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  • Writer's pictureTerry Withers

Improv Prompts, Examples & Exercises

Updated: 4 days ago


improv prompts, improv acting prompts, improv prompt generator, prompts for im
A teleprompter provides prompts, but not improv acting prompts.


PREFACE: Just on the off chance that you are here not to become an improv comedian, but instead to cheat on a New York Times crossword puzzle (no judgement, I totally get it) a seven letter word for "Starting point for an improv scene," the answer is PREMISE. You're welcome. On to the main blog post!


MAIN POST: I thought that it would be fun to create a massive pile of a bunch of different types of improv prompts, from basic, to-be-expected prompts to way out-there-never-used-before prompts. 


I wanted it to be educational for improv students who are just getting used to working off of improv prompts for comedy scenes, improv acting prompts and the sometimes kooky starting points you get from online improv prompt generators. So I added an Improviser's Challenge after each list.


But first, let’s define some terms. `


An improv prompt is a type of suggestion provided to improv actors in order to inspire their work. Notice that I said a type of suggestion. In improv a suggestion can take many forms and is often just one word.


A prompt is longer than that and more prescriptive.


A prompt for improv provides you with important aspects of the upcoming scene that shouldn’t  be diverged from. For instance, if you received the improv prompt, “A scene between a doctor and patient at the doctor's office for an annual checkup,” then the scene should almost definitely be between a doctor and patient, in the doctor’s office for the purpose of an annual checkup.  


A suggestion however might be something as vague as “Spaghetti.” Now a scene based on the suggestion “Spaghetti” very well might start off with a character ordering spaghetti or eating spaghetti or engaged in some other activity or discussion clearly related to “Spaghetti”.


Or it might not.


It would be totally fine, for instance, for performers to get the suggestion of “Spaghetti” and then initiate a scene about male pattern baldness, because “Spaghetti” reminded one of them of “Angel Hair” which in turn reminded them of “Baldness”.

 

(The audience might never see the connection between the suggestion and the scene and that’s totally fine. I’ll do a longer post on suggestions soon and this will be explored more.)


So suggestions are largely open to interpretation while prompts are a type of suggestion that are much more prescriptive. In particular, prompts tend to prescribe:

  • Relationships

  • Locations 

  • Activities


Okay, let's get to it.


CLASSIC IMPROV PROMPTS

Let’s get started with some classic improv prompts. These are good prompts to use for students in a beginners improv class or for newer improvisers in high school or younger. They might be useful for a younger improv team or club working without a coach or for acting students eager to focus on playing scenes.


  1. A job interview.

  2. Two new college roommates meet for the first time while moving into their new dorm.

  3. A detective gives a lie detector to a suspect.

  4. Two airline pilots navigate their plane.

  5. A second date at an Outback Steakhouse. 

  6. A priest takes a congregant’s confession.

  7. A police officer pulls over a motorist for speeding.

  8. A neighbor rings the bell with mail that was delivered to the wrong address.

  9. A bartender lets a regular know it's last call.

  10. Two work acquaintances get stuck in the elevator.

  11. A doctor conducts an eye test.

  12. A census worker rings the front doorbell with some census questions.

  13. A palm reader offers a reading to a repeat client.

  14. A car mechanic shares thoughts on automobile upkeep to a client while changing that client’s oil.

  15. A painter paints a friend’s portrait. The friend sits for the artist.

  16. A train conductor helps a passenger find their seat as they board the train. 

  17. A dating couple makes breakfast in the kitchen together.

  18. Two college friends on a road trip.  One drives and the other sits in the passenger seat.

  19. Two strangers stuck on an elevator.

  20. A maintenance worker visits a renter’s apartment to fix some items.

  21. Actors in a theater dressing room prepare for opening night with last-minute costume adjustments and line rehearsal.

  22. An artist and an art critic engage in a discussion about the meaning behind a piece they are examining at an art gallery.

  23. Adult siblings shuck corn on their family farm.


You can see from these examples that a basic base reality is provided in the prompt. If you were to start a scene in improv class with one of these prompts, how would you initiate so that your partner could easily play along? 


IMPROVISER’S CHALLENGE: Go through all the above prompts and write down or audio record an initiation to each without giving yourself time to compose a perfect initiation (ie improvise your initiations). Then go through your initiations and compare them to the initiation guidelines here.  Evaluate yourself. How did you do? If you included a question in just 1 initiation it is no big deal.  But if it happened 7 times… Well, you might want to give that particular guideline a little more thought.


