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Improvisation is the activity of making or doing something not planned beforehand, using whatever can be found. [1] . Improvisation, in the performing arts is a very spontaneous performance without specific or scripted preparation. The skills of improvisation can apply to many different faculties, across all artistic, scientific, physical, cognitive, academic, and non-academic disciplines; see Applied improvisation.

Performing arts art forms in which artists use their body or voice to convey artistic expression

Performing arts are a form of art in which artists use their voices, bodies or inanimate objects to convey artistic expression. It is different from visual arts, which is when artists use paint, canvas or various materials to create physical or static art objects. Performing arts include a range of disciplines which are performed in front of a live audience.

Applied improvisation is the application of improvisational methods in various fields like consulting, facilitating, teaching, coaching, researching, generating or evolving ideas and designs, theatrical training and playing, medical and therapeutic settings or in social work.


Improvisation also exists outside the arts. Improvisation in engineering is to solve a problem with the tools and materials immediately at hand. Improvised weapons are often used by guerrillas, insurgents and criminals.

Improvised weapon

An improvised weapon is an object that was not designed to be used as a weapon but can be put to that use. They are generally used for self-defence or where the person is otherwise unarmed. In some cases improvised weapons are commonly used by attackers in street fights, muggings, murders or during riots, usually when conventional weapons such as firearms are unavailable or inappropriate.


An improvised surveyors level made from a camera tripod, a contractors level and a sniper scope. Photography by Victor Albert Grigas (1919-2017) 00100 6-12-61-nw AUG 60 (36845064174).jpg
An improvised surveyors level made from a camera tripod, a contractors level and a sniper scope.

Improvisation in engineering is to solve a problem with the tools and materials immediately at hand [2] . Examples of such improvisation was the re-engineering of carbon dioxide scrubbers with the materials on hand during the Apollo 13 space mission [3] , or the use of a knife in place of a screwdriver to turn a screw.

Apollo 13 A failed crewed mission to land on the Moon

Apollo 13 was the seventh crewed mission in the Apollo space program and the third intended to land on the Moon. The craft was launched on April 11, 1970, from Kennedy Space Center, but the lunar landing was aborted after an oxygen tank in the service module (SM) exploded two days into the mission. The crew instead looped around the Moon, and returned safely to Earth on April 17, 1970, six days after launch. The mission was commanded by Jim Lovell with Jack Swigert as Command Module Pilot (CMP) and Fred Haise as Lunar Module Pilot (LMP). Swigert was a late replacement for the original CMP Ken Mattingly, who was grounded by the flight surgeon after exposure to German measles.

Improvised street bench in Naples (Italy), made from wooden pallet NaplesBench.jpg
Improvised street bench in Naples (Italy), made from wooden pallet
Improvised bass drum in Trafalgar Square, London. ImprovisedDrumLondon.jpg
Improvised bass drum in Trafalgar Square, London.
An improvised cowbell, used for sheep or goats. The bell was found in 1988 in a field near Tuqu' (Tekoa) in the West Bank. The bell's body is made of aluminum, probably a broken kitchen utensil, while the clapper is a brass cartridge case (SMI 25 NATO, probably 7.62x51mm). WestBankCowbell.jpg
An improvised cowbell, used for sheep or goats. The bell was found in 1988 in a field near Tuqu' (Tekoa) in the West Bank. The bell's body is made of aluminum, probably a broken kitchen utensil, while the clapper is a brass cartridge case (SMI 25 NATO, probably 7.62×51mm).
Improvised hat cover of an Orthodox Jew on a rainy day in Tel Aviv. TelAvivRainShelter.jpg
Improvised hat cover of an Orthodox Jew on a rainy day in Tel Aviv.

Engineering improvisations may be needed because of emergencies, embargo, obsolescence of a product and the loss of manufacturer support, or just a lack of funding appropriate for a better solution. Users of motor vehicles in parts of Africa develop improvised solutions [4] where it is not feasible to obtain manufacturer-approved spare parts [5] .

Obsolescence state of being which occurs when an object, service, or practice is no longer wanted even though it may still be in good working order

Obsolescence is the state of being which occurs when an object, service, or practice is no longer wanted even though it may still be in good working order.

