• Gaurav Singh

The global language of improv theatre (and how it can be applied for language learning)

At Kaivalya Plays, a big part of our artistic training and investigation is grounded in spontaneous improvisation (aka improv theatre). Over the past five years, we have continued to explore improv theatre through shows, open jams, training workshops and as a way of life. This included the comedic elements of short-form improvisation with audience-friendly games and the application of improv-based exercises to strengthen mental wellness, communicate better, resolve conflicts and engage more deeply with people around you.


When the world came a-live on a screen near us


During the first lockdown of 2020, we adapted our improv offerings to one that works well for the online space with specific games that make effective use of the screen, camera and virtual presence. Since then, we've been able to reach over 1500+ participants across our various improv initiatives, which included our Wednesday Open Space, an online game room that is conducted in English and is open to everyone in the world, all you need to do is just show up. We started noticed an interesting trend – we had people from over 15 countries attending these Zoom events, each of whom spoke a different language but was able to connect with one another using the language of improv.


Given our background in applied improv and theatre education, we became interested in exploring this linguistic angle that connected these different global diasporas and decided to offer improv jams in English first and later, in Punjabi, Hindi and Spanish. Now we have Punjabi speakers not just in India, but from the UK, Canada and Spain joining in for these sessions and playing together.



What makes it work? Well, it asks participants to rely on their prior knowledge (aka the language) while introducing a new concept (aka improv) in a manner that isn't intimidating but on the contrary, allows them to flex their language muscles through fun, simply and easy-to-follow games. Most importantly, it allows them to connect with someone on the other side of the globe who may live a very different life but speak the same language as them.


All of our sessions are open to all levels of the language – you can be a native speaker or someone who only knows a few broken words – and we only insist on a willingness to play.


Combining improv games with language-specific expressions and the online world


Every language-based improv session is positioned as a fun, open-to-all space that welcomes all levels of knowledge with the language. These are typically organized on the Zoom platform and are hosted by a member of the Kaivalya Plays team who has been trained extensively in online improv theatre and has a personal connection with the language.



The session, which is usually between 60 to 90 minutes, begins with a few warm-up exercises that allow participants to stretch and relax, become comfortable with the screen and develop a connection with other participants through a simple name association exercise.


What follows next are games that rely on the participant's prior knowledge of cultural themes, events, news and happenings specific to the language, and introduces elements of interactive gameplay to it.

  • A game called Categories requires participants to successively name as many items as they can under a single category like, for eg. Punjabi Singers, Spanish Food Items, Hindi Movies and English Idioms.

  • The popular Dubbing Game, wherein participants are asked to provide a live voiceover in a different language to a scene from a popular TV show. (Here are two scenes from The Office and Breaking Bad in Punjabi that we still can't get over!)

  • To encourage those with a limited understanding of the language to participate, we have a game called Alien Translator wherein one participant delivers a made-up speech in gibberish on a topic suggested by the audience while another participant translates it for the audience.


All of these games make use of different features of the online technology, such as breakout rooms, whiteboards, media sharing and chat, to make it a deeply interactive and engaging experience for the participants. These games focus more on allowing the participants to express themselves comfortably in the language in everyday situations, rather than an academic approach to language learning.


The session ends with a wind-down exercise, one of which is the Dance Freeze which relies on activities and gestures based on popular songs in that language.


Our first forays into language-based improv events and why we chose the languages we chose


Kaivalya Plays has been producing performances and workshops in English, Spanish and Hindi ever since its inception. While our artistic director Varoon P. Anand is a professional Spanish language teacher at the Instituto Cervantes Nueva Delhi and speaks 6 different languages, our larger team consists of performing arts professionals from numerous cities in India who speak a multitude of languages.



Given the cultural diversity of the spaces we occupy, we chose to offer improv in English first as it not only remains the primary mode of our communication with performers, team members, patrons, audiences and partners, but also the most commonly spoken language across different countries.



Since we also have native Punjabi speakers in our core team, we started offering Punjabiprov for which are collaborating with the Canada-based comedy collective Laal Button and Brampton Arts Council.


We have already conducted bespoke improv sessions in Hindi for the language department at Vanderbilt University (USA) and a host of collegiate drama societies in India and are planning to start a regular monthly event from January 2021 onwards.



As for Spanish, it builds upon our long association with embassies and cultural institutions of the Hispanic World in India, most notably the Instituto Cervantes Nueva Delhi, where we conducted a 6-week improv in Spanish course for students in 2019, a theatre-in-classroom seminar for Spanish language teachers globally, multiple projects with the Embassy of Spain, Ecuador and Argentina in India, as well as with the Madrid-based improv collective Calambur Teatro. Our associate company El Clavileño is also India's first and only theatre group that creates plays in Spanish and has already staged 3 full-length productions on the Indian stage. We are going to offer monthly Spanishprov events starting January 2021.



Overcoming the challenges of the online space and creating a memorable participant experience


Ever since the first lockdown was announced in March 2020, we have been working consistently to bring theatre productions, workshops and initiatives to an online format. In the last 6 months alone, we've conducted 30+ theatre workshops, 7 live performances, 3 digital stage productions, and 1 theatre fellowship program, directly reaching 1200+ people from across 15 countries.


This has allowed us to create experiences specifically for the online medium and tailor the offerings so our participants so they are able to get the most out of their experience. All our participants need to do is login to the event on their device and we take care of the rest – which includes walking them through a list of Dos and Donts that makes it an engaging and safer virtual experience for all.


One impediment has remained of how to re-create the physical proximity and connection between participants in an actual space and capture those casual break-time conversations that help participants engage with others on a deeper level. For this, we've been finding ways to engage the group outside of the regular "session timings" by creating a Whatsapp group of all the participants so they can freely exchange their thoughts and observations with each other, initiating text-based games and activities to keep them engaged before and after the workshop and finally, giving them access to helpful learning materials in the form of articles, books, songs and movies they can engage with at their leisure.


What's coming up and where can you sign up


For us, the next step is to keep expanding the size of these rooms – there are sizeable speakers of Hindi, Spanish, Punjabi and English language around the world – and build these global communities in these very strange times where the world needs more solidarity than ever before.


Here is a list of handy links and information for you to join our next session:


  • Open Space - Improv Theatre in English | Every week on Wednesday, 7PM IST. Free event, open to all with prior registration at bit.ly/WednesdayImprov

  • PunjabiProv - Improv Theatre in Punjabi | Every second Sunday at 9:30PM IST (Coming up on 13 Dec, 27 Dec, 17 Jan, 31 Jan) One ticket (INR 300) allows entry to two people, register at bit.ly/punjabiprov

  • SpanishProv - Improv Theatre in Spanish | Monthly event starting in Jan 2021. To sign up when registrations open, join our Whatsapp broadcast list at bit.ly/kpimprov

  • HindiProv - Improv Theatre in Hindi | Monthly event starting in Jan 2021. To sign up when registrations open, join our Whatsapp broadcast list at bit.ly/kpimprov


Here's to Yes, And-ing in many more languages!