker, The Second City in Chicagomarker and Torontomarker, The Players Workshop in Chicagomarker, Chicago City Limits [13408] and Upright Citizens Brigade in New York Citymarker, the Groundlings and Mission IMPROVable in Los Angelesmarker, Papaya Juice and Spaghetti Jam in San Franciscomarker, The ColdTownemarker Theater in Austinmarker, Dudley Riggs Brave New Workshop in Minneapolismarker, ComedySportz in Milwaukeemarker (and elsewhere), DSI Comedy Theater from North Carolinamarker, Washington Improv Theater from Washington D.C., The Improv Asylum in Bostonmarker, and Theatresports from Calgarymarker, Canada. There are also many well known University Improv teams, one of the most prominent being Duke University Improv based out of Duke Universitymarker in North Carolina.[13409]

Notable pioneers in the field of improvisation, comedic or otherwise, include Viola Spolin, Paul Sills, David Shepherd, Del Close, Josephine Forsberg, Martin de Maat, and Keith Johnstone. Notable performers include: Stephen Colbert, Steve Carrell, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, Robert Townsend, Colin Mochrie, Ross Noble, Robin Williams, Jonathan Winters, Eddie Izzard and Gil Christner.

Corporate Improvisation Training

Corporate Improvisation Training is the practice of applying improvisational skills to help shape and build corporate competencies. Basic principles such as "Yes, and" and more complex improvisational principles relating to outward thought, listening skills, and brainstorming are used to change dynamics of individuals, teams, and companies.

Improvisation is especially well applied in activities within business such as Presentation Skills and Communications. These exercises work best when mixed with behavior principals that help generalize these skills to a broader workplace application.

Practitioners of applied improvisation have formed an international non-profit network - The Applied Improvisation Network [13410] - to bring together people, information, and resources. They hold conferences regularly around the world.

Improvisational training can range from simple team building skills that require employees to work as a team and explore new relationships and dynamics to more complex skills such as dynamic presentation skills, offsite facilitation, and brainstorming. Business improvisation is the ability to think clearly, to access creativity in the moment and under pressure in order to solve problems. It is the process followed to achieve objectives despite unexpected events.

Corporate improvisation was developed within companies such as The Players Workshop, The Second City [13411], The Groundlings [13412] and Chicago City Limits [13413] and has been adapted to Organizational Development Programs by companies like Biz Improv [13414], The Business of Improvisation Comedy Sports [ and imprology [13415].

The corporate jesters training program [13416] relies heavily on improvisational techniques. In addition to developing skills like listening and confidence through improvisational techniques, the use of Augusto Boal's "Forum Theatre" technique and Second City's sketch writing technique [13417] enable to recreate office situations and find solutions to conflicts.

Participants in improv corporate workshops learn a new way of thinking, a new respect for others in any negotiation or transactional relationship, how to be “in the moment“, how to make positive choices that keep doors open, proactive listening as opposed to passive or even responsive listening, trusting one another to do the right thing and the benefits from watching the other guy’s back. It is a powerful team building tool. And the term "thinking out of the box", applies well to the results of an improv corporate workshop.

Recently organizational development magazines, The Los Angeles and New York Times, and training and development groups at the Fortune 500 have all singled out Corporate Improvisation as a cutting edge training tool.


Traditional epic poetry included improvisation moments where the reciter flattered the audience (especially the authorities) or to substitute a forgotten passage. There are also societies that value improvised poetry as a genre, often as a debate or "poetic joust", where improvisators compete for public approval. Some of these impromptu poems are later recorded in paper or transmitted orally.

Some forms of improvised poetry:

Usually wit is as valued as conformity to poetical form.Some of these forms also include humour.But Michel Ducom established himself within Bordeauxmarker poetical improvisation movement in the 1990s but has since composed and performed with a wide range of poets working in diverse poetical areas (Bernat Manciet, Serge Pey, Méryl Marchetti…). The emergence of poetical improvisation, like previous developments in French poetry, was largely tied to the free jazz experience.


In the 1990s, a TV show called Whose Line Is It Anyway? popularized shortform comedic improvisation. The original version was Britishmarker, but it was later revived and popularized in the United Statesmarker with Drew Carey as a host. More recently, television shows such as HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm (starring Seinfeld co-creator Larry David) and Bravo series Significant Others have used improvisation to create longer-form programs with more dramatic flavor. Another improvisation based show is Ion Television's " World Cup Comedy." In Canada, the Global Television soap opera Train 48, based on the Australian series Going Home, uses a form of structured improvisation, in which actors improvise dialog from written plot outlines.

Even more recently, Australia's Thank God You're Here is a game show where celebrities are put into scenes they know nothing about and have to improvise.

Role-playing games

Role-playing games often involve a casual form of improvisational acting; a player's character may be pre-defined, with characteristics and a history, but the character's response to game events and to other players is improvised. Dungeons and Dragons is a perfect example of this. Some players are more interested in the depth of the "acting" than others, while others enjoy elaborate plots, emotional investment in characters, and intense or witty repartee. Some earlier role-playing games emphasize combat and game mechanics over role-playing; however, modern storytelling games are often more plot-driven, and Live action role-playing games are often more acting-focused.


Improvisation in engineering is to solve a problem with the tools and materials immediately to hand. A classic example of such improvisation was the improvisation of carbon dioxide scrubbers with the materials on hand during the Apollo 13 space mission.

Engineering improvisations may be needed because of emergencies, embargo, obsolescence of a product and the loss of manufacturer support, or perhaps just a lack of funding appropriate for a better solution.

The popular television program MacGyver used as its gimmick a hero who could solve almost any problem with jury rigged devices from everyday materials, a Swiss Army knife and some duct tape.

Improvised weapons

Improvised weapons are often used by guerrillas, insurgents and criminals as conventional weapons may be unavailable. Such weapons vary in sophistication from simple sharpened sticks, to petrol bombs and home made napalm, to IEDs and make shift bomber aircraft.

See also


Nachmanovitch, Stephen. 1990. Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art. Penguin/Tarcher. ISBN 0874775787 (cloth); ISBN 0874776317 (pbk)

  1. Film: Spirit in Mass - Journey into Sculpture (2007)

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