From New World Encyclopedia

Improvisation is the art of acting and reacting, in the moment, to one's surroundings. This can result in the invention of new thought patterns and/or new ways to act. This invention cycle occurs more often when it is accompanied with a thorough and/or intuitive understanding of the skills with which one is improvising. The proficiencies in improvisation can apply to many different abilities or forms of communication, for example, musical performances, cooking, presenting a speech, sales, personal or romantic relationships, sports, flower arranging, martial arts, psychotherapy, the arts, and in spiritual matters where one can derive an inspiration and support from higher realms towards a foundational preparation through a clear and focused extemporaneous thought and action.

The art of improvisation often focuses on bringing one's personal awareness "into the moment," and on developing a profound understanding for the action one is performing. This fusion of "awareness" and "understanding" brings the practitioner to the point where he or she can act with a range of options that best fit the situation, even if he or she 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 state needed to practice the art of improvisation, also called 'improv', 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 theatrical improv teacher, often relates the two when teaching about improv.

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

Other terms that improvisation is known by are Improv, which is often used as the noun form of improvisation. Another is Extemporize—which is to vamp, ad lib, and riff—all have basically the same meaning as improvisation. Colloquial terms such as "lets 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 an important aspect of music in general. Musical improvisors often understand the idiom of one or more musical styles—e.g. blues, rock, folk, jazz—and work within the idiom to express ideas with creativity and originality. Improvisation can take place as a solo performance, or interdependently in ensembles 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 composer/pianist Franz Liszt. Yet, some have managed some very successful attempts in this tradition and genre such as a few pioneering improvised solo piano concerts in Stuttgart, Southern Germany and in London in the United Kingdom in the 1990s (see Polo Piatti).

Singing Improvisation

Singing Improv is an ancient art form. Singing Improvisation is a mixture of musical improvisation and improvisational theater. A singer makes up the words and melody to a song at the same time the musicians are making up the music to the song. Additionally, aspects of dance, comedy and showmanship are all part of the singing improvisers repertoire.


According to the dominant acting theories of Konstantin Stanislavski, an actor improvising a scene must trust his own instincts. According to Stanislavski, an actor must use his own instincts to define a character's response to internal and external stimuli. Through improvising, an actor can learn to trust his instincts instead of using theater mugging and 'indicating' to broadcast his motives. Improv is also useful in its focus on concentration. Obviously, in an environment in which anything is allowed to happen, the actors must be capable of keeping their concentration throughout, even in difficult and stressful circumstances. Concentration is a staple of acting classes and workshops; it is vital that an actor be capable of concentrating on the scene or action at hand. Actors who fail to keep up with an improvisation are said to be 'blocking'.


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

Contact improvisation is a form developed 30 years ago that is now practiced around the world. It 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, and playing with weight with unpredictable outcomes.


The director Mike Leigh uses lengthy improvisations developed over a period of weeks to build characters and storylines 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. They soon discover their fates 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.


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

Some of the more famous North American comic improv groups are the 'Upright Citizens Brigade' from New York City, the 'Groundlings' form Los Angeles, the 'Second City' from Chicago, and 'Theatresports' from Calgary, Canada. They practice extemporizing on the methods of pioneers such as Viola Spolin, Paul Sills, Del Close, and Keith Johnstone.


Traditional epic poetry included improvisational moments where the reciter flattered the audience (especially the authorities) or substituted forgotten passages to the delight of the listeners.

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 those impromptu poems are later recorded in paper or transmitted orally.

Some forms of improvised poetry:

  • Basque 'bertsos'
  • Cuban 'décimas'
  • The Dozens, ritual rhyming insults among African American ghetto youths
  • Norse and Germanic 'flyting'
  • Provençal and Catalan 'Jocs Florals'
  • Arabic 'naqa'id'
  • Argentinian 'payadores
  • The 'partimen' and 'tenso' of troubadours
  • Lebanese 'zajal'
  • Portuguese 'cantigas ao desafio' (sung)

Usually wit is as valued as conformity within the poetical form. Some of these forms also include humor.


In the 1990s, a TV show called Whose Line Is It Anyway? popularized shortform comedic improvisation. The original version was British, but it was later revived and popularized in the United States 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's (television network) series Significant Others have used improvisation to create longer-form programs with more dramatic flavor. Another improvisation based show is I-TV network's "World Cup Comedy." In Canada, the Global Television Network's 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 game statistics and a history, but the character's response to game events and to other players is improvised. 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 repartees. 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.

Additional areas of interest

  • Commedia dell'arte
  • Improvisational theatre
  • Musical improvisation
  • Improvisational comedy (a subgenre of Improvisational theater)
  • Improv Books

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Ferand, Ernest T. Improvisation in nine centuries of western music; an anthology with a historical introduction. Koln, A. Volk Verlag, 1961. OCLC 582973
  • Kynaston, Trent P. and Ricci, Robert, Jazz Improvisation. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1978. ISBN 0-135-09315-5
  • Neumann, Frederick. Ornamentation and Improvisation in Mozart. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986. ISBN 0-691-09130-7

External links

All links retrieved February 27, 2018.


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