by Dan Goldstein. First version 1996, last 2009.
- This document has been translated into German by Arne Poeck.
- An older version of document has been translated into Slovene.
These are some basic rules of thumb of improvisation.
* = The key ideas. Things the master improvisers do without thinking.
ACCEPT INFORMATION: YES AND *
When you get a piece of information from another actor, first, accept it as fact and second, add a little bit more information to it. If somebody tells you that you're wearing a hula skirt, tell them yes you are, and that you made it right here at Club Med. Keep doing this long enough, and you'll have a scene full of fascinating facts, objects and relationships. Fail to do this and everyone will hate you, even your parents.
ADD HISTORY *
The swiftest way to add reality and depth to a scene is to have the characters call up specifics from their common history. A simple exchange such as:
--“Are you trying to get us arrested?”
--“Like the time we ran naked through the Yale-Princeton lacrosse game?”
though just a few words, provides a great deal of information. The audience and actors now can infer that the characters are college boys, they are troublemakers, they are educated, they are in New England, they drink to excess, they have police records, they are old friends, and much more. With one sentence, the amount of information the improvisers can now draw on has grown greatly.
Some improv teachers suggest staying in the present tense as often as possible. I disagree. I think, however, that you should avoid talking too much about the future. Things in the future might happen, they might shape your characters. Things in the past did happen, they did shape your characters.
ASK YOURSELF “IF THIS IS TRUE, THEN WHAT ELSE IS TRUE?”*
Often in improvisation, things deviate from the normal, the usual. (This happens for a number of reasons and it is usually not intentional. Improvisation is constrained communication so misunderstandings are bound to occur, and these misunderstandings, among other things, can lead to departures from normality.) When in situations that are fantastic, respond realistically, and heed this simple maxim to govern your action: ask “If this is true, then what else is true?” Each time you find the answer, you can play it out.
Example: Suppose, a character picks up the phone and calls Maureen. The improviser on the other end says "sorry, wrong number" and hangs up. The caller says "something must be wrong with me, I keep dialing wrong numbers these days". The other improvisers ask themselves "if the protagonist can only dial wrong numbers, then what else would be true". They come up with new scenes and initiate them. Someone initiates a fire in the scene and tells him to dial 911, inspiring someone else to pick up the call and say "411". The misdialer tries to call his girlfriend and gets another woman on the line, who happens to recognize him from the last times he has dialed the same wrong number. She starts to flirt with him. The real girlfriend suspects something is up, uses reverse lookup, and confrontationally rings the doorbell of every woman whose phone number is 1 different from hers. The what-ifs continue, each person just asking themselves "if this guy only dials wrong numbers, then what else is true?"
BE VERY SPECIFIC
If you're going to say "nice car!", why not make it "wow, a 1979 Volvo Station Wagon!" If we know the Volvo owner is a 21 year old woman, suddenly we can visualize her (well, maybe you can’t, but I can: she has dried blue and white oil paint on her fingers, wears an extra large men’s dress shirt as a smock, and has long, straight, chestnut-brown hair). A more vivid image opens up a rich, new world. Adjectives accelerate scene development.
Basically, you want to cut to the interesting stuff as soon as possible. This is why we sometimes advise: start the scene with two people on, or start the scene with two people with common history.
Why have a scene that goes:
--What's your name?
--Jim. And what's yours?
--I've got one month to live.
When you can have a scene that goes:
--Jim, I've got one month to live.
--Let me get you a drink.
--No, my treat.
COMMENCE WITH CHARACTERIZING ACTIONS
Characterizing actions are those which define a character's occupation or role, such as a teacher erasing a blackboard, a janitor cleaning up, or a child playing with toys, are good for starting scenes because they provide your fellow actors something to build on. They say a lot about what is going on and thus help the scene get to the point faster. Note that the scene need not (and often should not) be about drinking a beer or chopping lettuce just because that's what one of the characters is doing. Two people can start a scene engaged in an action together. By putting status into this two-person action, a lot of information can be communicated very quickly. For example, consider a scene which starts with one character hitting tennis balls, and the other chasing around after them. The audience knows what the status is and where the characters are before the scene even starts.
Denial is trashing what somebody else has set up or is trying to set up. There are many forms:
Mime Denial: Somebody spends five minutes setting the dining room table, another character walks right through it. This will make the audience squirm and gasp and have a general sicky feeling.
Character Denial: Not letting the other person be what she wants to be.
--Hi, I'm your Dentist.
