The first time I remember doing Improv was in my Grade 9 Drama class. It was the only time I ever took high school Drama, because in other years it always conflicted with my (now irrelevant) STEM indoctrination, so both it and Whose Line would provide my whole understanding of improv for the next four years.
On the very first day of our Improv unit, our Drama teacher passed us a several page handout giving the rules of Improv. I was a Good Academic™ so I learned them by heart. I’d call out other people for breaking the rules, though hypocritically I of course always had a good reason for breaking them myself. It wouldn’t be for another four years, when I started doing Improv in university, that I learned why the rules were the way they were. Without further ado, here are the rules of Improv, why they exist, and what to do if you find yourself or others breaking them.
Always Say Yes
– Vow I can’t believe ve are on ze real life submarinez. Vunderbar!
– What are you talking about this is clearly an airplane.
– Schiza! I am ze mistaken.
– Also stop pretending you’re German you don’t have an accent.
Improv is a collaborative experience, one in which you’re putting yourself into the hands of your scene partner. There’s an expectation that you’re equal partners in the scene’s success. Because of this, you should always agree with your partner. If they say something, that’s now true of the scene. To deny something they’ve just said implies that you’re competing or in conflict. It says to your partner that you know better than them. The idea that you’re each in this together is the foundation of an unwritten contract between you and your fellow Improvisers.
The Escape Plan
Your scene partner is saying no to every offer you put out there, contradicting your every move. What’s your move? You should start to play into that. Start agreeing with everything they’re saying. Let them make offers. Become so hilarious subservient and treat every word out of their lips as sacrosanct. Playing Igor to their Frankenstein can be fun in its own way. Just have a word with your partner later. If it’s a consistent problem, send them this article to let them know they’re the fucking worst 🙂
Don’t Ask Questions
– Who are you?
– Uh I’m your brother. Remember Carl? Hahaha.
– Okay then where are we.
– Well uh we’re in a bowling alley.
– Sure so why…
The Rule:Asking questions is poor form in Improv. It’s admitting to your scene partner that you have no idea to bring to the scene, and putting them on the spot to contribute everything to the scene. The contract between you and your follow improvisers says you shouldn’t do that to them.
The Escape Plan
If you find yourself asking a question, immediately answer it. “What are you doing here? Sneaking through people’s backyards and stealing barbecues willy-nilly?” isn’t really a question, as you’ve supplied an answer. Anytime you find yourself asking something, try to word it as a statement.
Stay in the Now
– Remember that time that you told that really embarrassing story in front of your boss and they totally chewed you out for it?
– That was so wild! Anyway let’s keep sorting these manila envelopes as we reminisce about funnier scenes we could be having.
– For sure. Now pass me those stamps while I talk about the time I thought you were a werewolf because of your hilarious mannerisms.
Just like you’ve made a contract with your partners, in Improv you’ve also made a contract with the audience. You make them laugh, and they in turn validate your decision to spend the best years of your life wearing skinny jeans and black t-shirts in front of strangers. If you tease the existence of a funnier scene, you’re breaking this contract. It will always be more entertaining to have the big silly scene in the now than it will to talk about it. As a side-note, this is why you should never pull out an imaginary phone in an Improv scene. Why are you calling someone outside of the scene that doesn’t exist, when you could be talking to your scene partner?
The Escape Plan
Your scene partner mentions how hilarious your dad is and starts describing their antics. The scene is now the two of you talking about someone who isn’t there. How do you get out? – Say that their behaviour runs in the family. Take on the hilarious characteristics that you were endowing onto your father. If you really trust your scene partner, you can instead say something like “I’m so glad I’m not like him” while continuing to get more and more dramatically like him.
Keep it out of the Bedroom and the Bathroom
– I’m so glad we went on this vacation
– Yeah I can’t wait to have sex. I just have to poop first.
– Wow we’re really good at this Improv thing
The audience and your scene partner should feel comfortable, and they deserve to laugh. Toilet humour might get nervous laughs, but treat your audience with respect. If you hold yourself and your audience to a higher standard, you’ll be able to create better comedy and everyone feels like they’re not being talked down to.
The Escape Plan
Your scene partner is making crude bathroom humour. What do you do? Chances are that the audience will also be thinking the same thing as you. Call it out. “Wow, that’s really gross. I’m glad we’re close enough to share that info with each other. ANYWAY…”
If your scene partner is making things too sexual with you, and it’s making you uncomfortable, end the scene. Talk to someone. Every female Improviser has a story of someone mistreating them in a scene. Just because you’re obligated to say “yes” in an Improv sense, that doesn’t mean you’re obligated to stay in an activity that’s making you feel shitty.
Be Somebody to Somebody
– Woah sorry for bumping into you.
– No it’s really my fault. Hey… do I know you?
– Nope we’re strangers.
– Oh okay, bye then.
Scenes are about stakes and conflict. It’s really hard to have deep interpersonal connections with strangers in a scene. Even if you can make a stranger scene interesting, chances are that it would have been even more interesting if it was between two people who have a history with one another. We also want to avoid “transaction scenes”. Going to someone to buy something doesn’t give us conflict, and it doesn’t let you explore anything about the people.
The Escape Plan
Your scene partner says that they don’t know you. What do you do? Make the meeting as interesting and stake-ridden as possible. You’re two star-crossed lovers meeting for the first time. You have the same birthmark on your hand. The prophecy foretold of two lanky redheads who would meet at a frozen yogurt place and change the course of history forever. Make it relevant!
Rules Were Made To Be Broken
Good scenes can still have people break these rules, at least on paper. Understand the spirit behind these rules. Some of the funniest scenes I’ve seen have involved people taking liberties with these rules. So go out, do some Improv. If you don’t know where to start, feel free to message me! Until next time, remember that in regards to rules…