June 23rd 2019

James Smith is the current Artistic Director of BaseJump Improv

So, there’s this theory about there being three types of improviser…

Improv great, Billy Merrit from the UCB Theatre in LA came up with a fun idea that all improvisers can fit into three different categories, either: Pirates, Robots or Ninjas.

Pirates Billy writes are: visual, demonstrative, physical, brash, dangerous. They always feel, and they always react.

Robots are described as: logical, witty, effortlessly intelligent, and fast to find a pattern. Robots think, remember, make patterns, and see the absurdity. They take in every bit of data and synthesize it into the optimal comedy program.

And finally, the ninja: Ninjas expertly blends the best qualities of both Pirates and Robots. Ninjas move with flexibility and precision to serve the highest good of the scene and group. Their choices have an elegance that can be unappreciated – invisible, even – to the untrained eye.

(For more on this Billy has just written a book about it with another UCB improv great Will Hines you can check it out here:

I first heard these terms being used years ago in my first improv class, and over the last few years it has constantly popped up as a great way to reflect on my own strengths and to-work-ons, and also is a really helpful way to look at fellow performers and students as they progress and move through our classes.

When I first started improv I was an absolute ROBOT and when I say I was a robot, It definitely wasn’t expressed in the incredibly flattering way that Billy or Will describe it above.  I don’t say it with scorn or with shame, but without a doubt I was a robot, and here’s why…

For me improv and performance was almost the most unexpected thing I could ever imagine myself doing. I will even go so far as to saying it was completely unimaginable. I went from never ever taking drama or acting classes at school or ever showing interest in this, to being an adult in the totally thinky, dry and uncreative realm of health care.

My days were filled with logic and signs and symptoms and then having to record them all with big latin words. So when I first stumbled into this new world of improv, of course, my logic brain went gangbusters (because that’s all I knew) and a true robot was born! I latched onto the rules and the secret rules that weren’t supposed to be rules and I became obsessed with game of the scene because it made logical sense.   I thought if I executed these rules and techniques on stage then no one would ever realise that I was TERRIFIED! I needed the rules to be right, and I needed my scene partner to follow the rules, so my scene could be a success.  I thought if one of us didn’t follow the rules, our scene was a FAILURE and I would be exposed as a phoney.  Or at least that’s what I thought from my limited perspective back then. The cycle continued as I channelled my fear of failing in front of a crowd into studying more rules and more comedic theory and more ways of finding a pattern and spotting absurdity.   To some degree I became pretty good at it..but, I just couldn’t escape the fear and the pressure to get it right. I had created a method of improv in my mind that was the antithesis of improv itself and it’s no wonder that eventually I just had to let go….

Stay tuned for what happened next! Or come and chat to me at our next FREE INTRO class!