The “Rules” of Improv

For years you’ve probably been taught and had ingrained in you a series of Improv “rules” that are tried and true golden rules for how you should improvise and be a good improviser. You’ve probably been in scenes constantly thinking “DON’T ASK A QUESTION. OH GOD I ASKED ONE. I RUINED THIS SCENE OH GOD,” or “SAY YES TO THAT. WAIT MOUTH WHY ARE YOU DISAGREEING” or worse did little to nothing in the scene to avoid breaking any of these rules.

Well I’m going to let you in on a little secret, which surprisingly Drew Carrey has been telling us for years. “The points are all made up, and the rules don’t matter.” I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of improv sets where somebody asked questions, or negated EVERYTHING their scene partner suggested and it was uproariously hilarious. That is because the improviser knew they were breaking a rule and effectively knew their scene partner could work with it. The rules of “yes, and”, don’t ask questions, and all that are there not to instill a fear of questions and the word “no”, but rather to help you get a strong foundation for scene work.

Negating everything your partner offers shows that you want the scene to go in the way you were thinking, rather than allowing it to organically grow between you and your partner. It shows you have a big ego and want to be the focus. Forcing yourself to say yes and REALLY say yes, to everything your partner suggests will create some scenes you never realize could happen. And there are ways to say yes to your partner’s suggestion by saying “no.” If the game established is that Character A wants Character B to go to prom, but Character A has established that they are insanely unattractive, if Character B instantly says yes, then Character A’s establishment of ugliness has been invalidated. Their yes was saying no.

Questions are the easiest way to show that a new improviser is uncomfortable or uncertain with themselves in the scene. It tells your scene partner “I’ve got nothing, you run this one.” It puts the entire creative task onto the shoulders of your scene partner and makes them Atlas and you a very dickish Hercules. You may think, but my scene partner would love to have their ideas in the focus, but your scene partner is counting on you to create as much as you are on them, and then the scene stagnates. If your questions are coming from a place of uncertainty, stop asking them and just start labeling things. Make it hokey if you have to, “WE ARE FARMERS.” “THANK YOU FOR INVITING ME TO THE MOON.” “I WANT TO HAVE YOUR BABIES.” All of these are not-so-subtle ways to clarify who, where, or what the scene is all about.

So the rules are there to make you a better person. If you break one, you will not ruin a scene. If you break one, you will not destroy improv forever. If you break one, you won’t be banned from ever getting on stage again. Look past the “rule” and find the purpose of it, and you’ll go far.

-Kyle Bradford


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