Improv as an artform is gaining ground in more countries every year. Last time I checked, only 13% of people mentioning “improvisation” on Facebook (using Facebook audiences) came from the USA. Next on the list, there was Mexico with 10%, Brazil with 10% and Italy with 5% . It is amazing seeing how improvisation spreads!

I made the decision to learn and perform improv in English, like many others. But there is a subject that has always interested me: How is improvising in my third language affecting my performances?

I am not talking about the obvious, like feeling less comfortable with accents or not sharing the same cultural references. I mean how does improvising in a non-native language affect our way of playing? Are there any formats which are harder because of it? Or easier games? Can we adapt our classes to an international crowd? I have been asking this questions around my theatre and decided to also share it with you guys.

As a very short background (you can read the long version here): I’m Gino, a Spaniard who started improvising in Denmark. On my first class, there were 3 Danes, 2 native English-speakers and 10 from everywhere else. When I graduated, a third were Danes and a third were native speakers. Can we avoid such a big drop out of non-native speakers? Can we support them so we have a more diverse cast?

EDIT: If you want, you can check experiences shared by you focusing on inclusivity or lessons you have learnt

How is improvising outside our mother tongue affecting us?

I ask myself this question all the time.

I sometimes need an extra second to respond when playing fast-paced games. Examples are short-form games that require quick answers or openings like Scene Painting. Regarding the later, the game really shines when the tempo increases until people are almost talking over each other. And I didn’t want to admit that it was an issue, but I can tell that speed is a challenge for me.

I didn’t realise English was subconsciously affecting my game until I joined a workshop in London (where I was the only non-Brit), and played exercises that focused on getting into the “intuition” headspace. Alan Marriott explained to us the three ways to react.

  • Emotionally, following our guts, most of the times just making sounds and grunts.
  • Intellectually, when we process the information and find the correct answer.
  • Intuitively, when we feel of being on autopilot, when you are not aware of the response till after you say it.

He explained how powerful it is to improvise in that state and proposed some exercises. In one of those, we had to pull objects from an imaginary box at such a fast pace that you couldn’t prepare what came next. Most people needed 40-60 things within a couple of minutes to get to a point of no thinking, but I found it impossible to achieve in English. Those 5 milliseconds - which I wasn’t aware I needed - to come with the word was wrecking the exercise for me. When I switched to Spanish… it felt so easy!

What concerns me is all the ways improvising in English is affecting my performance, without me being aware. I can only work with something if I am aware of it!

What to keep in mind when playing with non-native speakers.

What shall we keep in mind if we are playing with (or teaching) a non-anglophone team? This is one of the questions I have been asking around. I don’t have an extensive list yet, but I hope to keep adding notes of new experiences like yours.

The more physical, the more inclusive improvisation is. I might be biased by having a Commedia dell’arte partner, but most people agreed that physicality is fair ground. Training scenes with limited speaking or focusing on our movements will empower performers regardless of their English expertise.

Be mindful with techniques such a tag runs or some fast openings. I love fast-paced games. But, I have to admit, I enjoy them more with a supportive cast who understand that speed won’t be my forte. I will, of course, chip in; but I get anxious when feeling that I have to be the one driving them.

The level of comfort in speaking English has implications for establishing the platform of the scene. Kadi, a fellow improviser - who happens to study the use of English as lingua franca - shared this thought with me. “I don’t hold the view that those of us who use English as a (daily) second language are therefore broken or faulty and should aspire to some sort of native standard. But I do think that at times there should be more focus on having each other’s back linguistically speaking too when we’re being trained to do improv scenes. I see that as part and parcel of learning to do scenes with literally anyone - we all have different strengths as improvisers”.

The strengths non-native speakers bring to the table.

I deeply believe that there are many advantages of having a more diverse (in any possible way) cast.

The most obvious one? It brings new voices, new points of view to the set. There is a new world of possibilities that I bring to the table. We will have different cultural references, with all the nuances that brings. And I am not only referring to your TV references (luckily, we can’t use any in our theatre with such a diverse audience!).

Bringing communism to this scene? It will be enhanced by having our Romanian partner, whose family was really affected by those years. Playing that Italian waiter? You will play it to the top of your intelligence with your Milanese friend on the side.

Having command over several languages is a very powerful perk, especially when your theatre is located next to a hostel. I have seen roaring laughter when cast members failed to deliver a common phrase in Danish; or using your mother tongue to enhance a scene, giving that extra golden nugget to some lucky audience members. There are countless short-form games where we can use this. I have a lovely memory of a Romanian friend performing a scene in Spanish only with the telenovela lines she learnt from TV!

Take all those little mistakes as gifts. If your scene partner is comfortable with it, you can honour how they non-native misspronounce some words to inspire an scene. During one of CIIF festival’s main shows, the only non-American performer pronounced jail walking instead of jaywalking; and that served as inspiration for the entire performance!

Finally, I can’t even count all the different uses of English we make just by being polyglots. I really recommend this amazing TED talk explaining how languages shape your way of thinking.

People working with the impact language has on improv.

I haven’t heard of many people studying or working on the struggles of improvising outside of your mother tongue, that is why I decided to start the conversation within my community! But there are many workshops related to some of the aforementioned struggles. I am planning to contact some improvisation teachers to hear about their experiences so we can share the lessons learnt!

On Lyon festival, you can find several workshops exploring the improvisation without a shared language. Joe Bill is teaching “Playing with the Languages of Improv”, exploring the different ways to communicate in a scene, some using your mother tongue. Tim Orr is leading a “Silent Scene” workshop, as well.

Given the unique situation we have at our theatre, I am looking forward to doing more research! Let’s make improvisation even more inclusive!

Your turn to help

There are no ads on this blog. I am not selling workshops. You can’t even come to see my shows. If I am taking the time to write this it is because I believe we can grow together. And, for that, I really need your help.

Is English your mother tongue? What are your experiences improvising in English? Which exercises do you find particularly challenging? Do you teach?

Feel free to engage in the comments below. If you want to take a deep dive on this subject or if you want to share something, my email is more than open: I am planning to keep asking around and learning about the topic so this won’t be my last post about improvising as a non-native English speaker!