--No you're not. You're my gastroenterologist!
Location Denial: Contradicting setting information someone else established.
--What are you talking about? We're in a helicopter!
The denying actor is not reacting to the presented information. Denial makes audience and cast uncomfortable. All denial can be rectified with Justification, but it's a real skill.
People advanced in improv can tell the difference between bad denial and comedic denial. In the latter, denial can make sense within in the logic of the scene: i.e., if Don Quixote were the helicopter pilot, he may say "periscope down" and need to be corrected by his straight-person assistant. However, it requires a lot of respect (the opposite of denial) to get to the point where the audience understands that the captain is a Don Quixote.
Furthermore, experienced actors may appear to deny each other when playing games of one-upsmanship, but, upon closer inspection, they are accepting the information the other presents, then adding to it and raising the stakes. For example:
--Now you shall die by my sword, certified to be the sharpest in the land. Schiiing.
--Sharpest in the land! You mean you don't import your swords? Scha-schiiing.
The response accepts what was stated, and one-ups it by finding a way to beat it without denying it. A denying response would be, "Well, your certificate lies. Shluuung". Accept and justify the information that others provide. It makes the scenes flow easier, and is simply less aggressive than denying what your fellow actors have created.
Two exercises can help people overcome the denying urge. One is playing the denial game (i. e., playing out scenes where every line denies the other character's previous line) to make one another conscious of the bad habit. Another rehearsal exercise, just for beginners helps to point out each others denials in scenes: simply respond to your fellow actor's denials with "there's no denying that!".
ENTER AND EXIT WITH PURPOSE
Entering, exiting and staying put should have a reason, be justified. This is the purpose of playing the game Entrances and Exits (go figure) in rehearsal. Don't just say "OK, bye" and walk out of a scene. Give a reason. Unjustified exits tend to be a problem novices have.
THE GAME OF THE SCENE SHOULD RHYME AND HEIGHTEN
Mark Twain had an adage that history doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes. The game of the scene is the thing that repeats. However, I don't mean repeats exactly, which is why I say it rhymes. When you rhyme "star" with "are", you take the word "star", generalize it to the "-ar" family of rhymes, and find another specific member of that family. So it is with the game in the scene. You don't want to repeat it exactly, but want to find another specific that rhymes with the general theme and heightens it.
Consider the following scene from Spinal Tap, with Marty interviewing Nigel about his Guitar collection:
Nigel Tufnel: Look... still has the old tag on, never even played it.
(Marty points his finger)
Nigel Tufnel: Don't touch it!
Marty DiBergi: We'll I wasn't going to touch it, I was just pointing at it.
Nigel Tufnel: Well... don't point!
Marty DiBergi: Don't point, okay. Can I look at it?
Nigel Tufnel: No.
Notice that Nigel doesn't insist on the guitar not being touched three times. Here, the pattern is: don't touch, don't point, don't look. This is a rhyming pattern (all concerning observing a guitar). It is also a heightening, which is very important in game playing. Asking someone not to touch a prized guitar is a bit odd but understandable. Asking someone not to point to it is more strange, and asking someone not to look at it is heightening the game of "respecting the guitar" to an extreme.
GET BEHIND THE STORY
Try not to think about yourself in longform. Instead, always ask yourself "how can I contribute to the larger picture?" and "what is my function in this piece?". A structured longform piece, like an episode of the Simpsons, should have a main character.
GET IN GROUPS WHEN THE NUMBER OF PEOPLE ON STAGE IS HIGH
When your longform piece is getting out of control, returning to two person scenes and "going line for line" will restore harmony in no time. (Yes, I know this is the third time I’m saying this, but it’s just that true.) The number two can be held steady by having new entrances cause immediate exits of other characters, but this shouldn't go too long. If the stage is crowded, then low-impact is the best policy for the non-essential characters, as well as clustering, that is, forming a group (physically and ideologically) behind a leader. Please don't abandon someone on stage unless they want to be left alone there.
GIVE YOURSELF A SUGGESTION WHEN YOU DON'T ASK THE AUDIENCE FOR ONE *
We all know scenes are better when you enter them with an attitude, activity, or emotion -- so just pick one for yourself either randomly or in response to the other character, and you'll have a better scene.
