All the World’s a Stage: Bringing Improv To Your Library

It's not all laughs, improv programs teach communication skills, collaboration, and help build confidence.

When it comes to building confidence, communication skills, and collaboration, improvisational comedy (or “improv”), programs can be a great tool. The classic “Yes, and...” mantra of the improv community challenges kids to not only develop their creativity, but also actively listen to others in their scenes and build on what they have said collaboratively.

Librarians who have started offering improv sessions focus on increasing confidence, thinking quickly, and building social skills. Success comes when everyone embraces humor and teamwork.

Improv programming at Queen Creek branch at Maricopa County (AZ) Library District

“I think the best example is probably a boy who started coming when he was 6,” says Shelley Headrick of the Chattanooga Public Library, Northgate Branch. “He was very shy and didn’t want to do any of the on-stage acting. He became my assistant and would shout, ‘action,’ ‘cut,’ ‘freeze’ etc. After about a year, he would sometimes act when there was a group on stage. He is now 9, and he is one of the star performers.”

Best of all, improv programming is easy to offer at almost any library and can be adapted for a range of settings and age groups.

Setting the Stage

Whether a program is offered for young children, tweens, or teens, the basic format is will be the same. Sessions generally start with theater games to warm up. These can be common games like Zip Zap Zop or even activities the kids create themselves. Once warm up is complete, move on to improv exercises and creating scenes. They can be based on prompts you develop in advance or suggestions from the kids.

Fun is the most important element of improv, but some basic structure is key to ensuring everyone is engaged and educational goals are achieved. Stoughton Public Library tween/teen services intern Hannah Klapperich-Mueller says “having taught improv to groups of kids of various ages and in various settings, I've learned that repetition is important. Repeat any rules of good improv early and often, both in explaining games and in side coaching while playing through scenes.”

Depending on the participants’ age, group dynamics, and nature of the exercises, the result will vary widely, but the one universal outcome is laughter. As Carl Smith, teen librarian at the Maricopa County Library District, Queen Creek, AZ, says “kids have so much fun playing the games. The room is always filled with laughter.”

Tips For Bringing Improv to Your Library

Though some librarians have theater backgrounds, Headrick emphasizes you don’t need personal improv or acting experience. Warm-up games, exercises and ideas are readily available online. A big budget isn’t needed either. Props can be integrated into the exercises if they are available, but are far from necessary. Headrick has kids imagine their props.

The flexibility of improv makes it relatively easy to launch a program no matter the size of your library. As Klapperich-Mueller notes the “perhaps obvious secret” that librarians don’t really need anything to launch a successful program beyond “a space of open floor big enough for the group to stand in a circle.”

Even space in the library isn’t required if a branch can work with a local group. At her library, the first session of their new improv program was hosted at a local youth center, making it a great opportunity to partner with another local organization and raise awareness about their offerings. In many communities, there may also be theater or improv groups that can provide additional support and opportunities for collaboration.

Finally, librarians need to know this isn’t a program that will flourish if they simply set up and step aside.

“Be prepared to fully participate in the workshops,” says Smith. “If the teens see you being vulnerable and silly, and really putting yourself out there, they will be more likely to participate and let loose.”

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