Very wise words by Mr. Colbert.
You might be wondering, ‘Well, Liz, what does ‘The Year of Improv’ mean?’
The Year of Improv means that I am going to live one year of my life (2012; let’s hope the Mayans were wrong) by the rules of improv.
You might now be wondering, ‘Well, Liz, what the heck does that mean?”
Truth is, I might be wondering the same thing.
One famous Del quote (Del Close) is “The only rule is that there are no rules.” But to be honest, there are quite a few “rules” (I use quotations to emphasize the flexibility of said rules) by which one should abide if one wants to be a successful improviser. I’m currently enrolled in classes at iO, improv Olympic, in Chicago. But I’ve been involved in improvisational theatre for a few years now, and have been reading what I can on the topic for a while in order to strengthen my skills. I’ll go into further discussion of what I mean by these “rules” in a minute (for those of you who are less versed in improv terminology), but first I want to explain how I decided to take up this project.
As a social psychologist (side note: that’s what I actually do for a living, or will hopefully some day after I complete graduate school), I’m particularly interested in how people interact with one another and how each person is affected by that interaction. What is improv if not exactly that? In improv, we have two(+) people on stage, interacting. We’ve stripped them of their traditional theatrical props, the sets, the costumes. Literally the only thing to build upon is what one improviser or the other player creates – there is no external source of creation. Playing with my improv troupe in college (Tag improv!), I couldn’t help but notice that, although our characters responded to a variety of fictional situations the way that people do in real life, by trying to create good improv, we as actors were creating human responses that, although ideal, are less common in real life.
For instance, one scene developed such that one improviser was a director and the other an actor for some horridly horrible action thriller movie (think The Green Lantern, zing!). The director character was sort of an asshole, and he wanted to go over a line in the script with the devoted and eager-to-please actor. Obviously, we encounter a problem here: this is improvisation, so how can two players simultaneously speak the exact same words, as though they were reading from the same script? After a moment’s eye contact, the two improvisers spoke in attempted (and nearly perfect) unison. In real life, it would be advantageous if we could look at someone we’re working on a project with, and be so trusting of one another that we work through a difficult issue with ease, rather than gawking at the seeming impossibility of the task at hand. Another instance was in my Level 1 iO class. We were doing an opening for a Harold about how important it is to get a kiss under the mistletoe at Christmas parties. At the end of an opening for a Harold, we have a bit where everyone is laughing, real genuine laughter. Now there are about 8 of us on stage doing this in unison, but one person’s laughter starts to sound a bit nervous and uncomfortable. The rest of the group is almost instantly sensitive to this; we all begin to morph our laughter, reflecting the first player’s anxiety and rising to meet it. A natural response to laughter is more laughter; in an ideal world, emotional contagion and behavioral synchrony (i.e. “catching” and feeling the emotions of another and responding in a similar way; in this case, the moderate discomfort) is constructive for the formation of cohesive social units because it demonstrates that we are empathetic and allows us to come together emotionally. But so often in the real world, people feel as though others don’t understand them, and feel as though they are lacking this emotional connection.
What if ‘real life’ were more like improv? I began to think about how much more cohesive the world would be if we all played by those rules. It must work – I mean, improv is used to help businesses become more effective, it’s used to help Alzheimer’s patients establish a sense of well-being as they deal with memory loss, and to help develop social skills for those on the Autism Spectrum. Surely the advocates of these uses of improv must be on to something. If we all followed these rules in real life, it would foster a deeper sense of connection and understanding among people (ask any improv troupe/team that’s been playing together for a while and they will tell you that they just fundamentally trust and understand the people they work with), and there’s no way that could be anything but advantageous, right?
So, what are these rules?
These are the ones that I think are both fundamental to improv and also could be implemented into my daily life; henceforth, these are the ones I’ve decided to focus on.
“Yes, And…” – In improv, you should never say “No.” If your scene partner says, “Mom, I have to go to the dentist now”, it’s not really conducive to strong scene work if you respond, “I’m not your Mom! I’m Santa Clause!” because that denies the reality that you’ve just established and where can the scene go from there? By the same token, if you just say, “Okay,” well, yes, you are agreeing that you are that improviser’s mother, but again, where can the scene go? The other person gave you a gift by telling you who you were to them, now it’s your turn to return the favor by telling them how you feel about what they said. Otherwise, you are forcing a lot of responsibility upon your partner’s shoulder, and where can the scene go from there? (January)
Respect – This sort of goes along with “Yes, And…” and agreement, but you really need to respect your scene partners. You are both the most important person on stage and the least important person on stage simultaneously. You need to respect what they say and make them look like the shit because if everyone is making everyone else look good, then everyone looks good. But if someone is focusing solely on themselves, then it is harder to connect with them and therefore harder to produce good improv. (February)
3) Commit – If you go out on stage, you are now a character in the scene. You can pretend it didn’t happen, but the audience knows. If you have a limp, it doesn’t miraculously cure itself. The audience saw. That’s part of you, as a character, now. Commit. Commit. Commit. Don’t lose that accent. Don’t pretend that something wasn’t said when it was. We all heard it.
