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.