Rules Suck

I took my first improv class more than twenty years ago. I was taught the “rules” the same way you probably were. The “rules” were drilled into me and I followed them for years. The “rules” were what made improv work. When a scene or show wasn’t going well, I looked to the “rules.” When I felt stuck in my development as an improviser I looked at the “rules.” For the first 10 years of my teaching I taught the “rules,” used games to drill them, used notes to enforce them, and side coached help my students hone them.

I had been fooled.

Not intentionally, God knows, but fooled nonetheless. Improv as a craft is still young, and when I first started down this wonderful and crazy road I learned how to improvise from those who had learned from the sources. In other words I learned from second generation improvisers (First generation being Del, Keith, and Spolin). The problem with the second generation is that those are usually the people who try to make sense of what the first generation discovered/created. The second generation sees the issues raised by the first generation – for example, that improv scenes sometimes work and sometimes don’t – and tries to solve those problems. Hence the “rules” were created to try to make improv be successful more frequently.

But we have been fooled. We have been fooled because the rules are crap.

Ok, admittedly, the “rules” do make things run smoothly. But, by teaching them as “rules” people get confused when the “rules” get broken in really excellent scenes. Furthermore “rules” can do exactly the opposite of what they are intended to do.

Here are the “rules” as I learned them:

  • Always “Yes And”
  • Don’t ask questions
  • Establish CROW (character, relationship, object, where)
  • Don’t talk about the past, the future, or really much of anything not on stage

By teaching these “rules” we automatically limit ourselves on stage. At best, we don’t do things that could make a scene more interesting. At worst, we get up in our heads (Don’t ask questions, I can’t ask questions, don’t ask that question you moron!) and lose focus in the scene.

Thankfully, more and more improv teachers today are focusing on tools rather than rules. Let’s look at this above list through the lens of tools rather than rules, but first let’s look at one basic assumption.

Improvmantra’s Basic Improv Assumption: Improv is about creating interesting stories with interesting characters. It is not about doing silly games with crazy rules.

Whew, ok so here are some rules restated as tools:

  • Agreeing with your fellow actors helps propel a scene into the future.
  • Making statements helps to move scenes forward.
  • Figuring out who you are, where you are, and what you want, makes scenes more interesting to watch.
  • It doesn’t matter what you talk about, as long as you are affected by what is said, you will move a scene forward.

One of the great things about teaching tools is that it allows the actors to focus on what is important in this craft, which is creating interesting stories for the audience to watch. The other great thing about tools is that there are so many more of them and they don’t conflict with each other or cause you to second guess yourself on stage. Lastly, you can’t “break” them; you either use them or not, depending on what the scene needs.

I declare the era of “rules” to be over. We won’t get fooled again.


About improvmantra

What is an improv mantra? An improv mantra is a phrase you repeat to yourself just before you go on stage, and continue to keep in your mind while you are in a scene. An effective mantra makes you a better improviser. Todd Erler, like all living creatures, has been doing improv every day since he was born. He has been performing improv on stage for more than 20 years. He is a teacher, writer, musicain, director, actor, and member of The Portable Reality Show.
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13 Responses to Rules Suck

  1. YanaLeigh says:

    I agree!

    Thankfully, without knowing much about improv I stumbled into an amazing theater that isn’t too caught up on rules, In fact, the teacher I’ve worked with the most follows the Annoyance Theater’s ideas about improv. She will go through a concept and then afterwards tell us the rule we would have learned instead somewhere else, so that we can work with other improvisers. And so we will understand if they get mad at us for playing the way we do. 🙂

  2. Luckily, the way that I’ve been taught improv thus far at iO Chicago is very much “Use the rules as as tools.” However, by calling them “rules” rather than “tools,” we implicitly give them less flexibility. I feel as though the “rules” of improv are what we can explain to the lay people, or to highschoolers that we teach. The “tools” of improv need to be discussed more openly amongst ourselves as performers.

    • improvmantra says:

      My whole issue with rules instead of tools probably comes from me watching bad improv in various small cities… Bad improv is full of “the rules”, and yet, it is souless and sad.

  3. Pingback: Improv and Religion | strangedavid

    • improvmantra says:

      Thanks for reading. And thanks for disagreeing (kind of). You are right that ComedySportz has a lot of crazy games and rules. However, I submit that if you just play the crazy games you will ultimately leave the audience cold. But if you use the games to create cool characters and stories… well that is genius.

  4. Pingback: R-E-S-P-E-C-T « The Year of Improv

  5. Nick says:

    Reblogged this on MissImp Nottingham Comedy and commented:
    Another really cool post from ImprovMantra about how we use the “rules” of improv. It’s a tricky business choosing how to train and nurture these ideas and whether to lay them down as rules, guidelines or a toolbox of techniques. Like many things in life I think it’s worth getting them learned bone deep so we can choose when to use them, and when not to. After all choosing not to use a tool can be as effective and is as much a use of that tool as slavishly relying on it.
    For example, we in MissImp relentless drilled the principle of ‘Yes And’ for quite a while. And the results have been splendid – we’re now in a position where the concept of agreement is intuitive and we can adapt and use it creatively to accept the truth or idea behind an offer without our characters also having to go along with it. The improviser should agree, but the character doesn’t have to.
    It can be difficult to climb down from ‘rule’ to ‘tool’ without just breaking all the rules and trashing scenes. That’s what play time is for, to figure out when these tools can be applied most effectively. Unfortunately in improv, there might not be much time in a scene to think it through and we can end up relying on those ingrained rules instead of rifling through the toolbox. Experimentation is wonderful, but remember that the person you’re playing with is human too and may have no idea what you’re up to.

  6. Pingback: Rules Suck « MissImp Nottingham Comedy

  7. Dude, I read your post and want to start doing improv. What’s the difference between improv and life? I mean, if you go to work and have to deal with people, aren’t you mostly just improvising with a set of societal rules? My job entails going into stranger’s homes and talking to them about what I like to call “White People’s Problems”. I feel like I’m in Improv all the time.

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