The Rules of Improv
After many years of being a fan and going through workshops, I recently auditioned for, and was cast in an improv troupe that does weekly shows in downtown Jacksonville. The reason I got involved was that it was just fun—I laughed until I cried, and the workshops energized me. Somewhere in between all that fun and energy though, I accidentally found some profound life lessons.
The first thing people say when I tell them about improv or they see a show is “I could never do that.” That’s always followed by either “I’m not quick enough” or “I’m not funny enough.” But that’s not true.
They already do improv. Everyone does improv.
Do you have a script for your life, or do you make it up as you go along? Do you have conversations, take actions, and make discoveries because the director of the production told you to, or just because you’re living your life the best way you know how?
Yes, everyone does improv.
But in improv class you learn the rules of improv. It may seem counter-intuitive to have rules for making stuff up on the spot. The reality is that there are no wrong choices in improv. The rules are there to help you make interesting choices. The rules lead naturally to you being quick and sometimes funny. They encourage you to make profound and interesting connections. They foster personal revelations and discoveries.
And the reason I’m sharing these rules with you here is that you are an improv actor. These rules are for improv, so they are also rules for your life. Life, as in improv, has no wrong choices, just more or less entertaining, interesting, and profound choices.
Here are the rules:
The rule of “yes, and” is maybe the most fundamental rule of improv. When you’re on the stage, and your partner says or does something, he is right. Always, always, always right. He’s right even if he’s wrong.
Whatever he says, you say “yes.”
Then you build on what he said by adding new ideas and information. That’s the “and”. Here’s an example.
Partner: We finally made it to the moon in this submarine!
You: Submarines can’t go to the moon, you idiot.
Partner: We finally made it to the moon in this submarine!
You: It took us many months, comrade, but it was worth it in the end! I just wish we had brought something other than baked beans with us…
The first example is called blocking or denial: you reject your partner’s idea. It’s a particularly egregious example because you rejected the moon submarine and didn’t even bother to suggest an alternative. Where does the scene go from here?
What if your default response was “yes, and” when talking to your significant other? Your boss? Your clients?
The absolute, most important skill in improv is not quickness or energy, or even knowing the rules: it’s listening. It’s deeply listening to your scene partner, and trying to understand what’s being said, from text to subtext. It’s seeing where your partner’s ideas are going, and more importantly where they could go.
You can say “yes” without listening, but you can’t say “and” unless you really understand what your partner is saying.
By far the worst improvisers are those who don’t pay attention. They don’t get the hints that you give them, they ignore your ideas, and force their own into the scene.
It makes for a dull scene. It’s not fun.
The magic is in paying close enough attention to the other person to really understand them and to make connections with them.
How much time do you spend listening instead of forcing people and situations to fit your ideas?
Stepping out of character in pursuit of a quick laugh will suck the energy right out of a scene. The audience can smell insincerity like bad cologne. The bullshit also forces your scene partner to do awkward acrobatics to compensate for the vacuum in substance your blunder leaves.
Being real means honesty to others but more so honesty to yourself. It means reacting genuinely instead of a calculated or pretentious way.
When an actor knows his character well enough to let that character act and react through him naturally, scenes will fall into place and profound connections will be made.
Improv students second guess their characters and over think themselves into weak reactions.
It’s the same as the voice inside you that’s so afraid of being judged that it hides you from the world until there really isn’t anything of you left except that fearful voice itself, calculating in the darkness what your next move will be to avoid discomfort or embarrassment. What would happen if you silenced that voice?
Do you know your own character well enough to allow that inner character to act and react naturally?
Commitment is about deciding on a course of action, then following it through to the very end.
It means that if you are a hyperactively pungent motivational speaker, you own it. There’s no relief by winking to the audience—hey guys, no seriously, I’m normal—you own your character and you make it work.
The nice thing about improv is that you can commit, for a scene at a time, to a course of action that may or may not work. The direction may fail to be funny or interesting, but it won’t fail because you didn’t try. You saw it through the end, earnestly trying to find what works in whatever course you’ve chosen.
What if you fully committed to whatever course you chose, even if just for a time. What if you never just let a project fizzle, what if you pushed everything you tried to the outer limits of its potential?
It means not explaining a side project as “some silly, little thing you’re doing on the side,” so that you can lie to yourself later about how important it was to you or save face in front of people you think will judge you for your pipe dreams. It means explaining the long term vision of that project and owning that it’s a real passion that you’re going to work hard to materialize.
It takes a keen observer to know when the “scene” has ended in life, and your commitment is complete, but it’s not worth over thinking all the possibly failure modes of just trying. Just do it.
(Thank you Flagler, you are a scholar and a gentleman, the essay wouldn’t have been the same without you.)
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