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.