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What we can learn from improv with Samantha Boffin

What we can learn from improv



You may remember Samantha Boffin as she was my first guest on the show (Episode 21) and now she is the first guest to come back for a second episode. Besides being a voiceover artist, Sam is also an actor. 

Sam also does an improv class every week and believes that we are all expert improvisers – we just don’t realise we are. In this episode, Sam is sharing what improv is and how it can help us as educators in our own practice and when we’re with our groups leading programmes about art. 

We also talk about how improv makes you a better listener, how it makes you more confident and flexible and to not be afraid of failure. 

We discuss how we might be able to use improv techniques and games with our groups – from Yes, and…, Narrative, Colour, Emotion and line-by-line stories via Humpty Dumpty and Brian the washing machine repair man. We discuss how you can make your audience feel safe and comfortable using improv techniques. 

We had a really lovely chat and I hope you enjoy it. Here it is!


Episode Web Page

Masterclass 29 March ‘Improve your Engagement’

Support the Show 

The Improv Handbook by Tom Salinsky & Deborah Frances White

How to be the Greatest Improviser – Will Hines



Taking Creative podcast

Paul Merton interview:


Claire Bown  00:03

Hi Samantha, welcome back to the Art Engager podcast.

Samantha Boffin  00:06

Thank you, Claire. Lovely to be back.

Claire Bown  00:09

It’s amazing. You were my first guest, Episode 21. You were talking about how to use your voice. And now you’re back. We’re on episode 45. So you’re my first ever guest and the first guest to appear on two episodes. Fantastic. Good. So we’re talking about something slightly different today, because we’re going to be talking about improv. You’re going to be leading a masterclass for my membership later in the month. So I wanted to get you on just to talk about how we can use improv and how it can help us as educators. But first, perhaps you could tell me where you are right now.

Samantha Boffin  00:48

Okay, well, I’m, I’m a voiceover and I’m a director, I’m based in London. So I work, I work with different kinds of people all around the world. And when I was thinking about this, actually, as a podcast, I was thinking, well, you automatically assume that improv and stuff like that is useful for one half of my work, which is the sort of games and audio drama, and the sort of more dramatic things that I do. But it’s also just as useful, interestingly, for corporate and commercial. So I do everything from, you know, gaming and audio drama to corporates and commercials, television, work, documentaries, things like that. And, and I find that it’s a very useful, flexible tool for all of that.

Claire Bown  01:34

So we’re going to dive into a little bit about what it is and how it influences your work. But just to say that, you sort of, in your work, you might use it in a variety of ways, you might, how might you actually use improv in the work that you do?

Samantha Boffin  01:53

Yeah, so I do a lot, I do lots and lots of different types of work. So I do the voiceover part, which is where it’s an the acting part, basically, it doesn’t matter what kind of voiceover I’m doing, it’s always I’m always playing a role, I’m always acting something. And that, in that aspect, it enables me to possibly come up with new ideas, to make connections between patterns in things, and to sound more conversational and fluid. And it brings a whole range of things. And also if I’m acting against somebody, so if I’m a character in a game or a character in an audio drama, it will allow me to take what they’re giving me and make it sound real. And in the moment, the other bit of what I do is, I’m also a director, which is slightly more varied, it has a lot of different aspects to it. So I either work one to one with people, I could work one to one with voiceovers. And we either I do, I teach short form voiceover stuff. So that’s commercials and promos, and things like that. And I also make voiceover reels for people now. So it’s really useful for me, as a director, to really listen and understand what they need from me to make their performances even better. And, and also, they often give me surprising things, if I can allow them the space to improvise a bit, then I often get back far more than I was ever expecting, from what had been written, and was just on the page, they can sort of enhance it and embellish it, but also teach audio drama, and voice technique in person. And in groups or schools or colleges, I go and teach in person, obviously, that that didn’t happen so much in COVID, although it’s still good, I did it in groups online. But And there, again, it’s great improvisation because it really gets people working together as a group, it makes people more active and more collaborative. And, and also, then I work with non voiceover people, so podcasters, or speakers, or coaches that want to get more in tune with how they sound. And again, improvisation can be really useful as a technique right at the beginning, and and also throughout all that to ground people and make them feel really heard and listened to and, and relaxed.

Claire Bown  04:17

So many useful ways that we can sort of embed it into everything we do, really, I think, going to our chat just before we started recording, we were talking about the fact that sometimes when you talk about improvisation or improv, it can seem quite a scary thing. So how would you describe it? What is it exactly?

