How improv philosophy gets affected by other arts and thinking?

Improv teacher and improviser Chris Mead has a great newsletter called Improv Fables (you can subscribe it in his website)  in which he gives tips of things (movies, books, videos, theater shows etc.) that have hit him. He also shares improv longform thoughts that have been very meaningful resource for me.

He has this thing ”ask from Chris” going on in his newsletter, and I asked what else than actual improv courses or improv resources have affected his improv thinking (newsletter #119). Now, Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal: How stories make us human is on my reading list.

Chris also got answers from other improvisers, and those were lovely: video games, football, quantum physics, and anthropology, just to mention a few.

My question was inspired, for example, by the work of improv teacher Gael Doorneweerd-Perry. Since I experienced how he integrated Hayao Miyazaki* inspired storytelling and things we can learn from comics (editing, perspectives) into improv, it opened my eyes for what are all the things improv can take inspiration from. Not to mention here Laura Doorneweerd-Perry’s My brother Lionheart long improv play (based on book by Astrid Lindgren) which has been one of the most emotional experiences of improv for me.  

Since I asked the question, I have been thinking also what has affected my thinking of improvisation. I tried to do a list of 3, but did not succeed, so it’s a list of 4 points. 😀 

1) Clowning

I feel clowning or theater clowning as we often call it in Finland, is a sibling to improv. I have been taught mostly by hospital clowns of Finland and Portugal. My clowning path is just at the beginning, so sorry for all who think I do wrong to clowning but this is how I have experienced it this far:

Clowning makes visible what we don’t have in improv. How I have done improv has often been a) taking an idea/inspiration from the audience b) acting the scenes and kind of forgetting the audience until the next question for them is presented because we are invested in the scene that is going on. Clowning is about you in front of the audience, and, in a way, clown exists in a relation to the audience. It is about sensing the audience’s reactions: their laughter, their sympathy, their lack of interest. Stereotypically, clown makes the audience laugh and if you don’t amuse them, you have failed. With hospital clowns I have learned, that the whole wide range of emotions and reactions of the audience are fuel and a mirror for a clown. Some of the most touching moments of my life have been watching another clown in a workshop.

Now, with improv,  I’m in a place where I love the idea that we don’t need to ask the audience anything to do a wonderful long improv play but I also wonder, how as an improviser I could make the audience feel something during improv play and how I can sense them. One huge difference is that, unlike in clowning, in improv we don’t use direct eye contact with the audience so often. When doing improv, we don’t always literally even see the audience sitting in the darkness.

In a sense, clown work also has helped me to loosen the ”basic rules” of improv. Of course after the beginning phase and learning the basics, you will start playing with creating the platform (who, where, what, why) of a scene and acceptance. The problem with basic rules or elements are, that sometimes one can get stuck in their head, thinking how to build the scene. Clowning teaches and pushes you to be present in a moment, in a curious, open, and vulnerable state, clown state. You may be confused, scared, excited, but there is no reason to hide that from the audience: instead, you start playing with those emotions.

Still, as one of my favourite teachers, Pedro Fabião, puts it, there still has to be  both present, the horse (the energy, the force) and the horse rider (an actor who’s playing the clown), to make clowning work. So, be present and open, but also in control. Interestingly, that is what I have been learning lately and what now interests me most in improv.

2) Drama education

In the universities in Finland we have a subject called drama education (draamakasvatus). It provides tools and skills to guide a group (may it be kids, youngsters, older people, in a school, in a theater, in retirement homes, in camps) to do drama. We learn things like drama genres (forum theater, process drama, devising, mask work, clowning), skills like directing, dramaturgy, acting, and then there are reflexive and informative courses. Basically, the studies are about: if we go into roles, what can we experience. Pedagogical skills are linked very tightly into all this: How to create a safe space and a common ground to start from (drama contract)? What do I want the group to learn or experience? How could we try to do that? How to reflect, how it went? We also do small projects: we have literally learned by doing drama ourselves.

