Clare Kerrison, David Razowsky, Photographer Morgan Mansouri

Playing with Strangers

I’m about to go on stage. I look at the grinning faces of the other players: I’ve met Lisa before but the others I met yesterday in our one and only rehearsal.

We’re all a bit nervous in our own way. We’re primetime Saturday night in a full venue at the 14th Würzburg Improtheater Festival. There are just five of us. We come from four different countries, three languages and at least two improv styles. We’re about to improvise a two act film noir set in San Francisco. And we’re playing with strangers.

This is not the only time I’ve played with folks I don’t know. It’s particularly common at festivals like Würzburg where shows are cast from participants and workshop leaders. And often we’re dropping in while travelling or playing with folks we meet for the first time on stage at the local improv jam.

So, how do we play with strangers? Not just get through it but smash it?

Unite the Team

This is what rehearsal and / or warm up is for.  Getting the team working as a team, in the same style and toward a common goal.

Lisa Rowland got us to play ‘ball’ to prepare for San Francisco Noir. It’s a team keepy-uppy game where you all count out loud. It has almost everything: physical and vocal warm up, commitment, common goal, team awareness, being present in the moment… We were totally ready to work together when we were done.

My pal, Christine Brooks, ran a show in the same festival.  She met the cast an hour before the show and they spent the time checking in with other, sharing experiences and connecting. That show had one of the most supportive teams I’ve seen. It was hilarious, moving and cracking good improv.

Bring it!

The San Francisco Noir cast were intimidatingly awesome: Lisa Rowland (San Fransisco), Niggi Hégelé (Zurich), Inbal Lori (Tel Aviv), David Razowsky (Los Angeles) and… me!

I have those ‘I’m not good enough’ voices in my head that I work to put aside. The second guessing and ‘should have dones’. But I don’t let those voices come on stage with me any more.

You see, now is not the time to sit on the sidelines until you think you know what to do. Especially if you’re playing with folks you think are better than you. Now is the time to bring all you got to the stage and give your new teammates something to work with.

Don’t worry about messing it up or doing it ‘wrong.’ (You’re going to anyway otherwise it wouldn’t be improv!) Trust your new teammates to have your back just the way you trust your team at home.

Love and Generosity

On the other side of the coin, now is not the time to question your teammate’s choices, to hate their improv style or to think you know better. Especially if you’re playing with folks you think aren’t as good as you.

Now more than ever is the time to listen hard, to play generously, to make their choices work, to treat them like artists, to love them. (In fact we should play like this anyway as expressed eloquently by William Hines).

How often have you seen a Noir where there are two femme fatales and one double crosses the other? Awesome right? That’s how one of my ‘mistakes’ was made to look like genius by my team mates!


I always make sure I make eye contact with my team pre show. Play with them. Crack a few laughs with them. It connects me to them and to my playful self: the improviser in me.

And here’s something I noticed David doing. He would grab my hand or arm at times during pre show / warm up. It forced me to look at him. To be physically present now in connection and grounded. He didn’t say ‘hey Clare get out of your head and back into the room with us.’ He just helped me connect and be present without making a big deal out of it. It was a real gift.

Be Honest

We’re not used to working with these folks so being honest (in character) is vital. Didn’t hear or understand what your teammate said? Your character can totally say so. And probably get a big laugh as Inbal did. Need a plot point clarification? Your character can ask (or tell). This is extra important when the language isn’t native for some of the players and the bulk of the audience.

There are other things you can communicate to your fellow players in character too: such as asking them to stop speaking for a bit (or to contribute more) and to talk through physical action – especially violence – so it’s safe (or to ensure you don’t surprise kiss a stranger). If you do feel unsafe your character can express that too. The honesty will be a grounded gift to the story and to your teammates.

Agree or disagree with my tips? What are your fave strategies for playing successfully with strangers?  Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments below.

Thanks to Lisa, David, Inbal and Niggi for a cracking show and for no longer being strangers 🙂 Thanks to Andris on Lights, Merik on music and Alex for being production awesome and a great non-stranger.

(Feature photo: Morgan Mansouri)

4 thoughts on “Playing with Strangers”

  1. It’s a beautiful article, Clare, and describes much of what is the basis of our own community at both Impro ACT and the Improvention festival, in Canberra, so I really connected with what you say here, and am sharing it, immediately.
    Bring It – soooo true! We are trained to automatically default to helping others’ offers look good, right? If you assume that this is common to most improvisers, there is no reason to suspect they won’t do the same for you.
    Love and Generosity – beautiful. This is my favourite paragraph, because it’s what makes everything flow, with both cast and audience feeling rather than just experiencing the show. ‘Folks that aren’t as good as you’ should not be a phrase that makes sense, anymore. If you really do treat all players like artists (I love that turn of phrase, thank you), less experienced players, or those struggling with the tone or genre will lift, grow, and often belie their perceived status.
    * If I dare to add ONE tip to this wonderful article, it would be; play MORE often with less experienced players, ie. play with all levels equally. You remind yourself of necessary fundamentals and philosophies, that might slip sometimes, and you live the same creed as much of what you teach, which I believe is crucial.
    Connection – I felt Dave’s arm-grab, when you wrote that. Think of others, before the show, instead of worrying about your own performance, and your own concerns depart. Warm-up in any way you like, but do it as mindfully and committed as the performance, so that stepping on stage is not the big moment – just the next.
    Be Honest – we avoid doing so many things on stage, that are totally natural, for some reason, like asking for clarification. Often, looking to see what we cannot, as a choice, or simply moving out of a talking-heads scene, are similar.
    Thanks for such an inspiring article. Let’s play 🙂

    1. Hey thanks Nick! Glad the article struck a chord. I totally agree re playing with less experienced players. Many improvisers, self included, go through a phase where we think we’re ‘better than’ other players or styles and it’s great to let go of this and play for the team. So much more fun and so much more is learned about improv letting go of the ego.

      I can’t take credit for the ‘treat like artists’ phrase. It’s inspired by a Del Close quote which to me reflects Keith Johnstone’s urge to “make your partner look good.”

      “If we treat each other like we are geniuses, poets and artists, we have a better chance of becoming that on stage.”

      I’ll be heading back down under in 2016 so here’s hoping we get to play stranger! Joy, Clare

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