4) Be flexible/justify – Along with the commit rule, there are going to be moments when two players may say contradictory things simultaneously. But both need to commit to them. How the heck does that work? Well, you’d sure as hell be able to find a way to justify why both statements can be true. At the same time, you need to be flexible. If you come on stage thinking you’re playing with an imaginary yo-yo and your scene partner mentions how cool it is that you can dribble a basketball, that yo-yo just lost it’s string, enlarged 10x its size, and should be shot into a hoop.
Find the game – This one is a little less mainstream, but I think it fits for living a year by the rules of improv. The game of the scene is something that is funny or interesting, unique about these characters and this scene. Figure out the basic situation and then see, if that is true, then what else is also true? For instance, imagine that it is established that a wife is overly demanding of her husband (who cannot afford financially to give her everything that she wants). They begin a landscaping project in their yard; she asks for a fish pond, and he responds that he’ll sell his car to afford it. She asks for a extravagant garden; he tells her he will sell his life insurance to afford it. She demands they build a tiny chateau; he responds he’ll sell their first born daughter to afford it. The game is figuring out, if these characters are real and this is their reality, how far can it go? (June)
Stay out of your head/be in the moment – Going along with be flexible/justify, improvisational theatre is all about interactions. But get rid of the “int” and arrange a few letters and what do you get? Reactions. Improv is interesting because audiences get to experience change. They get to see the impact of one character’s words as they take effect on another character. So, stop planning and really just be in the moment so that you can respond honestly and genuinely. (April)
7) Don’t gag- Gagging is doing something for humor’s sake. In my mind, it’s closely related to mugging. For some reason, there is this unspoken (and inaccurate) expectation that improv must be funny to be “good.” No. If you are going in for a joke for a joke’s sake, then you are probably not following multiple other rules in this list. If you are going to mug to the audience after you’ve delivered a line, with a face that is expecting applause, then you are definitely not following multiple other rules on this list. Just don’t do it.
8) Don’t just talk about something, do it. – No one will honestly tell you that they would rather see two people talk about getting into a food fight rather than actually getting into a food fight (if they do, they are lying and have clearly never indulged in one or watched any of these movies.) By the same token, no one in the audience paid to see a couple of talking heads. They want to see something happen. If you want to have a sing-off between two characters, don’t talk about who’d win. Do it and let the audience’s response decide.
Drill down into relationships –
Make statements – Don’t ask questions; decide for yourself. Establish within the first few lines of a scene who the other person is, who you are, what your relationship is, where you are. Give yourselves names. Instead of asking them what the headline of the Sunday paper is, tell them they should read Sunday’s headline story and explain why. (March)
11) Still working on what will be the last one. Comments and thoughts are greatly appreciated. A few contenders in mind. More news to come. But hey, if improv isn’t a place where you can play it by ear (as a child/pre-teen/even early young-adult, I wasn’t sure if that was the proper expression or if it was “play it by year”. In fact, I’m still not sure.), where can you?
So, the way it will work is that I will take one of these rules each month (order to be determined) and really focus on that rule. Obviously, some of them will be adapted slightly for use in the real world, rather than an improv stage. For instance, there are going to be some times where you are forced to say “no” in real life (you can’t possibly agree with everyone), but you could still “yes” the person you are speaking with by acknowledging that what comes out of their mouth is their reality, which will honestly change the way you interact. For each rule, I’ll explain what I mean in terms of its practical application at the beginning of the month. I hope to not drop a rule once its month is over. For instance, I plan to start with “Yes, And…” in January, and I hope that I am still “Yes, And…”ing come February. But, what will be really important is this time next year. In December, I’m going to try applying all rules simultaneously. (I’ve never been good with physical juggling anything other than a couple of scarves, but I’m pretty good at metaphoric juggling.)
I’ll try to update with interesting things I read on each rule each month, as well as progress on my own endeavors (hopefully with very descriptive situations of when the rule was successful and/or a failure.) I really do believe in this, but it’s also a fun side project for me. I will try my utmost to maintain regularity, but please remember that I am in graduate school (“Publish or perish!”).
I can see an obvious issue here: improvisation is not about the individual, it’s about the relationships. If I am the only one living by the rules of improv, isn’t that asking for failure? After all, even the most talented of improvisers can only help a scene so far when faced with continual “no”s from their scene partner (unless, of course, it’s become the game of the scene, see above). At some point, all scenes need to be edited. So, yes, I take that point. I’m not guaranteeing any successes here; all I’m looking to do is to try it out. See where it gets me. I’m an eternal optimist at heart, and I really believe in humankind (perhaps too much, but that’s a different story for a different time). I bet you that people are living more by the rules of improv than they realize that they are, and by my focusing on them, I might evoke the same behavior from them (whether they are conscious of it or not).
Finally, I decided back in early May that I wanted to do this project after reading The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin (great book, I highly recommend it.) Funnily enough, I happened to read Bossypants by the wonderful Tina Fey (iO alum!) next and stumbled upon her list, “Rules of Improvisation That Will Change Your Life and Reduce Belly Fat.” Well, isn’t it ironic that Ms. Fey, who I may or may not have a huge celebrity crush on (she is just so smart! and talented, too!), thinks that life would be better if we all applied the rules of improvisation to our lives? If Tina Fey thinks this is a good idea, then I am game to at least give it a try. Also, how cool is it that she and I are on the same page?!
So here’s to 2012, The Year of Improv. (And yikes, perhaps the end of the world. Knock on wood.)