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.

<i>MacGyver</i> (1985 TV series) American television series

MacGyver is an American action-adventure television series created by Lee David Zlotoff and starring Richard Dean Anderson as the title character. Henry Winkler and John Rich were the executive producers. The show ran for seven seasons on ABC in the United States and various other networks abroad from 1985 to 1992. The series was filmed in Los Angeles during seasons one, two and seven, and in Vancouver during seasons three through six. The show's final episode aired on April 25, 1992 on ABC.

Duct tape type of adhesive tape

Duct tape, also called duck tape, is cloth- or scrim-backed pressure-sensitive tape, often coated with polyethylene. There are a variety of constructions using different backings and adhesives, and the term 'duct tape' is often used to refer to all sorts of different cloth tapes of differing purposes. Duct tape is often confused with gaffer tape. Another variation is heat-resistant foil duct tape useful for sealing heating and cooling ducts, produced because standard duct tape fails quickly when used on heating ducts. Duct tape is generally silvery gray, but also available in other colors and even printed designs.

Performing arts

ComedySportz Austin performing a shortform game based on direction from the audience with the help of Red Dirt Improv; in this case spoofing a hard rock band performing a song made up on the stage Improv austin 2009.jpg
ComedySportz Austin performing a shortform game based on direction from the audience with the help of Red Dirt Improv; in this case spoofing a hard rock band performing a song made up on the stage

Improvisation can be thought of as an "on the spot" or "off the cuff" spontaneous moment of sudden inventiveness that can just come to mind, body and spirit as an inspiration. Viola Spolin created theater games as a method of training improvisational acting. [6] Her son, Paul Sills popularized improvisational theater, or IMPROV, by using Spolin's techniques to train The Second City in Chicago, the first totally improvisational theater company in the US. However, for some particularly gifted performers, no preparation or training is needed. Improvisation in any life or art form, can occur more often if it is practiced as a way of encouraging creative behavior. That practice includes learning to use one's intuition, as well as learning a technical understanding of the necessary skills and concerns within the domain in which one is improvising. This can be when an individual or group is acting, dancing, singing, playing musical instruments, talking, creating artworks, problem solving, or reacting 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.

Viola Spolin

Viola Spolin was a theatre academic, educator and acting coach. She is considered an important innovator in 20th century American theater for creating directorial techniques to help actors to be focused in the present moment and to find choices improvisationally, as if in real life. These acting exercises she later called Theater Games and formed the first body of work that enabled other directors and actors to create improvisational theater. Her book Improvisation for the Theater, which published these techniques, includes her philosophy and her teaching and coaching methods, and is considered the "bible of improvisational theater". Spolin's contributions were seminal to the improvisational theater movement in the U.S. She is considered to be the mother of Improvisational theater. Her work has influenced American theater, television and film by providing new tools and techniques that are now used by actors, directors and writers.

Paul Silverberg, better known as Paul Sills, was an American director and improvisation teacher, and the original director of Chicago's The Second City.

The Second City is an improvisational comedy enterprise, best known as the historically first on-going improvisational theater troupe, continually based in Chicago. It also has training programs and live theatres in Toronto and Los Angeles. The Second City Theatre opened on December 16, 1959, and has since become one of the most influential and prolific comedy theatres in the world.

Improvisation was originally rarely used on dramatic television. A major exception was the situation comedy Mork & Mindy where star Robin Williams was allotted specific sections in each episode where he was allowed to perform freely.

Skills and techniques

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.

Techniques of improvisation are widely used in training for performing arts or entertainment; 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 the ear", "take it as it comes", and "make it up as we go along" are all used to describe "improvisation".

The simple act of speaking requires a good deal of improvisation because the mind is addressing its own thought and creating its unrehearsed delivery in words, sounds and gestures, forming unpredictable statements that feed back into the thought process (the performer as listener), creating an enriched process that is not unlike instantaneous composition [with a given set or repertoire of elements]. [7]

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 applies to the field of engineering. Another improvisational, group problem-solving technique being used in organizations of all kinds is brainstorming, in which any and all ideas that a group member may have are permitted and encouraged to be expressed, regardless of actual practicality. As in all improvisation, the process of brainstorming opens up the minds of the people involved to new, unexpected and possibly useful ideas. The colloquial term for this is "thinking outside the box."