GO AGAINST THE VOICE OF REASON
In our everyday lives, it often makes sense to follow the voice of reason. In real life, if your friend says "I'm ugly", you may tell them they aren't, even if they are. Why? Perhaps because you feel it's not important, you want them to feel better, you want to preserve your friendship, and so on. On stage, a different logic may apply. Audiences come to the theater to escape the mundane logical world, they sometimes want to see the barriers lifted. You may respond to "I'm ugly" with "you know, I've been meaning to say something...". You may rob a bank because someone tells you to. You may play sycophant to your abuser. In short, you may do things onstage the real you wouldn't do. Try going against the voice of reason, it's liberating. You don't have to justify your actions much, sometimes "I don't know why I'm doing this, but ..." is sufficient.
GO LINE FOR LINE *
You can almost guarantee a good improvisation if each player: 1) Says just one line and 2) Bases his or her line on the last thing the other character said.
You must provide reasons for everything the audience sees that doesn't make sense. If you don't, it will disconcert them. That is, if 3 characters each mime the refrigerator being in different places, then the character who damns putting rollers on the thing will put the audience's mind at ease and allow them to get into the story and characters. They will also get a laugh, but that doesn't matter as much.
KEEP THE FOCUS HUMAN AND ONSTAGE
Careful not to stare too long at objects that are offstage, on the floor or in your hand. What's interesting is a human reaction to an object, person, or event, not the object itself.
MAINTAIN YOUR CHARACTER'S POINT OF VIEW
If a character starts out adoring spider monkeys, but then decides she hates them 10 minutes later, it may confuse the audience and your fellow actors. Once you like spider monkeys, keep liking them until you have a reason to stop. Very often, you'll keep liking them thoroughout the piece. If you're consistent, then the other actors will best know how to support your character.
Never try to be funny or tell jokes on stage. Humor will arise naturally out of tight relationships and solid, simple plots.
MIME BETTER, MUCH BETTER
50% of what the audience thinks of you as an improviser hinges on the quality of your mime and physicality. Don’t believe me, go out this week and watch the best improviser in your city. I’ll bet you they do incredible object work. Sadly, few improvisers ever do anything to improve their mime and few teachers have any worthwhile mime exercises. Use this fact to get ahead in life, kid.
PLAY THE OPPOSITE EMOTION
Something to try now and then in two person scenes. For example, if one person is frustrated, come on at ease and relaxed. A basic comedic structure which is the basis of many comedic movies, plays, and TV shows.
PROVIDE INFORMATION ABOUT THE OTHER PERSON
Scene going nowhere? Tell the other character something about him/her self. The simple comment "Nice tuxedo", can launch into a back-room panic session between a groom and his best man. Getting specific makes scenes go somewhere fast. Staying vague leads to scenes about two nondescript people standing in the middle of nondescriptland talking about tacos. Just kidding, tacos are descript.
RAISE THE STAKES
Scenes that are going nowhere can be much improved by putting more at risk, that is, introducing some large consequence of the wants of a character.
--Hey, if you buy me that piece of candy, I'll eat it.
When you can have:
--Hey, if you give that cop a wedgie, I'll let you kiss me on the lips.
TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF *
This simply means going into every scene with an activity or emotion. This does several things i) it gets the scene going faster ii) it provides information which your partner can use iii) and, perhaps most importantly, it gives you something to do which makes the audience comfortable. What do I mean "comfortable"? If the audience sees you standing there doing nothing, they think "oh no, he doesn't know what to do. He's worried. He's confused". Then they feel bad. The audience wants the actor to succeed. The moment you launch into an activity (baking bread, counting money, sweeping the floor) or an emotion (hope, love, pride), the audience thinks "oh, I see. They know what's going on. They have a plan" and then they relax and enjoy the show. Of course, you don't really have a plan, and you don't really know what's going on. As Mick Napier said: "improvisation is the art of being completely O.K. with not knowing what the f-- you're doing." In more polite English, the best improvisers appear completely confident even when they have no idea what's going on.
THE BEST ADVICE I CAN GIVE ANY IMPROV GROUP *
See “Go line for line.” If you are using what the others are giving you, you are improvising well. It’s really that simple, people.
QUESTIONS SHOULD GIVE MORE THAN THEY TAKE
Why ask a question on stage? Are you expecting your fellow-actor to have a ready answer? What if she doesn't? Doesn't that put her on the spot? Don't most questions slow the scene unnecessarily? If it's a yes-no question, are you prepared to react to both yes and no answers?If no, then aren't you in trouble if the wrong answer comes back? If yes, then aren't you writing?
Any question can be turned into a statement. The nice thing about statements is that they provide information you and your fellow actor
can immediately start building upon.
Why go through:
--What time is it?
