What Jane Knew: The Improv Exercise


As I mentioned, last week’s story was mostly improvised in short bursts, with very little planning. It occurred to me that this ‘X knew that…’ ‘That’s why…’ structure might be a useful exercise for improvisational theatre. The ‘X knew that…’ provides new information about the situation (which is always important in improv) and the ‘That’s why…’ keeps the story moving, which is also always important.

As an improv exercise, this would probably work best in pairs. One person starts with a sentence beginning with ‘[Name] knew that…’ or ‘[Name] did not know that…’ and the other continues the story with a sentence beginning with ‘That’s why…’ This continues until they finish the story and/or reach a predetermined time limit or number of exchanges, or one of the players makes a mistake. After that, they either switch roles or replace one or both players to start a new story.

Note that the ‘that’ after the ‘X knew/did not know’ is important. This allows statements such as ‘X did not know that Y was his father’ or ‘X knew that the ice-cream salesman wanted to kill him’ but not general ‘X did/did not know…’ statements such as ‘X did not know where/what/who s/he was’ or ‘X knew why the ice-cream salesman wanted to kill him’. The latter kind of statement just delays the story; it doesn’t provide any new information, and pushes that responsibility onto the next player. Since I was able to edit what I’d written, and plan ahead a bit, I did not always follow this rule for What Jane Knew, but I think it would be important in improv.

I haven’t tried this, since I only just made it up and the CERN improv group dissolved a while ago. I’m also not an expert at improv by any means, so I can’t claim that any exercise I invent will be perfect. If you are in an improv group, or you’re looking for something fun to do at a party, feel free to try this and let me know how it goes. To practise the acting side of things, you could also try pausing after each ‘that’s why…’ to allow other people to act out the story, much like Typewriter.

I imagine that in an improv troupe made up of logicians, this would quickly degenerate into solutions to hat puzzles, but this would still entertain an audience of logicians. If you have an improv troupe made up of logicians, please record some of your performances and put them online, because I’d love to see that. I would probably give it a single golf clap.

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  1. #1 by robgonzo on April 2, 2012 - 10:35 pm

    it has potential. as an exercise it sounds like it could be fun. I would say as a long form exercise I wouldn’t like it because it tends to focus people on things external to themselves which is not a good long form thing.
    It reminds me of a game we play in our show called String of Pearls which is a story telling game, there is no scene being played out.
    The way we do it. 3 players line up on stage the first is the opening line the second is the middle line and the third is the close. We solicit the lines from the audience by asking for a name and what they were doing. and the close is “like ‘they lived happily ever after’ but different” so we could have.
    Jim caught a fish. Tom built a house. They flew to the moon. now the players fill in the spaces to reveal how we go from beginning to middle to end.
    So with your idea I was thinking we could do, a name and what does he know, a name and what don’t they know. and what happens to them. Then we get a genre and we have to tell a story in that genre based on those premises.

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    • #2 by Angela Brett on April 2, 2012 - 11:10 pm

      That would be interesting. 🙂 At the CERN improv club, we started out doing long-form improv because Charna Halpern and some guys from iO came over to start the club and teach us a few things to perform at the ATLAS startup event, but after that we were mostly taught by volunteers from the Geneva improv group, and they tend to do short-form. We did a few different story-telling exercises, and I’m sure there was something called String of Pearls, but I don’t think it was that. This exercise would be the same kind of thing, in that there would be no scene played out (except as an optional extra, if other people wanted to play out the scenes described.)

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