Musical improvisation is usually defined as the composition of music while simultaneously singing or playing an instrument. In other words, the art of improvisation can be understood as composing music "on the fly". There have been previous experiments by Charles Limb, using functional magnetic resonance imaging, that show the brain activity during musical improvisation. [8] Limb was able to show an increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, which is an area associated with an increase in self-expression. Further, there was decreased activity in the lateral prefrontal cortex, which is an area associated with self-monitoring. This change in activity is thought to reduce the inhibitions that normally prevent individuals from taking risks and improvising.

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. One notable improvisational pianist is Franz Liszt. The origins of Liszt's improvisation in an earlier tradition of playing variations on a theme were mastered and epitomized by Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven.

Notable improvisational musicians from the modern era include: Keith Jarrett, an improvisational jazz pianist and multi-instrumentalist who has performed many completely improvised concerts all over the world; W. A. Mathieu aka William Allaudin Mathieu, was the musical director for The Second City in Chicago, the first on-going improvisational theatre troupe in the United States, and later was musical director for another improv theatre, The Committee, an offshoot of The Second City in San Francisco; Derek Bailey, an improvisational guitarist; Stephen Nachmanovitch, an improvisational violinist; and Eugene Friesen, an improvisational cellist.

Improvised freestyle rap is commonly practiced as a part of rappers' creative processes, as a "finished product" for release on recordings (when the improvisation is judged good enough), as a spiritual event, as a means of verbal combat in battle rap, and, simply, for fun. It often incorporates insults similar to those in the African-American game The Dozens, and complex rhythmic and sometimes melodic forms comparable to those heard in jazz improvisation.

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; these include Neil Brand and John Sweeney, among others who are all performers at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in Italy. Their performances must match the style and pacing of those films which they accompany and the knowledge of a wide range of musical styles is required, as well as the stamina to play for films which occasionally run more than three hours in length, without a pause.


Improvisation, in theatre, is the playing of dramatic scenes without written dialogue and with minimal or no predetermined dramatic activity. The method has been used for different purposes in theatrical history. [9]

The Ligue d'improvisation montrealaise [fr
] (LIM) is a league of improvisational theatre based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada Ligue d'improvisation montrealaise (LIM) 20101031-01.jpg
The Ligue d'improvisation montréalaise  [ fr ] (LIM) is a league of improvisational theatre based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada


Improvisational comedy is a theatre art performed throughout the world and has had on-again, off-again status throughout history.

Some of the more famous improv theatres and training centers in the world include: i.O. (formerly ImprovOlympic) in Chicago and Los Angeles, The Second City in Chicago and Toronto, The Players Workshop in Chicago, National Comedy Theatre in San Diego, New York and Phoenix, Upright Citizens Brigade, the Peoples Improv Theater, the Magnet Theater in New York, The Groundlings in Los Angeles, BATS Improv (Bay Area Theatre Sports) in San Francisco, Wing-It Productions in Seattle, Philly Improv Theater in Philadelphia, Brave New Workshop in Minneapolis, ComedySportz in Milwaukee, and Theatresports in Calgary.

There are also many well known university improv teams, including Theatre Strike Force at the University of Florida, Gigglepants at the University of Texas at Austin, and Erasable Inc. at the University of Maryland. Improvisation found a home at universities. The origins of the Second City was the Compass Players, an offshoot of theatre programs at the University of Chicago in the 50's. Later, once improv had been established as an art form, improv groups sprung up on college campuses, starting in the 80's where crowds were easy to find and teams could perform frequently. Now an improv group is a common staple of college extra curricular activities.

Notable pioneers in the field of improvisation, comedic or otherwise, include Mike Myers, Neil Mullarkey, Paul Merton, Stephen Fry, John Sessions, Josie Lawrence, Viola Spolin, Paul Sills, David Shepherd, Del Close, Josephine Forsberg, Gary Austin, Martin de Maat, and Keith Johnstone. Notable performers include: Paul Merton, Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, Robert Townsend, Colin Mochrie, Ryan Stiles, Ross Noble, Eddie Izzard, Tony Slattery, Mike McShane, Sandi Toksvig, Wayne Brady, Jonathan Winters, T. J. Jagodowski, Robin Williams, Conan O'Brien and David Pasquesi.