***If you take on this challenge and feel comfortable sharing your work, please email me your initiations at terry@radicalagreement.com. I would use your initiations in a follow up post, so include wheter you prefer to be credited or not.


CLASSIC IMPROV PROMPTS WITH A DASH OF COMEDY


Sometimes prompts will do more than just provide a base reality. Sometimes they’ll include something lightly chuckle worthy along with elements of the base reality. This is comparable to pulling and then initiating with a half idea when working with an opening


The below examples would be good to use with improv students who are comfortable starting a scene but are still working on finding comedy within it.  


  1. Two old college friends accidentally reunite by bumping into each other in a divorce attorney’s waiting room.   

  2. Two carnival workers scramble to prepare the camels for that night’s show amidst the chaos of the setup.

  3. A paranormal investigator has been brought in to examine a concerned homeowner’s domicile.

  4. A bride and her bridesmaid are trying to get the bride dressed for her wedding, but her dress does not fit!

  5. An astronaut encounters an alien in the mess hall.

  6. An oddly dressed detective questions a prime suspect in a high-profile case in a police station interrogation room.

  7. A plumber arrives to fix a sink and he has brought his really, really large wrench.

  8. A ski instructor with the words “Cool Dude” written on the back of his jacket teaches a novice skier how to conquer the slopes at a ski lodge.

  9. Two elderly residents at a retirement home spend their dinner planning an elaborate prank on the staff.

  10. An event organizer speaks with a celebrity guest who has outrageous demands at a charity fundraiser gala.

  11. A lifeguard who has a bicycle horn instead of a whistle tells a swimmer they need to move back within the flags.

  12. Two fishermen on a pier discuss the possibility that aliens come from underwater, not the stars.

  13. A therapy session with a therapist who loooooves disco.

  14. A job interview in which the interviewee openly can’t remember what position he is interviewing for.

  15. Two strangers stuck in an elevator. One of them is very pregnant.

  16. Two hitman discuss skin care while burying a body at night deep in the woods.

  17. A blind date. One is a very eager solar panel salesperson.

  18. Two friends play chess in the park. One as a deep reverence for checkers.

  19. A doctor wearing a fake Groucho Marx mustache delivers a grim diagnosis to a patient.

  20. Two bomb experts work feverishly to disarm an unexploded munition. One wants to take a quick banana break.

  21. One of you is a professional gardener. The other is a homeowner. While working in the garden, the gardener has noticed something about the sprinkler system they think is really important. They won’t back down about it.

  22. One player is a bus driver, the other a passenger. The bus driver asks the passenger to keep providing updates on what's going on in the back of the bus and refers to te passenger as, “My little birdie.”

  23. At an afternoon pool gathering two friends sip ice tea and discuss whether or not the Pyramids were made by ancient aliens while watching their kids frolic in the pool.

  24. A plumber arrives at a home to fix a leak, but they aren't sure they were meant to be a plumber. They are in the midst of a professional/life crisis. 

  25. A debt collector talks up their profession while waiting for a bus with a very light acquaintance.

  26. Traffic stop. The driver who was speeding 25 miles over the limit tries to get the police officer to join their weekly morning networking zoom call.

  27. A coffee barista and customer try to get along as the barista keeps putting their hand in the coffee they are preparing and has to start over.

  28. A detective known for unorthodox tactics brings a raccoon into a suspect interrogation. 


IMPROVISER’S CHALLENGE: Go through all the above prompts and write down your initiations to each without giving yourself time to compose a perfect initiation (ie improvise your initiations). You can, once again, compare them to the initiation guidelines, but there is another expectation when initiating off of these prompts.


You should also find a way to introduce or at least hint at the comedic portion of the prompt in your dialogue.


Most important in your evaluation of this element is to ask yourself, would a reasonable scene partner understand what you were suggesting? In other words, were you able to clearly communicate how you were hoping to play with the comedic portion of the prompt?


If you want to test yourself, set a calendar reminder for a month from today. On that day read through all the prompts. Then read through or listen to your corresponding initiations and quickly write down a response to each. 


Finally slowly go through your first initiations and your own corresponding responses. Did you understand what you were going for when you originally initiated? Be as honest as you can. Could you have been any clearer? 


If you have trouble fully Yes Anding your own initiation, even just a little, then that’s a good reminder to think about how to be as clear as possible when improvising.


