The Davidsonian

From Inside Oops!: An Intro to Improv

Oops! at Live Thursday. Pictured from left to right: Emily Schmitt ’23, Emma Begley-Collier ’25, Amelio Aragona ’25, Ramsey Chaaban ’24, Julieta Lessne ’24, Grace McGuire ’25, Avo Reid ’26, Peter Rock ’23, Willie Breen ’25. Photo credit Grace Gardella ’23.

By Emily Schmitt ’23 (She/her)

I showed up at Oops auditions the fall of my freshman year, not expecting much of myself. I did some scenes and left thinking “that was fun, but I’ll probably never do that again.” I had recently been cut from two a cappella groups, so a rejection from the improv group would be a good turn of the knife. I was very surprised when I made it into the group and happy something was finally going right.

That happiness lasted until my first rehearsal. Improv was a lot harder than I initially thought. I felt very out of place, and I didn’t know anything about improv. That may feel very-anti improv to say, because of course anyone should be able to do improv since it’s just off-the-cuff thinking. But once you get on stage and are expected to generate random ideas, the pressure is on. My freshman year, I was constantly stressed about Oops and muscled through the improv. Sophomore year, we barely met in person because of Covid, but we did do online shows – you can still find those Zoom performances, they’re quite entertaining. It wasn’t until my Junior year that I started looking into improv more seriously. 

There are three kinds of improv: short form, long form, and narrative, though Oops mainly focuses on the first two. Improv games like what you see on Whose Line Is It Anyways? and in our Live Thursdays are typically short form. These games are usually a means to an end. ABC game is a great example of short form improv. In ABC game, two people do a scene and each sentence in the scene must start with the next letter in the alphabet. If they mess up or pause for too long, another person switches in and continues the scene. Another great short form game that audiences love is interrogation where we send the “interogee” out of the room and two detectives determine who they killed, what they killed them with, and where they killed them. The interogee comes back in and the detectives subtly hint at the crime they committed until they guess correctly. These games are usually under five minutes and require little to no character work. It’s all about sticking to the parameters set by the game. 

Long form improv is the other type we do in Oops. These scenes usually run longer, maybe 10 – 15 minutes, and incorporate different characters and hopefully comedic problems to be solved. If you’ve ever seen Middleditch & Schwartz, that’s very extended long form improv. We’ve adapted our own game that helps create longer scenes: Roadtrip game. In Roadtrip, two people start out in a car, boat, or plane headed to a location (something we pull from our audience). Along the way, they run into some crazy characters that we make up, whether that’s the gas station attendant who insists on tagging along for the rest of the journey or the ghost of Babe Ruth who’s delivering an important message to the two travelers, people just jump in when they see an opportunity.

There are a few essential things that make improv easier to do and make our practices run well. First, and this is probably the thing I’ve tried to work the most on with Oops, is listening to each other. When you’re on stage, it’s easy to get a bit jittery and want to steer the scene in the direction you have imagined. It feels safe to stick to your own ideas. This doesn’t work for a lot of reasons, but most notably it shows that you don’t trust your scene partner. Trusting the other person on stage to set you up with jokes and create scenarios allows for great chemistry on stage. If everyone is focused on helping others excel, rather than focused on getting the loudest laugh or making joke after joke, the entire team will thrive. Listening to the person you’re on stage with allows you to create characters that mesh well (or have a comedic rivalry), make callbacks, and keep the scene from running into the ground.  

When I tell people I’m headed to improv rehearsal or that I’m president of the improv group, they usually are pretty confused. Improv rehearsal sounds like an oxymoron, and to a certain extent, it is. There’s only so much we can do in practice in terms of knowing the games, being ready to hop in, or having an idea of other’s strengths and weaknesses on stage. When I was a freshman, rehearsals were a lot sillier than they are now. No one really wanted to get on stage and the president had to pull teeth to get us to do improv. It felt like a group of people who liked hanging out together, more than actually doing improv. Last year, the presidents started a great precedent of putting all our phones away during rehearsals – this completely changed the way rehearsals ran. People started to see more opportunities to jump into scenes because we all weren’t just on our phones. We had suddenly honed in. For the first time in my Oops career, it felt like people actually wanted to do improv.  

This year, I run a pretty tight ship. We rehearse twice a week, usually in Hance, and we practice like we perform. It’s difficult to not just use rehearsal time as a social hour because we all like each other, but I try hard to make sure rehearsal is about improv and not about us hanging out. This year, I’ve suggested not having a rehearsal and for the first time, maybe in Oops history, I got pushback. When I suggest a game and it’s one someone likes, they groan if they aren’t called up to do it. It’s a whole new Oops, and I think that’s reflected in how our Live Thursday went the other week. I’ve never had a Live Thursday where people laughed as much as they did in our last performance. This isn’t meant as a diss to Oops of the past – it’s just evident of a completely different group on campus.  

While improv itself is goofy, as is Oops, at the heart of this group, and I believe creative outlets like this, is a genuine care for each other and a desire to make others laugh. Getting to come together to work towards a goal like that is something I’d gladly devote hours of my time to. 


Emily Schmitt ‘23 (she/her/hers) is an English major from Atlanta and can be reached for comment at emschmitt@davidson.edu.

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