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.This cognitive inhibition is similar to the inhibition described by Limb for musical improvisation, which can be found in the music section above.

Contact improvisation: a form developed in 1973, 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 weight sharing, partnering, playing with weight, exploring negative space and unpredictable outcomes.

Artificial intelligence


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, [10] seeing it as ultimately deadening to creativity. [11] 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.


Improvisational writing is an exercise that imposes limitations on a writer such as a time limit, word limit, a specific topic, or rules on what can be written. This forces the writer to work within stream of consciousness and write without judgment of the work they produce. This technique is used for a variety of reasons, such as to bypass writer's block, improve creativity, strengthen one's writing instinct and enhance one's flexibility in writing.

Some improvisational writing is collaborative, focusing on an almost dadaist form of collaborative fiction. This can take a variety of forms, from as basic as passing a notebook around a circle of writers with each writing a sentence, to coded environments that focus on collaborative novel-writing, [12] like OtherSpace . [13]

Improvised weapons

Improvised tire puncturing device (slang term "Ninja") - iron nail inserted into a rubber disc (from used tire) TireNail1-2.jpg
Improvised tire puncturing device (slang term "Ninja") – iron nail inserted into a rubber disc (from used tire)

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 homemade napalm, to improvised explosive devices and makeshift bomber aircraft. Weapons are also improvised by regular military organizations and formations as "stop-gap" measures when purpose-built equipment is either not on hand or is simply not yet available.


  1. "IMPROVISATION | definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary". Retrieved 2018-10-24.
  2. Barnes, George. "Firefighters practice improvising to help accident victims". Retrieved 2017-10-26.
  3. "45 years after Apollo 13: Ars looks at what went wrong and why". Ars Technica. Retrieved 2017-10-26.
  4. Kalan, Jonathan. "Africa's homemade aircraft builders" . Retrieved 2017-10-26.
  5. Rémy, Jean-Philippe (2011-08-09). "Where are the African carmakers?". The Guardian. ISSN   0261-3077 . Retrieved 2017-10-26.
  6. Spolin, Viola (1963). Improvisation for the Theater. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press. ISBN   0-8101-4008-X.
  7. The Speech Chain: The Physics and Biology of Spoken Language (paperback), Peter B. Denes and Elliot N. Pinson. 1966. Worth Publishers; Second Edition (February 15, 1993).
  8. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2016-06-25. Retrieved 2016-07-01.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  9. "Improvisation | theatre". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2018-10-24.
  10. Alan Thornhill on the tradition of pre-conceiving sculpture 1989 studio archive footage, YouTube
  11. Film: Spirit in Mass – Journey into Sculpture (2007) Archived 2008-05-12 at the Wayback Machine
  12. Harrigan, Pat (2002). First person: new media as story, performance, and game. MIT Press. p. 21. ISBN   978-0-262-23232-6.
  13. Platt, Wes (2002). OtherSpace: End of the World, Arcs IV–V. iUniverse. pp. ix–x. ISBN   978-0595230464.

Related Research Articles

Improvisational theatre theatrical genre

Improvisational theatre, often called improvisation or improv, is the form of theatre, often comedy, in which most or all of what is performed is unplanned or unscripted: created spontaneously by the performers. In its purest form, the dialogue, action, story, and characters are created collaboratively by the players as the improvisation unfolds in present time, without use of an already prepared, written script.

Compass Players

The Compass Players was an improvisational cabaret revue active from 1955 to 1958 in Chicago and St. Louis. Several members went on to form The Second City Theater in 1959.

Creativity techniques are methods that encourage creative actions, whether in the arts or sciences. They focus on a variety of aspects of creativity, including techniques for idea generation and divergent thinking, methods of re-framing problems, changes in the affective environment and so on. They can be used as part of problem solving, artistic expression, or therapy.

