Beware! Improv is dangerous.

Photo: Heather’s Broken Foot!

by Heather Urquhart.

About 3 years ago, I broke my foot in two places during a show in Austin,Texas. It was the beginning of a one hour performance with just myself and one other person on stage – I finished the show not realising I had actually broken my foot – in fact I didn’t go to the hospital until two days later! But it was 5 more months and several countries later until I was fully recovered.

One of my students pulled a muscle in class recently – luckily everything was fine but it got me thinking about the dangers (and by extension safety) of improv. I know lots of improvisers who have war stories like mine above. In fact  my dear friend Pippa Evans even has a blog of Improv Bruises – because it happens so much in Showstoppers shows. In this blog I’ve collated some of the best improv injury stories I could find and later I’ll talk about what we can all do to keep ourselves as safe as we possibly can when improvising.

Ouch

“I played a yoga teacher and strained my back doing a fake sun salutation. I played at the top of my intelligence and over the top of my flexibility” – Aree Witoelar, Impro Neuf, Oslo

“Tripped on the lip of the stage (an extra piece of set) during a black out, landed two feet down on to orchestra on my 7 months pregnant belly. Completed the show in shock and went to hospital right after. Kid was OKAY (except they dislike improv)” – Amy L.E. McKenzie, Oakville Improv Theatre Company, Ontario

“Sven and I were playing a scene in which we were really building up the romantic tension and it was clear that a kiss was going to happen. When that moment came as the lights faded, we somehow weren’t able to hold the tension and rushed our faces towards each other. When the lights came up, blood was dripping from my upper lip”. “This moment with Kiki was one of the main reasons I started teaching intimacy in improv.” – Kiki Hohnen & Sven Lanser, IMPRO Amsterdam

“I fell out of an improv car scene in slow motion. Hit my head on a nearby chair, sprained my shoulder. So yeah, when I commit to a scene I really commit. Seriously the worst “car” accident I’ve ever had. Even though it took me over three months to recover, it was a great scene!” – Gregory Brown, co-founder of The Ponies at Talking Horse Productions & Programs For Living applied improv, Columbia

“I was running on to stage at an Oxford Ball gig (at the Oxford Union) which involved running down a marble staircase – I slipped – hit my head hard – got up -carried on with the show and then spent the following day in hospital with severe concussion and on Valium for muscle seizure due to the impact in my neck and shoulders.” – Amy Cooke-Hodgson, Austentatious, London

“During an improvised play, my scene partner did the perfect stage push. I did the perfect stage fall… except for the table behind me. I hit my head on the edge of the it, then had to act like I was dead while my scene partner monologued about his guilt over my murder. Meanwhile… I was bleeding all over the floor. Five staples in the back of my head! I think the key things about that were neither I nor my stage partner really realised the distance of the table behind me, and while we had a violence/lifts rehearsal scheduled for the run of the show – it was scheduled for the week following the incident. So, just time management and planning meant that we hadn’t gotten to that yet. While the story of the show certainly called for me to die and him to kill me, there were safer ways for us to do it. Now (eight years later) I teach some of them and how to get out of situations you aren’t comfortable in.*” – Joy Carletti, Voodoo Comedy, Colorado

“I split my forehead open on a fall at the end of a touring show (playing another actors academy award). They asked if there was a doctor in the house. There was. I ended up getting rushed to a plastic surgeon to get stitched up.” – Andel Sudik, Second City, Los Angeles

“I separated my shoulder during warm-ups for a drop in class, the next show somebody patted me on the back in jusssssssssst the right spot.

Bulged a disc in my neck trying to stand on my head during a scene.

Bumped off stage, not like in the wings but off the 4′ tall platform.

Tripped on a mic cord into mic and music stands. 

Lifted by somebody who didn’t know about my back injury.

Shocked myself setting up the wireless system.

Somebody dropped the bar for the curtain on my head.” – Aaron Pughes, Think Fast Improv, Honolulu

I loved reading these stories, many made me laugh out loud and there were many more I could have shared. Special thanks to all the people that gave me permission to share their pain! Accidents do seem to happen in improv a lot – maybe because we’re just so damn in the moment – but I was a girl guide and old habits die hard, so here’s a few thoughts about what we can do to make improv the safest playing space we can.

Improv Health and Safety

Credit: Michele Alvarez, Tampa, Florida

  • At the beginning of class or rehearsal or before a show ask the improvisers to mention any weaknesses or injuries so everyone is aware. Particularly when the group doesn’t know each other.
  • ‘Don’t compel another improvisers body’ – Maydays own Jules Munns came up with this handy phrasing for things like pushing or pulling or even climbing and lifting without clear agreement. You may think you are making a strong offer but you’re not necessarily allowing your scene partner the chance to improvise. Physical contact can be so effective in improvisation but communicating your intention is key.
  • If you are working on a show or form that may require lots of physicality consider specialist training, e.g stage combat, tumbling, lifting, intimacy classes. 
  • Warm up your body as much as you can before you start improvising, and drink loads of water before too. Let’s face it, none of us are ever drinking enough water.
  • Most of the time we don’t have costumes in improv, but whatever you are wearing, it’s good to be comfortable and able to move around freely. (I recommend ditching the heels and dangly jewellery as I have seen some unfortunate incidents with stilettos and hoop earrings interacting with the other improvisers in the class, ouch).
  • If you are a teacher, get first aid trained. If not, find out if there’s a first aider on site or at least where the first aid kit is. In the UK, Mental Health First Aid training is also available.
  • Talking of which; Psychological safety is important too – check in with people about things that may trigger them and don’t ever be afraid to stop a scene if you’re not comfortable. Check out if your organisation has a code of conduct.
  • Most buildings now require health and safety and fire risk assessment when there are people using it for performance or rehearsal but it’s always worth checking.
  • Finally I found this article from Safestart ‘Unlocking the Code to Human Error’ – it was written about health and safety in the construction industry but there’s some interesting points in there about states that I think is super relevant to improvisers. In fact Aaron (of the last story above) told me that he and another player from his company reviewed this to see how they could use it to prevent injuries and no one has been hurt since – Yay!

I hope you’ve found this useful and interesting and that you continue to play with freedom and wild abandon all at the same time as not getting hurt. Please get in touch with anything I’ve missed off the list above and any more of your improv injury stories – I know there are many more good ones out there.

*Joy Carletti will be teaching her workshop ‘The Intimacy Rehearsal: Improvising Consent’ at the Dramatic Improv Festival this October

 

1 Comment
  1. Gareth Garvey

    On a very warm summer’s day last year I was on day 2 of a 4 day workshop. I was gifted an angry pizza man. At some stage I took my improv pizza dough, hung it on a hook and started boxing it while bouncing up and down on my toes. after a few bounces my achilles tendon snapped. I came to an abrubt halt but they all though it was part of my object work. After a visit to the hospital I was equipped with a surgical boot and a pair of crutches …..and continued for the rest of the workshop,
    Moral of the story – Just because you are very warm it doesn’t mean your body is warmed up!

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