Theater and Improv Games for the Classroom and Beyond

Use Improv Challenges to Build Drama Skills

Improvisation and Theatre Games: five men in a scene
Raul Urbina/Getty Images

Improv games are a great way to loosen up during drama practice or to break the ice at a party. Improvisational acting teaches you to think quickly and to read other people as you perform. You'll also sharpen your wit as you learn how to react to your audience. Best of all, you don't need any special props or equipment, just your imagination and the courage to step outside yourself. 

Captain's Coming

Improv games like this one are terrific warmups that promote teamwork and good humor. In this game, which is similar to Simon Says, one person plays the role of a ship's captain. The rest of the group are sailors who must quickly follow the captain's orders or be dismissed from the game. Orders can be simple or elaborate:

  • Captain's coming: Sailors line up in a row and salute the captain.
  • Starboard: Everyone runs to the right side of the stage or room.
  • Port: Everyone runs to the left side of the stage or room.
  • Man overboard: Sailors team up and pose as though they're searching for the lost man.
  • Mermaid: Stand on one foot, wave one hand, and say, "Hi, sailor!"
  • Seasick: Run to port or starboard and pretend to be ill. 
  • Swab the deck: Sailors pretend to mop and clean the floor.
  • Walk the plank: Sailors stand single-file, their right arms extended and hands resting on the shoulder of the person in front.

The great thing about Captain's Coming is that there's no limit to the orders a captain can give. For added challenges, think of poses that require two or more people or divide the sailors into two groups and have them compete against one another.


Yoo-hoo! is another effective game for learning how to take cues and focus movement. It works best with groups that have room to move around. As with Captain's Coming, this game requires a leader to call the cues and a group to follow whatever command the leader dreams up.

As an added challenge, the group must repeat the action word six times in a whisper as they perform. After the sixth time, everyone calls out "freeze!" and holds still.

  • Leader: Yoo-hoo! 
  • Group: Yoo-hoo who?
  • Leader: You who jump with ropes.
  • Group: Ropes, ropes, ropes, ropes, ropes, ropes, freeze!

The leader then cues the next movement and the process repeats itself. If a person loses composure or breaks the freeze before the leader calls "Yoo-Hoo" again, that person is out. The last person remaining is the winner.

Location, Location, Location

The Location game can be done with as few or as many people as you like. Use it as a way to exercise your imagination as a solo performer and for learning how to act with others. Begin by having one or more actors develop a scene in a place that anyone can relate to, such as a bus stop, the mall, or Disneyland—without mentioning the name of the location. Have other players try to guess the place. Then move on to less familiar situations. Here are some to get you started:

  • An attic
  • A Ferris wheel
  • A karaoke bar
  • An orchestra pit
  • Underground
  • A high school yearbook club
  • A zeppelin

The true challenge of this game is to think past clichés and to avoid using language that gives away the action being performed. This improv exercise can also be played like charades, where teams must guess the activity.

More Improv Games

Once you've tried simple theater games, your troupe will be ready for more challenges. Here are a few more improv exercises:

  • Tongue twisters: It doesn't do students any good to be creatively warmed up if the audience has no idea what they are saying. Enunciation exercises like tongue twisters provide a fun way to alleviate the dreaded mumbling, mush-mouth syndrome.
  • Guess who's coming to dinner: This team exercise gives everyone a role to play. One person plays host, and the others are dinner guests. The only catch? The host doesn't know he or she is having company!
  • The Harold: Developed by theater director/teacher Del Close, this long-form improvisational activity allows more time to develop believable characters and organic storylines. Students riff off a suggested word, phrase, or idea through a mix of exercises. One improv piece can last from 10 to 45 minutes or more.
  • Be an animal: One of the best ways to develop out-of-the-box thinking is to have actors imagine themselves not just as other people but as an animal or even as an inanimate object.

These drama activities offer proven ways to help participants get to know one another in a friendly, low-key fashion. They can also be used regularly as warm-ups for your actors before you have them delve into more difficult improvisation exercises. Break a leg!