Harold is a structure used in longform improvisational theatre that is performed by improv troupes and teams across the world. The Committee, a San Francisco improv group, performed the first Harold in Concord, California, in 1967. They were invited to a high school and decided to do their improvisations on the war in Vietnam. On the way home in a Volkswagen bus, they were discussing the performance, when one of them asked what they should call it. Allaudin (Bill) Mathieu called out "Harold", which was a joking reference to a line from A Hard Day's Night where a reporter asks George Harrison what he calls his haircut and he answers "Arthur". The form was further developed by improv teachers Del Close and Charna Halpern, as well as the Upright Citizens Brigade.

iO, or iO Chicago, is an improv theater and training center in central Chicago, with a former branch in Los Angeles called iO West and in Raleigh, North Carolina called iO South. The theater teaches and hosts performances of improvisational comedy. It was founded in 1981 by Del Close and Charna Halpern. The theater has many notable alumni, including Amy Poehler and Stephen Colbert.

The theatre games tradition is a method of training actors that was developed in the 20th century by practitioners such as Joan Littlewood, Viola Spolin, Paul Sills, Clive Barker, Keith Johnstone, Jerzy Grotowski and Augusto Boal. Theatre games are also commonly used as warm-up exercises for actors before a rehearsal or performance, in the development of improvisational theatre, and as a lateral means to rehearse dramatic material. They are also used in drama therapy to overcome anxiety by simulating scenarios that would be fear-inducing in real life.

Magnet Theater

The Magnet Theater is an improvisational comedy theatre and improv school in New York City. It has shows seven nights a week, many of which are consistently selected as editor's pick of the week in Time Out New York and The Onion.

David Gwynne Shepherd was an American producer, director, and actor primarily noted for his work in improvisational theatre.

Theatre Strike Force

Theatre Strike Force is the University of Florida's premier improv and sketch comedy troupe. The group also goes by TSF. The style of improv performed by Theatre Strike Force is a combination long form and short form. They both teach and perform improvisational comedy. They have six house teams which include both forms of improv as well as a sketch team. There are four long form house teams which are cast every semester and usually have six to eight members. The TSF Short Form Team is cast every semester as well and usually has fifteen to nineteen members. TSF Sketch is the final house team and usually has twelve to sixteen members, cast each semester.

Paul Sills' Story Theatre is a play with music, adapted from fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm and Aesop's Fables.

Josephine Forsberg, ex-wife of film director Rolf Forsberg, was hired by Paul Sills and Viola Spolin to join the original Second City in 1959 as the female understudy and Spolin's teaching assistant. She became an expert in improvisational techniques for the theater, and by the mid 1960s she had taken over most of Spolin's and Sills's classes, as well as Spolin's children's theater company. From that point on most of the young performers that wanted to go onto the Second City stage studied with Forsberg for at least a year. These included Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, Betty Thomas, Shelley Long, George Wendt, David Mamet, and Robert Townsend.

Stephen Nachmanovitch is a musician, author, computer artist, and educator. He is an improvisational violinist, and writes and teaches about improvisation, creativity, and systems approaches in many fields of activity.

Theatre Collaborative form of performing art

Theatre or theater is a collaborative form of fine art that uses live performers, typically actors or actresses, to present the experience of a real or imagined event before a live audience in a specific place, often a stage. The performers may communicate this experience to the audience through combinations of gesture, speech, song, music, and dance. Elements of art, such as painted scenery and stagecraft such as lighting are used to enhance the physicality, presence and immediacy of the experience. The specific place of the performance is also named by the word "theatre" as derived from the Ancient Greek θέατρον, itself from θεάομαι.

Face Off Unlimited is an improvisational comedy production company based in New York City. In 2003, Jay Painter and Eric Robinson founded Friday Night Face Off, a weekly improvised comedy show in Port Jefferson, New York featuring two teams of comedic improvisers engaged in a mock competition, a concept originated by TheatreSports. Friday Night Face Off has since become the longest continuously running improv comedy shows in Long Island history. In 2009, Painter and Robinson formed Face Off Unlimited, A Limited Liability Company, and brought on former FNFO creative director Joe Tex as Partner and Chief Operating Director.

Caryl Churchill is a British playwright known for dramatising the abuses of power, for her use of non-naturalistic techniques, and for her exploration of sexual politics and feminist themes.