Samantha Boffin  04:40

Well, yeah, I mean, you’re absolutely right. Improvising fills a lot of people with with fear, but the reality is, is as human beings, we improvise almost every minute of our lives. And so it’s a much more natural, much more, you know, familiar technique than we might at first imagine, because most of the times that we’re talking like right now, we’re literally making it up as we go along in the moment. And even when we tell stories, stories that we know that we’re familiar with, each time we tell them, we often tell them in a slightly different way, we can embellish them leave bits out, leave bits in, and we, we adapt to whatever environment we’re in. Well, that’s all improvisation. And from the very first, a children improvise all the time when they play. And then somehow we get more fearful as it of it, we get more fearful of it as we become adults. But in fact, we still do it all the time, we just don’t realise we’re doing it. Especially if we’re going to get formal improvisation is a form of live theatre or a form of play, in which the plot and the characters and the dialogue are literally made up in the moment. And I, it was one of the first things as an actor that I was encouraged to do, I’ve been doing improv classes on and off for years. And it’s a real bedrock of, of drama training. And just before well, actually not just for lockdown for about a year before lockdown, I was part of an improv group. And I’m still part of that group, we’ve been going for about three years in London. And the reason I took it up was because an acting teacher at a character, a voiceover character workshop said, one of the most useful things you can do as an actor, to be more flexible in your work is to do an improv class. I’ve been doing them every single week, for about three years. And they’re so useful. I do a lot of dubbing. And and it means that I can add stuff in or bounce off my fellow actors I said before, and you know, it’s, it’s fantastic, it makes you I think improv makes you more active listener, a better listener, which means that you can respond in the moment in the right way, and not just kind of deal on your own trajectory. Yeah, absolutely.

Claire Bown  06:55

And it can be so useful for our work as well, as you were thinking about us ourselves, as educators and guys in our world leading tours, guiding discussions in the museum or around art, how could we take improvisation? What can we take from it into our own practice, maybe there are some benefits for us as well,

Samantha Boffin  07:17

There definitely are because it encourages, I think, the whole ethos of it is it encourages you to be really positive and not shut communication down. And of course, when you’re leading tours or workshops, that’s what you want, you want more communication, you want that communication to be open and generous. And because it makes you more confident and flexible. And the way it makes you more confident actually is that you become you realise that you can make mistakes. And still, you know, you can, you can still keep going. And you can think on your feet, and it doesn’t matter so much. If you make a mistake, it trains you not to be so down on yourself when things don’t go perfectly as because things are rarely perfect. And it’s it can be so useful for public speaking, because everything we do is about communication. And every tour, every discussion that you do, is is unique. And you as educators, you’re there to start the discussion. But of course, the fun the interest is where does that discussion go? Where does it lead, because if it was simply a case of getting the facts across in a in a more linear way, where you could just record your tours, you could just record them. And that would be the job done. You could give people a nice little voice recording. But the thing is, is we want this this, we want the discussion, we want the interaction with people. And when we’re participants in that. And when we are leading those workshops and discussions, we discover surprising stuff. And it’s brilliant to be able to create this environment where people get really excited about delving deeper and discovering new things. Yeah. And that’s why it enhances communication.

Claire Bown  08:57

Yeah, I can, I can completely see it being able to be flexible, being confident about perhaps taking a different path, not the path you’ve ordered, or always taken, perhaps doing something new innovating, but also being being prepared for the unknown and thinking, well, what’s the worst that could happen? As you say, it’s not so bad? If things don’t go? Well, you learn from them, you reflect on them, and you put in a plan for next time. But that sort of flexibility. It can bring so much and it can bring so much into the discussion as well. If you’re prepared to let go of a little bit of control, I think

Samantha Boffin  09:38

Yes, absolutely. And also when when you’re really listening, what because that’s one of the big things I think that’s probably one of the main things I think with improv it’s being positive but also listening, really listening and then responding in the right way, in a way that makes the other person feel validated and not shutting stuff down. So which is of course really important when you’re doing a tour, if there’s a if there’s a question that comes up, you really want to leave it, listen to that question and respond to it not just keep on on what you were about to say, but be able to go off on a tangent. So when there’s a, there’s a classic improv game. That is line-by-line storytelling. So each person contributes the next line to the story. So you start off if you like, you start off by saying a classic sort of Once Upon a Time. And so the first person to talk makes what’s called an offer to make an offer. So once upon a time, for instance, there was a washing machine repairman called Brian, who was fed up with fixing washing machines. So that’s the opener. So the next person has to respond to that. But if the if they, if they take that idea off, onto a totally different tangent, say, so they said that one day he met a dragon. That’s that’s not listening and responding. That’s not wildly helpful. Yes, we have the excitement of a dragon in the story. But it feels good. But actually, we’d be better sticking to Brian, and his equally fascinating story. So So building on what people are offering you, and going along with what they have in their mind, it encourages us to really listen and respond.

