EVENTS Being creative... improv style

Elbow deep in the rewrites of my latest novel, my creative juices were at risk of running stagnant. My muse was a tattered cartoon parrot on my shoulder as I agonised over perfecting every page. I knew I needed to switch off my internal critic, even if it was just for one afternoon ... reports Susan Sandercock.

That’s why I signed up for the SCBWI improv class. It didn’t matter that I was an acting newbie. I didn’t even care about making a fool of myself (well – I did, a bit). I needed to hit the refresh button. Five minutes into the workshop, I knew I was out of my comfort zone... in the best possible way.

‘Improv is about shutting off the judgemental voice inside your head,’ said our workshop leader, actor and writer Briony Redman. ‘It’s about allowing yourself to make mistakes.’

Shutting off the judgemental voice inside my head? Allowing myself to make mistakes? Whaaaat?…

Miriam Craig (left) and Anne Chen improvise, watched by workshop leader Briony Redman (right).
(Picture credit: Tania Tay)

Minutes later, I found myself in a circle singing, miming and making motorbike noises, making plenty of mistakes and cheering myself for them. I giggled my way through pulling a dinosaur out of a treasure chest, packed a cat into a suitcase and joined some orang-utans as they bought red hats at the zoo’s gift shop.

Would any of these make a successful children’s story? It didn’t matter, and that was the point. Briony said this notion of churning out ideas, without thinking of whether or not they are ‘good’, is used by some of the best comedy writers in the world. Yes, editing has a place . . . but at a later stage. And by training yourself by using improv, you can pull out some quality material straight away.

Improv is about shutting off the judgemental voice inside your head, about allowing yourself to make mistakes.

My favourite part of the afternoon was an improv sketch with a fellow SCBWI. The group gave us the characters of two butchers. Using the improv rule of ‘Yes, and . . .’ we used one-upmanship to create ever funnier stories. We went from cutting up a cow to using various body parts in a prank to creating a Halloween costume of the carcasses to crawling inside a live pig! It’s true what they say – laughter really is the best medicine.

Improv is great if you’re in the middle of a big project and need some light relief. It gives you the tools for mining the depths of your characters’ physical and emotional landscapes.

‘How do you feel when you walk like this?’ Briony asked as we paced the room leading with various body parts – chins, noses, hips, toes. ‘What sort of person do you think would walk like this? What career might they have?’

We walked the room leading with various body parts. (Picture credit: Tania Tay)

This inspired me to consider fresh approaches to my writing. Before the workshop, I would have seen it as silly, and as a waste of time, to walk around the room as my characters before writing as them. Yet, as we discovered, by simply adjusting our own posture we can embody a dancer, a politician or a traffic warden and with changing our body, we change our mind, too, bringing the emotions of a whole new person flooding out.

In pairs, we role-played situations that let you experience four key emotions: love, sadness, anger, and fear. I was amazed at how easily I could ease myself into feeling and exploring each of these emotions in a safe way. Improv is great for writers at all stages of their careers, and at all stages of their projects. If you fancy giving it a try, visit the Monkey Toast and Free Association websites for details of their courses.

*Header image: illustration by Bauke Schildt,

Susan’s short story Sea Canaries is included in Tony Bradman’s acclaimed anthology, Under the Weather. She has been shortlisted in Undiscovered Voices and taken part in The Hook. She is a media lecturer in a sixth form college near Southend, which is a constant source of inspiration for her writing. Her other hobbies include baking; she once made 150 cupcakes in one week. Find her on Twitter @SusanSandercock

Briony Redman teaches at The Free Association and used workshops courtesy of Monkey Toast. She tweets at @brionyred

Fran Price is Events Editor for Words and Pictures magazine. Contact her at

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