Improvisation exercise which not only highlights improv mistakes but teaches that successful improvisation is grounded in being obvious. Created by Keith Johnstone, the exercise demonstrates the genius of our creativity when it comes to:
  1. avoiding good storytelling (in the hopes of appearing creative); and,
  2. the unconscious thwarting of cooperation (even while trying to be helpful).
How to play:

One person gets on stage. All the person on stage does is say "What comes next?" Everyone else in the room volunteer answers, and the actor then does that action. Remind the actor that they are not responsible for making the scene interesting-- the scene's success or failure lies with those making the suggestions (the audience).

It usually goes something like this:
What comes first?
--You sit down.
What comes next?
--You stand up.
What comes next?
--You lie down.
Not very compelling, is it? Beginners test the waters by making small offers like these, and just push the actor around like an automaton. Remind the group that they are trying to create a scene, and that narrative comes from logical action. Have them try again.
What comes first?
--You sit down.
What comes next?
--There's a knock on the door?
What comes next?
--You get up to answer it.
What comes next?
--There's nobody there.
The suggestion has just cancelled the action. Think ahead to a performance. An improv audience is watching a scene where there's a knock on the door. What are they expecting? Someone to be at the door. (Certainly, in the realm of all possible stories out there, a ghost story might logically have a knock on the door followed by nothing, but without other elements that this was to be a ghost story, a knock followed by no one there will most likely come across as a mistake). The suggestion that no one is there may indeed have been volunteered as a way to make the scene interesting (supernatural/mysterious), but this exercise shows the typical fear of improvisers to be obvious. The obvious choice, that there is someone at the door (doesn't matter who-- a salesman, a lover, a cop) is avoided as the suggestion givers struggle to be clever. (Johnstone suggests that there is also a latent fear of the future, and so improvisers unconsciously excel at avoiding moving stories forward).

After several tries, groups should be able to get the hang of creating successful scenes built up of obvious next steps.

  • You may need to remind the actor on stage to say "What comes next?" and that there is no need to embellish the scene.
  • The game should be accompanied by discussion and analysis, or else it's an exercise in frustration. Play it many times, rotating actors, and make mistakes (any decent improv workshop will have long since encouraged failure)-- but discuss the scenes and point out where each one derailed.
  • You can comment as the game goes along to point out pitfalls and steer the group back towards a story.
  • If a scene really sucks, start over. No sense in beating a dead horse.
  • This is not a performance game. It's a learning exercise, but as Johnstone says: "Improvisers should return to this game like body-builders to their weights," because it is a useful tool to analyze and drill the pitfalls of improv storytelling (i.e., blocking, sidetracking, waffling, cancelling offers, bridging, wimping, gagging, being negative, making instant trouble).
  • If offers from the suggestion givers get negative (and they will-- when a gun or knife is suggested in the scene, a group suddenly 'gets it,' and the scene speeds up as everyone excitedly offers suggestions that lead to self-inflicted violence), play again with the rule that offers must be positive.
  1. Use a committee of three or four suggestion makers, and have them sit in the front row. The rest of the group sits behind them, and applaud or boo the suggestions. This usually leads to the realization that the suggestion makers, even from the safety of the front row, are trapped in their improv heads trying to be creative and blocking obvious choices, whereas the 'audience' sees more clearly what obvious logical consequences should be.
  2. Have the actor give herself directions, as if the person has multiple personalities and is asking herself "What comes next?" Suggest that the voice that gives instructions has a stern, authoritarian tone. Johnstone: "This game seems psychotic, but players who play it wholeheartedly report that it diminishes their self-censorship, since they feel that the 'voice' is taking responsibility for what they do."
    1. Change the voices giving orders: try sweet voices, timid voices, frightened voices.
    2. Two player scene, each player gives himself directions.
  3. Play the game as badly as possible: Encourage the audience to cancel action, block offers, gag, make instant trouble. This can relieve some of the tension from previous "failures" and can make it easier to see the mistakes.
  4. To make it a performance game: Use two actors, a man and a woman. Tell the audience that men can only give suggestions to the man, and the women in the audience only to the woman onstage.
Source: Keith Johnstone, Impro for Storytellers, Routledge/Theatre Arts Books, 1999.

What Comes Next?
An E2 Armchair Mix-Tape Collaboration.

In the summer of 2002, Ereneta posted suggestions from E2 noders for a mix-tape playlist on his homenode. No actual tape was made, and no CD was burned, only the playlist was created. The results:
  1. Ereneta says "Trouble in Mind, by Sister Rosetta Tharpe." What comes next?
  2. gnarl says: "My Funny Valentine, by Miranda Sex Garden." What comes next?
  3. TheLibrarian knows. "Papa's Got a Brand New PigBag," by PigBag. What comes next?
  4. BurningTongues says: "Blaue Augen, by Ideal." What comes next?
  5. Quizro suggests "Walkin' with the Beast, by The Gun Club. " What comes next?
  6. legbagede says: "Despite the Roar, from Bardo Pond." What comes next?
  7. grundoon knows: "I Hope That I Don't Fall in Love with You, by Tom Waits. Clearly." What comes next?
  8. Palpz chimes in: "You're Pretty When I'm Drunk, by the Bloodhound Gang." What comes next?
  9. panamaus says: "a bullet to the temple. Well, maybe Somebody That I Used to Know, by Elliot Smith." What comes next?
  10. 409 volunteers: "Enjoy Your Day by Alkaline Trio" What comes next?
  11. "Hazey Jane I by Nick Drake" says Spackle. What comes next?
  12. "My Heart Will Go On by Celine Dion," says Starke. (Optional)* What comes next?
  13. "Shifting Sands by The Hasselhoff Experiment." adds Sasha Gabba Hey.
  14. "I Love NY by 1000 Clowns," says Chiisuta. What comes next?
  15. "Quiet Little Place by K's Choice," says Bitca. "Because everyone needs a little Belgian." What comes last?
  16. eponymous: "Obviously, only The Doors's masterpiece The Soft Parade could finish this armchair mix."
* When asked why he suggested this song, Starke replied: "Well I wanted to think up a song that everybody hates." Given the rules of the improv game above (not available to these noders at the time of their participation), I leave it up to you to decide if this suggestion counts as a learning mistake in the art of collaboration or a passive-aggressive act of mischief.

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