Claire Bown  11:24

And listening is such an important skill. It’s something I’ve been working on a lot recently, I’m taking a coaching certification. So it’s something I’ve been reading about something I’ve been actively trying to improve as well, I think we all think we’re great listeners. But when you really, really focus with intent on what someone’s saying, you hear so much more, and you’re able to use that information. You can use it as you say, you know, for the next line in the story, or to think of the question, or to push the discussion further. So the listening part is incredibly important.

Samantha Boffin  12:00

Yeah, it is, I think it’s really, it is something that we you do we you have to improvisation because in order to, you know, make the story go further or to make whatever you’re doing, actually fly, you have to, you know, builds and builds and builds and builds and builds in a positive way. And, and also the other the other thing, which, which is really good to remember when you are leading something, I think, is another idea at the heart of improvisation is that you want to actively make your partner look great. So it’s not about you being the star. It’s about collaboration. Because when everyone is doing well, in improv, when everyone’s doing well, the scene is doing well. So in a tour, if everybody feels listened to and part of it, then that makes everybody feel good. It also allows you to become less defensive and more accepting and encouraging of your own, you know? Yeah, of your own. Because because things don’t always go right, as I said before, and so you can really kind of own that almost, and then you’re kind of all in it together, then.

Claire Bown  13:02

Yeah. So that flexibility thinking on our feet, the active listening, and that collaboration as well. You know, as you say, making your partner look good. It’s not all about ‘I’, it’s about ‘We’ is very much at the heart of improv. And I think as as educators, we can learn so much from these techniques. But I think also, we can think about how we might be able to use some of these techniques with our groups as well. So not just for ourselves for our own personal professional development, but also for the groups that we’re working with. So how might we introduce some improv techniques into our programmes into our tools to use with our participants? Do you have any suggestions for us?

Samantha Boffin  13:46

I do. I think you already use ‘Yes, and..’ then yeah, yeah. So ‘Yes, and..’ is is a very typical one, because what it’s doing is, is listen, hearing the Yes, yes, I hear what you say. And the ‘And’ is building on its and being positive and adding to it. So that’s a really good technique to use. And it’s, it’s, it’s the idea of not blocking things and actively building things. And there’s another there’s a really nice storytelling technique that I’ve used before. And it’s called Narrative, Colour, Emotion. And it’s a storytelling technique that uses three gears. So the gear of narrative where you’re telling a story in terms of the plot, but of course the other as interesting aspects of the story, or the colour of the story. So what you can see or hear or smell, or even taste in that moment in the story, and emotion, how do your characters in the story feel? So that is really translatable to a to a piece of art, actually, so imagine we playing this as a game. So again, these are sort of everybody gets involved in a particular part of it. So if you’re playing a game, somebody would start off by telling a simple story which is the narrative and then as they go along, other people interrupt and they say ‘No, no, tell the colour’. And what they mean is describe, you know, what is what you can hear or see. So, in other words, if we took something like Humpty Dumpty, for instance, which we all know how you might start off with Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, which is a bit of narrative, and then somebody says colour. And so what can what can he smell? What can he hear? We’re freezing in that moment. And it could be something simple like the wall is green or Humpty Dumpty is a pale pink colour or something. But if we go even deeper, if we go into well, the wall is very badly made. It was a dry-stone wall. It’s the sort of wall, you know, you get on the side of the road, the sort of edge of a field in Yorkshire, you know, the kind of one you see when you’re driving past when you know you’re going too fast. And it really looks like it’s falling apart. Oh, and Humpty Dumpty was round, he was egg-shaped and because that’s why he’s called Humpty Dumpty, and he was wearing a little hat. And he was wearing some dungarees. So, that’s, that’s describing the colour, if you like of the moment, and then somebody might say, ‘No, emotion, give us the emotion’. And I might say, Now, you see, Humpty Dumpty was scared at this point, he kind of won the war, but he didn’t really know what he was doing. He was trying to impress people and his friends were shouting up to him, they were really excited. And, and the shouts that they were giving you were scaring the nearby sheep. And so what you do is you create this whole environment, this whole story, and, and it encourages you to really explore around what is the obvious thing? And to go a little bit deeper. So that’s probably translatable, I would think into an art piece of art.

