From Iceland — Improvising In Your Second Language

Improvising In Your Second Language

Published June 20, 2016

Photo by
Isaac Würmann

They’ve only been around for a year, but Improv Iceland has already made a name for themselves with high-energy performances in their mother tongue, garnering attention from the likes of Fred Armisen and Anthony Atamanuik. Due to popular demand, the group began fortnightly shows in English at Húrra on May 10.

The room was packed for Improv Iceland on May 24, only their second regular show in English, with a crowd of people from across Europe and North America. After asking for a prompt from the crowd, the group would improvise a sketch, complete with characters and rising action. Watching improv is a bit like watching someone put together a puzzle in the dark—there’s an element of improbability and magic to how improvisors craft elaborate scenes from nothing.

All three of the group’s improvised acts had the crowd in stitches, but none more so than an entirely improvised musical—song, dance, and all—centred around the prompt “pancakes.” Their comedy was smart when it needed to be, but also inappropriate when necessary, striking a balance that made you forget they were performing in their second or even third language.


Bringing improv to Iceland

Dóra Jóhannsdóttir is the person who brought improv to Iceland, after she spent time studying with the American comedy group Upright Citizens Brigade, which is known for launching the careers of stars such as Amy Poehler and Matt Walsh. “I studied improv in the States, and of course when you’re improvising with someone who’s doing it as a first language, then it’s more of a challenge than doing it with someone who also has it as a second language,” Dóra says about the challenge of improvising in English.

Today, Improv Iceland consists of 30 performers, who Dóra says have varying degrees of English fluency. “But it doesn’t have to be perfect,” she adds. “It’s improvised, and people know that it’s not our first language, so most of the time it just adds an extra joke.” For example, Dóra says that one time, when she had a show in New York with other Icelandic improvisors, the audience tried to trick them by using a prompt the improvisors wouldn’t understand. “We spent five minutes guessing, and that became the integration for the show,” she explains. “So we can work with whatever.”


Attracting international attention

At their show on May 24, Improv Iceland was joined by John Hartman from The Second City, arguably the most prestigious improv group in North America. John had heard that improv was gaining traction in Iceland, and contacted Dóra to organize workshops with the group in Reykjavík. As interest in Iceland grows in parallel to the country’s improv community, Dóra says more and more comedians are contacting them to collaborate. “Now we’re getting a lot of requests from people, so we can kind of just pick and choose the best improvisors,” she says.

Whether for an audience of Icelanders or tourists, Dóra says improv shows are always unique and exciting experiences. “There’s a close bond that the audience and the performers have because it’s only happening once and it’s never going to happen again,” she explains. “It’s like this electricity in the room when you’re doing improv, because you’re making it up and it’s so likely to go south. When they figure it out it’s such a relief for the audience and the performers.”

Improv Iceland will be continuing their English-language shows every second Tuesday throughout the summer at Húrra. The group will also be hosting an international improv festival next year. Visit for more information.


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