--Are you ready?
--Yeah, are you ready?
--What are we doing?
--I don't know. What's the capital of South Dakota?
When you could have:
--We're right on schedule.
--Johnson should be handing the teller the note right now.
--It's 3:31. Ski masks on.
--Think I have time to run to the bathroom?
--Why don't I ever get paired with Johnson?
Questions which don't require answers are fine. Questions which provide more information then they demand are fine, too, e.g. "Think I have time to run to the bathroom?" This question introduces information, raises the stakes, and doesn't require the fellow actor to come up with a response. Rhetorical questions are fine, e.g., "Why don't I ever get paired with Johnson?"
A drill to point out question-asking *in rehearsal only*, is to respond to each other's questions with "that's a good question ..." or adopt the Yiddish practice of answering with the exact same question:
--What do you want? [bad question, contributes nothing to scene]
--What do I want? [actor 2 points out that actor 1 is putting him on the
spot instead of contributing]
--Look, I'll get you the money tomorrow [hurrah! actor 1 gets the message]
WHAT MAKES TODAY SPECIAL? IS A FINE QUESTION TO ASK YOURSELF
Think about a scene as "a day unlike any other day." When it seems like something big or outrageous is going to happen (e.g. someone is about to confess their love, someone wants to rob a bank, wants to swim naked in the river, don't just talk about it -- do it. In relationship scenes, think about saying the thing you've been waiting to say for 5 years (e.g. I love you, I love your twin, I ate your hamster ...)
“WHO WHAT WHO WHERE?” ARE GREAT THINGS FOR PEOPLE STARTING SCENES TO ASK THEMSELVES
A fine way to start a scene is to lay out who both people are, where they are, and what they are doing. You may provide this information or do it for the other character. Just be sure to accept all information the other character provides for you. Who? what? who? where? is nicely followed by raise the stakes -- sort of an opening gambit for improv scenes.
Here are some vocabulary terms I've grown to know and love:
blackout - A very short scene, often just a few seconds. Three of
them make a runner.
characterizing action - an action which says to the other performers and
the audience what sort of occupation or social role the character has.
These are often used to begin scenes, such as when teachers erase
blackboards, and what not.
denial - Trashing what somebody else has set up on stage, be it mime or fact
fourth wall - The wall that isn't there which, if existed, would go
between the players and the audience. Beginners need to be careful
about turning one's back on the fourth wall!
gag scenes - Very short, funny scenes. People doing them should not
feel obligated to further the plot or present any vital information.
These scenes are just plain fun and the people on lights should treat
them as such.
geography warmup - is a famous vocal warmup in the world of improvisation. It goes as follows:
Trinidad and the big Mississippi
and the town of Honolulu
and the lake Titicaca.
The Popocatepetl is not in Canada
but rather in Mexico, Mexico, Mexico
Canada, Malaga, Rimini, Brindisi
Canada, Malaga, Rimini, Brindisi
Yes Tibet Tibet
2 3 4 (repeat)
Notes: Popocatepetl ((po po ca te' petl) nickname Popo) is a volcano in South central Mexico which erupts all the time, even 11 days before I wrote this. It is not a seaport. Malaga is a seaport in Southern Spain, home of strong, sweet Malaga wine. Rimini is a seaport in Northeast Italy, which is like Fort Lauderdale for European youth. Brindisi (Brin’de zi), sometimes nicknamed and mispronounced "sleazy Brin dee' zee," is a seaport in Southeast Italy where you catch the ferry to Greece. A girlfriend and I once asked the tourist office if there were any movies in town. "Only for men," they said.
justification - providing an explanation for something the audience saw that didn't make sense
reflexive action - an action a character does repeatedly and unconsciously. Helps make the character stand out from the crowd, as well as seem familiar like an old friend, or that special pair of moccasins. One way to "take care of yourself" on stage.
rule of a thousand - continuing on after the rule of three until things become funny again. Some people believe this works something like a sine wave, so there's always hope some thing may get funny again even if it's starting to look really desperate.
rule of three - Three humorous events (scenes, jokes, etc.) on the same topic or with the same gist. The third is always the hardest hitting.
runner - three blackouts on the same theme with the third one being the biggest larf of all.
status - Whoever has influence or control over a situation has the higher status in the scene. Many pre-defined stock relationships, such as, judge / plaintiff have status build right into them. Status can easily invert and this can become the plot of entire stories, a la Trading Places.
yes and - two great words which encourage the person who says them to accept information and add to it