Claire Bown  16:45

Yes, I love it. Yeah, it sounds like a fantastic idea. I’ve already my brains already whirring away thinking of opportunities, I might have to use that in some way. Sounds perfect. And ‘Yes, and..’ I used I’ve used for a number of years. And I’ve quite often used it as a warm-up. So at the start of a programme, as I do a lot of trainings, now, I also use it as a sort of warm up at the start of trainings as a as a way to sort of build rapport and group dynamics, bring the group together. And it’s it’s such a positive way to start because we do it very simply by observing details in a painting. So we’re literally either standing in a circle going around the room, or we’re doing it on Zoom in breakout rooms, but it’s, it’s fun, it’s fast. And it really, really breaks down barriers. So you can physically see the group coming together after they’ve used this. And it’s so lovely to see. So,

Samantha Boffin  17:48

yes, because it also feels in the context that it feels really safe as well, because you can’t give a wrong answer there. Because you’re observing and you are saying what you’re observing. So it Yeah, I can imagine how that really brings the group together. That’s a great technique to use.

Claire Bown  18:03

Yeah, yeah. And it’s, yeah, it’s seeing people smile as they’re doing it as well, is really good fun. So thank you for that. I’m going to take that away with me and think about how I might apply it. But what I wanted to ask you next was how do you, with your audience with your participants? How do you make them feel safe? If you’re going to be moving into some of these techniques, like yes, and or narrative colour emotion that you were talking about? How do you make them feel safe to move into some of these techniques?

Samantha Boffin  18:39

I think it’s right at the beginning, is is reinforcing the fact that there are no wrong questions to ask. And that all questions however small or bizarre, or seemingly crazy, enable us to all as a group lead on to something else, so everything is valid. And that reminding them that you are going to be listening carefully, you hope to them, and asking even questions yourself is is great because it immediately it sets up that idea of it being a collaborative venture, that you’re all going on together. And that you can, that it sets up this really nice, safe environment from the beginning, it doesn’t matter. You know, what their background is how much they know, that, you know, everybody is involved, and everybody is as valid as the next person. And I think there’s also something that you can do at the end of your tour as well which always and you could do it at various points within it, too. You could do it. In fact, after every stop if you like after every every time you introduce something new it because it this is something that leaves a group feeling really heard and upbeat, asking at the end for something, what was the best thing or something good or positive or memorable that they can remember about that particular discussion? That’s always a really good way to end to talk, and particularly because then people really think back to oh, gosh, okay, so we saw this piece of art, we saw this, we went into that room, and we did this. And we, we experienced that now, what was it that I loved about..what was it that really stood out to me? And then other people remember the brilliant bits as well. And they all have something new to take out of it? Yeah,

Claire Bown  20:21

absolutely. I was just doing a class yesterday with a team at a museum in the US. And we was all about group dynamics. And we were talking about how your introduction is so so important, because that’s when you are setting the expectations and you’re creating that safe space, you’re establishing trust, all those sorts of things, you’re creating connections for what’s to follow. And that’s really, really important to be able to do the sort of activities you want to do and ask the questions you want to ask. And equally important, as you just pointed out, is that you need to conclude well, as well, you don’t want to sort of go out on a whimper, you really want to end well. So that, you know, you can, as you say, look inward towards what you’ve done. And then perhaps look outward to see you know, what, what your takeaway is going to be as well. So I really love that idea about thinking about one thing that was really positive really good, really memorable about what you did as well. Yeah.  So moving on to your masterclass, which I’m really excited about? It’s going to be on the 29th of March, could you tell us a little bit about it?

