Putting The Eye in [I]mprov

How I spell Improv with four Eyes

5 min readJul 26, 2021

One aspect of learning improv is understanding how to develop an Eye for improv.

This is the Eye of Horus, which is a different eye. Aye?

A better term might be ‘perspective’, or to borrow from design, ‘lenses’; but these four eyes will help you see Improv in a clearer light, and with better detail.

‘A Book of Lenses’ with which to view game, fun, and puzzle design

The first eye is really the zeroth eye; the Eye we have before we even learn Improv. It’s the Eye of the Audience. How do we know when to laugh, when to gasp in horror, when to scream in terror and when to boo when we watch theatre? We just know, we can feel, we can see with our Eye.

The Eye of the Audience

Watch an improv scene; now try to ask yourself: “Why was that funny?”

Let me entertain you

Most of the time, you will know it is funny but be unable to explain why. The audience knows what is funny, and what is not. They have all the laughter, and it’s your job to charm, wheedle, browbeat, lockpick or tease it out of them with your performance.

“The audience is a genius.”

— Lenny Bruce

— — Jimmy Carr

When you’re performing, you still have all the skills of an audience member. Pull away from the scene and think: if I were in the audience, would this be interesting? If the answer is no, you’d better think of something quick. That’s when you need…

The Eye of the Director

An Improv performance is like cooking four dishes at once; you have to juggle being an actor, scriptwriter and director. Of all the roles, the director is the most subtle and yet most important.

The director is like a predator, sensing the emotions of the audience, ready to move at a sign of boredom or pounce on their excitement. The director has to see the story from afar — where’s the story going, is there an ending in sight, is it time to escalate? Trick question, it’s always time to escalate, unless it’s time to slow it down and let the scene breathe with emotions, or it’s time to bring it to a rousing climax.

“An audience is never wrong. An individual member of it may be an imbecile, but a thousand imbeciles together in the dark — that is critical genius.” — Director Billy Wilder

If you’re in the scene, your eye is that of the Director; if you’re outside the scene watching, you should have The Eye of the Critic on: what’s wrong with this scene? What does it need? Where’s the out?

The Eye of the Director will also let you see how to bring other improvisers and players in, spot opportunities to move the story along, or resolve plot threads or create new complications. It asks What does the story need? and How can we bring this into the story?

This also loops back into

The Eye of the Audience II

So I’ll tell you what I want (what I really really want)
  • The audience wants to see (and hear) all the action; the director has to make sure the action is presented clearly and visibly
  • The audience wants to see a satisfying ending; the director has to drive the story towards either an expected conclusion or an unexpected but still satisfying ending
  • The audience will spot loopholes and plotholes and ugly patched-up ideas; the director either has to resolve it or distract the audience with better ideas.

But the only way to build up The Director’s Eye is to have a lot of experience with audiences. You can’t get a feel for reading an audience without meeting audiences. What you can do is develop…

The Eye of the Mimic

I watch a lot of Whose Line clips, partly because they’re fun, but because I’m trying to learn the specific moves of experienced improvisers. A little bit like martial arts anime or the Prince of Tennis, you can learn “moves” from better players.

Also known as the Samurai’s Eye in the Prince of Tennis

There was one player who developed a skillset of making excellent callbacks by picking something funny and waiting 20 minutes. I know because I watched him do it and copied the skill. Prescott repeats a joke 4 times until it breaks through the barrier of being unfunny into being funny again; he creates his own callback jokes.

Monkey see, monkey do. The Eye of the Mimic can start with simple things like body movements and postures. How do happy people walk, versus sad people? How can we know what it’s like for lions to walk, or emperors, or noir detectives, if we’ve never seen real ones before?

(by the way — you need to have The Eye of the Audience to know what is funny, what was well received, what moves are worth learning — so you don’t waste your Mimic powers).

Which leads me finally to…

The Eye of the Learner

I believe Improv is a broad church. I believe that living life leads to more life experiences leads to better improv, acting, performance. I believe that whatever you have or bring to class makes you uniquely skilled to improvise.

If you have the right perspective, learn things from everywhere, you’ll just get better at Improv.




writing creativity improv teaching hacking self-improvement stoicism mindfulness critique eloquence faff: I am D, and views are my own.