How improvisation can help students to understand the structure of a performance.

Improvisation has got to be one of the most universal, accessible and immediate rehearsal and drama tool in the box. Embedded throughout Drama and beyond, it is extremely easy to use and user friendly. There is nothing much that can go wrong with Improvisation.

Improvisation is creating and inventing new performance material in a short space of time. Working without a script but with ideas, it is an excellent way to generate content, explore ideas or develop characters. It works on the most basic level of a starting line, an image or a theme to working in a more complex way to improvise a characters backstory, alternative outcomes to a devised piece or exploring a characters to help understand them better.

I’ve been using Improvisation for a different purpose during the last term that I wanted to share with you.

I have a very young and inexperienced cohort of GCSE students at the moment who don’t know how to structure a performance properly. They They don’t know how a story is structured, or how to performance that story over several scenes rather than in the fastest time they can. They don’t know how to establish a character within a scene or to show their characters development.

I’ve been working on a series of starter exercises that helps students practice these to then implement what they have learnt from it into that devising.

TASK 1 – Importance of character backstory

This activity forces the students to consider a characters backstory and how to communicate that backstory to the audience without having a directly telling the audience within the first minute of the scene.

Students need to communicate to the audience the relationship between two characters who have had a difficult past but are becoming friends again. The scene is the second time the two characters have physically met, but there may have been further conversations online or on the phone. Students must create a first minute of a scene.

Students need to;

  • decide on the back story of these two characters.
  • decide on the motivations of the characters – why do they want to become friends?
  • decide on the characters sub-conscious decisions.

The students are not allowed to directly refer to the feud but infer it through their use of acting skills, in particular movement, proxemics, eye contact, pauses and use of language. The audience must be about to infer the tension of the situation and come to as close a guess to the reason for that tension as possible.

From that the students needed to go back into their devised pieces and focus on the relationships between the characters, the backstories and how they can help shape and develop what the audience see and experience.


This is a spontaneous improvisation exercise designed to help students establish their characters in as quick a time as possible.

Students were given a card with a character, a location, an emotion and an activity that that character had been doing immediately before going on stage. The students had to establish all of that information to the audience, without directly saying those things, through their acting within 30 seconds.

Returning to the devising students needed to make sure they established their characters so the audience can understand what has just taken place off stage and how that character is feeling.


This task came from the fact that my students don’t experiment when devising. They don’t see that they need to. They still have the sense of making decision and sticking them rather than exploring different possibilities.

Students are given the same simple script and are asked to perform it using different tones of voice. They are encouraged to consider how the tone of voice changes the emphasis of both the way it is said and the meaning behind it.

Students then need to return to their devising groups and during the rehearsal phase experiment and change the way they say their lines.


This task is focused on structuring a story so that it spans over a number of scenes. This is a classic problem when students enter GCSE, having come from Key Stage 3 where there is generally only time to devise a short performance.

The scenario is that two characters have a shared past. Students must decide how they know each other, how long and how well. They need to establish a back story based on this information.

The performance must begin with the characters finding a dead body on the way home.

The students must plan a performance to cover 4 scenes but only act out the first and last scene. The students must hook the audience into the performance in the first minute and must try to tie up the ending so that it is convincing to the audience as a plausible outcome to the scene.

Students need to return to their devised groups to reflect on how their story is being told, whether their story is convincing and how the start of the performance hooks the audiences attention.

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