Improv warm-up games

3 Improv Warm-Up Games to Try

A couple weeks ago, I talked about the importance of doing improv warm-up games before your classes, workshops and rehearsals. Today, I wanted to share three warm-up games that I have been using for some time that I found to be very helpful. Like improv itself, there is no right or wrong way to play these games, and over the years I have modified them, so you will get my version of them. As always, keep what you like and leave the rest. And hopefully you will put your own spin on them as well.

  1. Zip-Zap-Zup
    In the Chicago improv community, this is one of the most popular warm-up games of all time. I have been playing it and teaching it for over 25 years, and I have to say, this game still holds up. The reason I like it is because it’s one of the easiest and simplest improv warm-up games out there to play. It’s so simple the players don’t have to think, and it also works with any level or mix of levels of improvisers.How it’s played:
    Have your students form a circle. One student begins by making eye contact with someone else and saying “zip” to another person in the circle while doing one clap. That person will do the same to another person saying “zap.” Then the next person does the same thing to another person saying “zup.”Tips:
    Remember, the words are not important. The goal is just to have fun and get the students to stay out of their fricking heads. Some new players will get caught up on the words. You will know because you will hear them say things like, “Wait, they did not say ‘zup,’ they said ‘zillow.’” If that happens, odds are the game is transforming, and this is a good thing. Encourage the students to morph the game. They may do it by dropping words entirely and using sounds instead, they may do it by passing objects versus pointing and clapping, or they may change it by saying people’s names instead of “zip, zap, zup.” Any way the game transforms is a sign the students are listening and having fun. What else would you expect from a warm-up game?

    Another variation you can try when the group seems out of sync – for example, when players are trying too hard or are not taking in what they are getting from their partners — is Silent Zip Zap Zup, which helps them really listen to each other. I will instruct them to use no words, but instead pass a physical gesture to someone in the circle in the exact way they received it from someone else. All they need to do is pass it on. If someone pretends to throw a baseball to you, all you have to do is pretend to throw the baseball to the next person.

    Once they seem connected I will then have them go back to playing Zip, Zap, Zup using the words. Depending how they are doing, I may go back to silent and back to words. Either way, the focus is to get the group to be in sync and more connected, which is important for when you start doing more complicated exercises like scenes or short form games.

  2. What’s in the Box? Variation
    If you are trying to teach agreement, you can use a variation of an old improv game called “What’s in the Box?”How it’s played:
    Have your players form a circle. The teacher/director stands in the middle of the circle and faces one person directly and holds up an imaginary box. Ask one of the players to stick their hand in the box and pull something out of it. Let’s say they say it’s a hat. Then slide down to the next player in the circle and ask them a question about the hat, such as “What color is the hat?” Then move to the next student and ask them a different question about the hat, such as, “Whose hat is this?”I usually ask for three to five questions about the object until a story stars to emerge. For example, if we learn that it’s Bob’s hat, you can say, “What is Bob going to do with the hat?” If someone says, “He’s going to wear it to a birthday party,” keep asking “Then what?” to the next player in the circle until there is a narrative going. For example, you may end up with something like, “He’s going to see Karen at the party. He’s going to ask her to dance. Their first dance will be a slow dance to Bruno Mars.”

    I have found it helpful to repeat what each player has said before I say, “Then what happens?” You can say different things to prompt them if you would like, just keep in mind that the focus is for them to acknowledge what the other player has just said and build off of that. If they say no to an idea, I will sometimes remind them that we want to find the agreement. However, it’s important to be lenient during warm-up games so use your judgement depending on the player.

  3. People Who
    This game is a fun way to get to know each other in a non-threatening and entertaining way. I love playing this game on the first day of a class or at workshops because it’s a fun way for people to get to know one another and get them to move. I think it’s always important to have several games to play that require movement, especially if they come in tired or with low energy.

    How it’s played:
    Have the class sit in chairs in a circle, with one fewer chairs than number of people in the class. Choose one person to stand in the center. That person will say something that is truthful about themselves, and they will use the phrase, “People who are wearing jeans” or “People whose favorite TV show is VEEP.” Now if that is also a truth about a player sitting in one of the chairs in the circle, they have to get up and find a different chair. When people get up to find a different chair, the person in the middle will look for an open chair to sit down.

    The point of this game is really to get them to be more physical and have fun. I am pretty lax on the rules. If two people get in the chair at the same time or if someone says, “People who are wearing blue” and they are not wearing blue, I let them police themselves.

    I will interject, however, if it gets too physical because people can get competitive and rush around and bump into each other.

    After playing this for a bit, you can do a variation on the game where you say, “OK, now the theme is sex, drugs and rock and roll,” and people can start revealing a bit raunchier things. However, only use this variation for mature audiences. I would not recommend it for high school or college groups and definitely not for corporate improv training.

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2 replies
  1. Alisha Ross
    Alisha Ross says:

    Thank you so much for these article. I have so many friends involved in youth groups, church based and not. I have linked them in for awesome games to play, without being ‘adult’.


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