It’s About The Skills

I am a teacher. I currently teach 3rd and 4th grade, although I have taught 5th, 7th, and a little High School. Here are two basic things you learn as a teacher about rules:

  1. Always state any rule in the positive so that the rule should be “walk in the halls,” rather than “no running.” When a rule is stated in the negative, that negative message gets stuck in the brain. It’s kind of like if I were to say, “Don’t think about pink elephants,” that would immediately brings to mind pale red pachyderms.
  2. Generally teaching “rules” doesn’t really work anyway.


Many people who teach improv to new improviser focus, at least in the beginning, on the “rules” of improv. However, instead of being taught rules, new improvisers would be better suited by being taught the skills they will need to be good improvisers.

  1. Listen. Listen to the space. Listen to your scene partners. Listen to the audience. Listen to yourself, your emotions, and your own offers.
  2. Be present. Do not think too much about the future; do not worry about the past. Remember what has happened, but do not dwell on it.
  3. Notice what is happening. Notice your own feelings. Notice the way your scene partner said something. Notice all the small gifts (offers) that are always around you waiting to be used. Notice the game.
  4. Be open. Be open to receiving what your scene partner, the audience, and the moment are giving to you. Be open to your subconscious. Be open to change.
  5. Be honest. Speak and react from a truthful place. Speak the truth of the moment.
  6. Move confidently into the future. Although you might be uncertain about what happens next in a scene, be brave and move forward anyway.
  7. Give up control. Remember that you are not in charge of a scene.
  8. Be an actor. Remember your stage craft. Honor the audience by allowing them to see, hear, and experience all that is occurring on stage.
  9. Be a team player. Support your fellow actors with your words and deeds both on stage and off.

This list of skills is by no means comprehensive, but it gives me a good place to start when I teach.

The “rules” of improv are born from a desire to control. Improvisers noticed when scenes didn’t go well and created rules in an effort to get rid of bad improv scenes. (See Mick Napier’s take on this in his book “Improvise: Scene from the Inside Out.”) For example improvisers noticed that when a scene had a lot of questions, it didn’t work. Ipso facto, questions are bad. However, the scene wasn’t bad because of the questions. Improvisers ask questions when they are afraid and trying to stay protected. Instead of teaching the rule, “don’t ask questions,” instructors should teach the skills of being open, giving up control, and moving a scene into the future.

I know some people still think the “rules” are important. They argue that we have to teach them to new improvisers so that they can know how to break them later. I say why obscure the source. Think of any improv scene that was amazing. Now, ask yourself, was it amazing because the actors followed the “rules” or was something deeper going on?

Today’s improvmantra: Rules are about control. Improv is not.



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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