IMPROV PROMPTS WITH PREMISE


Prompts can come with premises too.  


These would be good to use with more advanced students working on initiating with premise from an opening and/or framing an initiated premise in the response to the initiation.


Check out these examples below.


  1. Two customers at a bustling coffee shop insist they can drink more coffee than the other. And they each mean to prove it. 

  2. A McDonald’s Manager wants to infuse the power of aromatherapy into the restaurant. The fry cook isn’t so sure.

  3. At a dog park, one dog owner mournfully confesses to another that he has been having an emotional affair with the other’s pooch.

  4. An office manager struggles to oversee the work of an employee who insists they suffer from Involuntary Mimary, an intermittent condition that robs them of any ability to not act like a mime.

  5. A doctor wants to give a patient a diagnosis, but keeps stopping because they don’t want to upset the room’s mojo.

  6. A guest tries to order ice cream at a Basken Robbins where the ice cream barista believes strongly in the motto, “No Pain, No Gain” and keeps slapping themselves in between work tasks.

  7. A postal worker who believes “There’s always a pick me up in the mail!” delivers mail to a homeowner who is having a bad day.  The postal worker wants them to read their mail immediately.

  8. An uber driver who aspires to run a commercial talent agency picks up a fare but treats them as if they are auditioning to be a commercial actor while driving them to their destination.

  9. A pet store owner shows a customer some cats and dogs while revealing they see no difference between domestic animals and humans.

  10. A police hostage negotiator in a tense phone negotiation believes strongly in the healing power of laughter and is therefore  trying to get the hostage taker to have a proper laugh. 

  11. Two surgeons completing routine surgery. One wants to leave some things inside the body because, “Everyone looooves Easter Eggs!”.

  12. Two students sit next to each other in pottery class, each busy with pottery crafting. One is veeeeeerrrrrrryyyyyyyy interested in all the pottery decisions the other makes and reveals early on that they have been blogging about the other’s pottery accomplishments.

  13. A performance review at a fortune 1000 company. Both players are concerned the other might be a spy.

  14. A doctor reviews x-rays with a patient. The patient is blown away and keeps trying to tip the doctor.

  15. One player is a birthday clown performer. The other is a parent hosting a party. The clown has just arrived and needs to review the clown company's clown policies before beginning the event.

  16. A mentor and mentee at an investment firm try unsuccessfully to attach a client prospectus to an email. Their feelings grow increasingly rageful as the scene progresses.



IMPROVISER’S CHALLENGE:  Go through the above prompts and name the games. Pick a fun name if you can.  For instance, with the first initiation, “Coffee Competition” or “Kooky Coffee Competition” is preferable to “Two customers who overemphasize the importance of winning, even with silly or unimportant matters.” I’m only saying fun names are preferable to ones that feel like they are lifted from a social sciences textbook because the fun ones are pithier and catchier and therefore easier to remember.


NEVER BEFORE SEEN OR USED IMPROV PROMPTS


This section makes a really big promise that I’m not 100% sure the prompts live up to. Nonetheless, these are really silly extreme prompts. Good as a warm up or as a palette cleanser for improvisers at any level who need to reconnect with the silly fun of improv.


  1. Two strangers discover they are both living the same life (same job, same spouse name, same hobbies, same shoes, etc) while waiting for a late bus.

  2. A married American couple finds themselves stranded in a Parisian airport with no money. One used to be a street magician.

  3. Two old friends reunite at a high school reunion and confront the unresolved feelings they carry from a fight that happened 30 years ago over whether the Indiana Jones movies are plausible.

  4. Two rival politicians are surprised to find they both are attending the same Pokemon card battle event at a local hobby store.

  5. A parent and child get lost permanently in Ikea and forge a new life.

  6. Two mechanics accidentally swap bodies and decide not to try to fix it.

  7. A patient and therapist find themselves trapped in a therapy session when the building goes into lockdown.  A Die Hard situation, featuring well equipped militant thieves, is playing out just past the office they are doing hard work in.

  8. Both players are stuck waiting in a building lobby for an elevator that never comes.

  9. Two sisters are secret admirers of the same baker, an overweight, depressed man who they can watch work in his bakery from their porch across the street.

  10. A player goes into labor in a deli and gives birth to a second version of herself who the same player plays. The very religious deli worker is amazed!


IMPROVISER’S CHALLENGE: Try some of the above prompts at your next improv practice!




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