When I applied to and then started the studies at the open university, I had quite much an impostor syndrome: I have barely done traditional, scripted theater and I am not so interested in doing it in the future either. But these studies were pure gold as they opened my eyes to how many ways improv can be applied in the field of drama. Knowing the basics of improv was a great asset that supported learning but also made me again fall in love with improv from a bit new point of view: improv exercises are great in group building, character building, world building, experiencing things from different perspectives, deepening understanding of someone’s actions and inner world, going through and reflecting what was done and experienced. Although I had applied improv, drama education kind of widened my thinking about what improv is capable of. 

3) Slice of life – storytelling (on screen)

I love deeply longform storytelling, that is not only fishing laughs. And the long improv plays that I love the most, are the ones where I can see that there is an effort in world building and relationship building – and when we just get to spy other lives for a moment. In general, while following a story I’m not so interested in the character or story unless there is a reason to feel something for the characters or to identify with them. Therefore, I enjoy also the stories that do not build up to a high turning point. 

If I try to put this into words, it is maybe easiest to do with examples. When I was young, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie touched me and is still my favourite movie. Miyazaki’s anime movies I have loved a lot, lately also Celine Song’s movie Past lives, which basically explored one woman’s relationships and emotions of the main characters. Another fresh example of this kind of storytelling is the film Perfect days by Wim Wenders, which was quite much just snippets from everyday life of a man in Japan. Still, there may be rich worlds and a lot of emotions involved in the story. Related to emotional storytelling, Korean (serious, realistic) romantic dramas** are my go-to when I feel the need for escapism. In those stories, often the emphasis is on characters’ relationships and emotions instead of action. (There are obstacles and there may be also dramatic turning points still though.) The storytelling of emotions is quite beautiful: when the camera spends 2 minutes just having characters’ faces on the screen, people looking at each other without anyone speaking, it feels magical. What are the emotions these people go through? How those can be reflected on almost motionless bodies? There is no hurry with the plot, story also is built slowly, and not all struggles are fixed instantly. The episodes are often long and usually series are also only one season long which must have a huge effect on the dramaturgy.

4) LARP (Live action role playing)

Starting to recently larp has changed my life: I have totally and deeply fallen in love with it. My biggest love in improv are long improv plays, and when I got to my first larp I thought, “wow, others are playing a larp, I am acting in a long improvised play”. It’s engaging and fun, when your co-players have created your character and their relationships together with you in advance: their memories, their habits, and their thoughts of each other. It’s so easy to start the actual larp day, when the world is already there and I just open the door. However, it must be taken into account that what I do is mostly relationship/character-driven Nordic (slow) larp, and that is different than many other ways of playing larp. For example, it is often a player-driven game (in comparison to game leaders giving a lot of directions and guidelines). 

For example, lately, I have been playing a campaign in which we explore the lives of young unemployed adults who are not doing so well and who are in a social work program that is trying to support them. It’s up to us players how we end up navigating our characters, their insecurities, difficult relationships, and their future. I get to be immersed in this wonderful, sad, and thrilling life of Saaga for one whole year. For example, I have built the character by getting to know her (long) backstory that was written by our game leader, by creating music lists with my co-players, with pre- and after-briefing the relationships and events of larp games with other players, and by Snapchatting with others in characters to keep them up to date of my character’s life. How easy, natural, and immersive it is then to once in a while play a day of her life. In improv I have rarely done this kind of build-up, but how interesting it would be to actually get to know a character I play a bit better.

If you have a list of things that have affected you, I would be happy to hear. 🙂 Contact me or Uniikki Unikorni in Facebook, Instagram or by email (

Tanja Seppälä

Who I am?

I am a language teacher who does improv as side thing, but I have been involved with improv since 2010-2011 in my hometown in Oulu in North Finland. My home group is called Uniikki Unikorni, but I do also improv with NET improv and I am a part of clowning collective REDit.

* Hayao Miyazaki has directed for example anime movies My neighbour Totoro, Sprited away, Princess Mononoke, Howl’s moving castle, Boy and the crane.

** My love for Korean dramas was lit by Crash landing on you, and one of my later favourites is 24, 21, which explored the growth of a young ambitious woman on her way towards a professional fencing career. That is one of the most beautiful portrays of a woman for me. Of course there are other kind of genres of Korean drama too (for example Parasite and Squid game are quite a different genre), so also more comedic romantic dramas.