As an improv teacher there are certain phrases that you repeat a lot. Like A LOT, A LOT. Nuggets of improv wisdom that Viola Spolin or Keith Johnstone or Del Close hammered into granite when the stars were young. Jay Sukow did a great job of collecting these together in one place and you can read that here.
You repeat these phrases because they are rich veins of hard-won improv experience concentrated by time and then streamlined by successive generations into the most elegant payload possible. You repeat them because they are a direct hit from the improv source code of the universe.
And also because your teacher said them to you a bunch of times and you figure it’ll kill another five minutes before you break for snacks.
I would argue some of those phrases, like the concept of “yes and…” or treating others like “artists, geniuses and poets”, work just as well in real life as they do on stage. They make you a better improviser AND a better person. As Cariad Lloyd said on my podcast:
And this is true 95% of the time but there are also a few examples where implementing what you’ve been taught in your improv class out there in the real world might NOT be such a good idea.
Fall, and then figure out what to do on the way down.
In improv terms, this is about not pre-preparing a scene. Don’t come onto stage with the premise and narrative beats already fully formed in your head. You’ll end up desperately trying to lead your scene partner down a very narrow path for which only you have the map. You’ll also deny the audience the joy of watching you both work out what’s important in the moment. As an added bonus there’ll be less dead air in your show because people will fling themselves onto stage with carefree abandon. They won’t have to have an idea first. This leads to much more feet-forward play.
In the real world this advice leads to an endless torrent of people falling from the skies, each one rolling their eyes and concluding that they really should have packed a parachute just before they hit the ground. It’s messy and horrifying and probably shouldn’t be encouraged.
Listen like a thief.
Other people’s idea should be more important then our own ideas and good scenes are discovered not invented. For us to honour this notion, we need to listen like a thief — we need to treat everything we hear as our own idea to be accepted and elevated — if we give ourselves this one job then we become a better improviser almost instantly.
However, if you start listening to your friends conversation solely to harvest personal information such as their credit card PIN, social security number, security system codes and when they’re reliably out of the house at weekends, you’re not going to be very popular for very long. It’s also really hard to get people to bring those things up in casual conversation. Trust me.
Play like a raving paranoid. Notice everything, make everything a big deal.
Following on from the last point — once we’ve started listening like a thief, we have to make sure every sentence that escapes our scene partner’s lips is accepted, made important and woven into the fabric of the scene. People will want to play with you if you get a reputation for making other people’s ideas the centre of the scene. Think about a time one of your ideas was taken onboard and used by another improviser. It made you feel good, didn’t it? And it makes the team look good too — like telepathic, post-human improv geniuses.
In stark contrast, if you MAKE EVERYTHING A BIG DEAL EVERY MOMENT OF EVERY DAY then you’ll end up getting a reputation as a drama queen.
“What do you mean you haven’t got a spare post-it note, Karen? Is it because you DON’T THINK I’M WORTHY OF NOTE??? IS THAT IT, KAREN??? IS IT???”
That shit gets old, real fast.
Making assumptions in improv is a really helpful thing to do. Rather than asking a question
Why did you bring me here?
You can skip several lines of exposition (and the expectation you’re putting on your scene partner to provide content) and get straight to the meat of it.
Looks like you’ve finally got up the courage to try and kill me, Karen.
It’s quicker, slicker and gives the other improviser something to work with instantly. And because improv reality is built from nothing — your assumption becomes truth the minute it’s left your mouth. In improv, assumptions are just a quick way to build world and character.
Meanwhile, back in reality, we all know what making an assumption does, right? It makes an ass out of u AND mption. I don’t know how I can be any clearer than that?
If it’s good make it better, if it’s bad make it worse.
If someone is getting upset, the human thing to do is to try and cheer them up.
Because you’re not a monster.
But in improv, that isn’t a great move. If you calm down an angry character then you’ve just turned a scene with emotional stakes and a sense of momentum into a scene where everyone is just fine. It isn’t great for drama, it isn’t great for comedy — you’ve basically just flatlined your show. So our job is to push our scene partners towards ever greater displays of emotion.
That doesn’t mean our characters have to be actively mean, but in trying to make it better it’s great if we can somehow make it much, much worse. While rushing to help someone with a broken toe, it’s preferable if we can contrive to step on their other foot.
This isn’t the the way to go when really dealing with a loved one in crisis however. If your best friend has just broken up with her girlfriend, you shouldn’t make it worse by putting your foot through her TV and throwing her cat out the window.
“It’s ok, Karen. Nala will work out what to do on the way down.”
Hello. I’m Chris. I’m an improviser, director and podcaster. If you like this article then consider sharing it with your own improv community. You can find out more about me on my website — take a workshop with me, see one of my shows or just listen to my improv podcast. You can subscribe to my newsletter here.