Rules are meant to be followed

The saying “Rules are meant to broken” gets thrown around too often for my taste.

This is about improv exercises. For each exercise there are rules, like A) Cross Circle where you “make eye contact, don’t walk before your partner say yes”, or B) Repeater “repeat exactly what your partner says”, or C) the shortly named You where you “pass around X things in a pattern, wait for eye contact”. Then people forget or ignore the rules: A) walking prematurely, B) rephrasing the line as convenient, C) passing without eye contact. In each exercise you must(?) abide by some rules. Must? How strict are we?

That’s my pet peeve with the saying rules are meant to be broken. Some take it as license to play with reckless abandon and don’t give proper respect to the rules. Yes, you should not be scared stiff about breaking rules, but you do not purposefully sabotage yourself. You let the game come to you.

I imagine improv exercises as walking on a tightrope above soft, cushy grass. Breaking the rules is falling off the rope. It doesn’t hurt when you fall. Still, your job is to walk as far as you can on that tightrope.

Now, usually a tightrope walker’s challenge is to walk over higher and higher chasms, making worse consequences for falling. They do the same routine but they MUST succeed, or die. The opposite is true in improv. In improv, you’re always over a safety net, so it’s okay to fall, but we want you on the cusp of your ability. We want you to be off your easy routines and.. umm, improvise? If it’s too easy, we give a tougher challenge. We shake the rope, give things to juggle, throw pillows at you. When you fall (softly on grass), you laugh it off, and get back on the rope again. We want to force you to break the rules now and then, but first you must try to follow the rules.

“But it’s improv! You’re allowed to do anything! We cannot let creativity be held back by rules!” I hate this because as if creativity is predicated upon rule-breaking and only out-of-box thinking. Each exercise has *one* rule. It works on one muscle. You have the entire freedom in the world do everything except breaking that one rule. There is absolutely space to be creative. Remember how — in the beginning of improv scenes — anything in the universe is possible, then every time you get some information, the world becomes smaller but you know more about the world you are in? Rules are like that. When you get rules, you can feel out the extent of possibilities and figure out the space to be creative.

Of course, your goal is not to get good at the exercise, but to get good at improv. I believe being good in improv translates DIRECTLY to being good at exercises. This is noticeable when a group of people is introduced to a completely new game outside their collection. The good improvisers get it immediately, and they are quick to remember and play by the rules. Of course they do. Rules are not meant to be broken.