Samantha Boffin  21:33

Yes, I mean, it when I was, you know, thinking it, you know, what I was thinking what I was going to do, I was thinking that because going back to where we started really here, which was that people can be a bit fearful, people can be a bit fearful of improvisation. And in actual fact, everybody is a far more skilled at improvising than they realise, every time you lead a tour or you guide a discussion, you’re entering into a form of improvisation that generates conversation and participation, that’s what that’s all we’re really trying to do is learn those little techniques that might allow you to become more playful, in the moment, and for you not to literally necessarily take that technique, and you know, use it in your tours, but for you to, to understand that active listening, that, you know, being present, and really concentrating in the moment is such a useful technique to have and being being, you know, being really positive. So, what we’re going to look at, I’ve broken them down into the five rules of improvisation that will help educators and guides to enhance their programmes and their tours and teaching. So we’re going to look about, we’re going to look at being more responsive and flexible in the moment, and being more creative and connecting with other people. So we will play games, we will, and, but they’ll be very, it’ll be very safe. And nobody is going to need to, you know, come with any prior knowledge or anything about about improvisational games. So all it is, is we’re going to tell stories where there are no scripts – that is really that simple. And all of the things that we do, there will hopefully be things that you can take away and use in a day to day setting. 

Claire Bown  23:31

Brilliant. I’m so looking forward to this. And it’s going to be lots of fun as well, isn’t it?

Samantha Boffin  23:36

Yeah, it will. Absolutely will be. And, yeah, it should be great. Actually, I’m really looking forward to it.

Claire Bown  23:43

Brilliant. So that’s on the 29th of March. And I will I’ll put a link in the show notes to that as well. Finally, I want to ask you if you can recommend any books or a book, in particular that you think our listeners might like, related to this subject? Yeah, yeah,

Samantha Boffin  24:00

there are a couple actually. There’s, there’s one which is called ‘How to be the greatest improviser’ which is by a guy called Will Hines. I think how to be the greatest improviser. And then there’s also one called ‘The Improv Handbook’, by Tom Salinsky & Deborah Francis. But what I would also say is there are a lot of things online interviews and, and actually, programmes that we already watched that are part of our, our listening, that are actually fantastic, improvising games. So just a minute, which is a radio show, which is very well established. That is pure improv. In fact, that’s improv at its best, because they don’t know what they’re going to get before they start talking. And the rule in this case is that they can’t repeat themselves but nonetheless, Just a Minute is is Absolutely all about improv. And there’s a fantastic interview, which I’ll send you the link to, which perhaps you can put in the show notes. There’s an absolutely brilliant interview all about improvisation by Paul Merton, who is often on just a minute, in fact, and who has been improvising for, gosh, probably about 35 years. And he’s extremely good at improvising. And it’s an absolutely brilliant interview. So, and it’s really all about being flexible. And in the moment, and, and letting yourself go. And being ready for anything, any curveballs that might be thrown your way.

Claire Bown  25:38

Definitely share the links to those books and that interview. Yeah, Just a Minute is a (BBC) Radio 4 classic, isn’t it  – it’s been around for so long?

Samantha Boffin  25:46

And yes, it’s sort of and there are many other comedy, comedy in particular, uses a lot of improvisational techniques. So, you know, if whatever comedy you listen to the chances are that they’ve improv the idea before they’ve written the, the comedy sketches. So, yeah.

Claire Bown  26:05

Just listen out for it. And be aware. Wherever it yeah, all around you. Brilliant. Thanks, Samantha. So how can people find you? How can they reach out to you perhaps you could share a couple of links or the best places to go and look for you?

Samantha Boffin  26:18

Yes, of course. Yes. Well, I’ve got my my website, which is some predominantly about voiceover, but is soon to have a whole section on things like this on on my coaching on the stuff I do in terms of coaching, of which improvisation is one of those things, in fact, and that’s samantha So it’s quite easy. You can find me on LinkedIn, I’m probably more active on LinkedIn than I am on any other social media platform. And I’ve also got them very easy to find some of the boffin, there aren’t many Samantha Boffins out there, just me in fact. And I’ve also got a podcast called Talking Creative. And that’s a weekly podcast. And I look at all kinds of creativity on that. It’s, it’s, it’s a lot of it is about audio creativity. But yes, I do all sorts of things on there that that might well be interesting to listen to.

Claire Bown  27:13

Absolutely. And I’ve shared your podcast before in my weekly newsletter, as well. So I’ll put all the links to all of this. I’ll go through it very diligently, all the links. And I’ll put them in the show notes so people can check them out afterwards. But thank you so much for chatting with me again for the second time. I’m super-excited for the masterclass at the end of the month. And to dive a little bit deeper into improv something it’s always fascinated me and for sharing your wisdom today. It’s been brilliant.

Samantha Boffin  27:44

Thank you. Thank you so much for having me Claire.

Claire Bown  27:46

Thanks a lot. Bye bye