The Tao of Improv: 5 Rules for Improvising Your Life

Learning to work with what you get

Posted Jan 25, 2011

I stumbled into improv about ten years ago and performed for several years with a regional group. Like most arts, what seems so easy and natural I discovered was actually the product of lots of practice and a distinct awareness. Beneath the quips are hard-learned skills, and beneath these skills is a structure that is almost invisible. These are the rules of improv, the assumptions and worldview upon which the actors build their scenes and create the experience. They offer us a unique way of approaching relationships that is generous rather than closed, supportive rather than competitive, organic rather than scripted.

Since we are, of course, improvising our lives every day, and there's no reason that rules that are helpful on stage couldn't make our everyday lives be more free and creative, rather than restrictive and stale. Here they are -- see how you might apply them to your own life:

Rule #1: Yes and. This is it, the holy grail, the mantra of improv. Yes and means that you accept all of your fellow actor's offers, rather than blocking - denying, ignoring, changing - what your partner just said. If your partner in scene calls you Mike, you don't say, Hey, wait my name is Tom. When he asks you to help him lift a heavy imaginary couch, you don't say you're busy and can't, or Come on, it isn't that heavy. You follow each other's lead, rather than competing for the lead, and in the process discover and commit to the reality and relationship that you both create.

There is a Zen-like state of mind to all this. Yes and means that you work with what life offers rather than fighting against it. You stay open and build on other's ideas, rather than always dismissing, resisting, and jockeying for power. It's the counter to the Yes but, the No, the defensiveness, control, and anger that many of us play out in our own relationships.

You can try this on your own. As a experiment just try for a week saying Yes to what your partner offers, and add to it - build your own ideas on theirs. See how it changes the dynamics of your relationship.

Rule #2. Act / React. The core belief here is that everyone on stage should be always working to contribute to the scene. If Yes and is about attitude and acceptance, this rule is about taking responsibility and confronting fear. You do this is by being courageous and following your instincts. Put something out there and trust that your fellow actors will follow your lead. Take the risk, don't hold back, make bold choices. Don't talk about taking action, don't wait for the "right" moment, act now and see what happens. Pick up the block, stand on a chair, then justify after why you are picking or standing. Act - take responsibility for creating the relationship - then let others respond, listen, and react and build on their responses.

The opposite of all this - caution, hesitation, not pulling your weight - is what creates scene death. Instead of acting and adding to a scene - you malinger - pretending to smoke a cigarette while waiting to see what your teammates do - adding little in content and energy. The worst form of this irresponsibility is what is known as "pimping" your partner. You ask open ended vague questions - So where are we? What's your name? - rather than making a clear proactive statement - I'm so glad the hot air balloon was able land here in the Sahara desert; or I'm Tom and I don't think I've ever met a leprechaun like you before. Instead of saying a joke you say to your partner- "This is the funniest joke I have ever heard," and then hand him an imaginary piece of paper. "Here it is. Why don't you read it out loud." Rather than stepping up to the plate, making a clear choice, and being assertive, you waffle, wimp out, and manipulate your partner into shouldering all the responsibility for moving the scene forward.

While you don't want to hang back and never act, you also don't want to make the other improv mistake of going in the other direction - always acting and attacking and never reacting and yielding. This is known as driving the scene, and actors who do this seem like control freaks. They think they have a great idea for the scene and push all the other actors in that direction. They dominate the action, don't listen, do yes-buts. And while their ideas may be funny or interesting, it doesn't work because the process ultimately undermines any possibility of success.

The other actors feel dismissed and emotionally pummeled; they may go along as best they can, but don't care, because what is happening is your idea not everyone's. The scene quickly gets stilted, loses energy. The audience usually gets irritated or bored. It becomes for them a little bit too much like real life.

We all know from experience how easily responsibility in relationships can get abandoned or distorted. Frank runs the show at home and in your office and his wife Ellen never speaks up, always goes along. Sue binge-drinks all weekend, and Eric is calling up her boss on Monday telling him that she has the flu rather than hung-over. Brian and Teresa talk about dividing up household chores more equally, but never do it and only continue to complain and complain.

Our job is counter this inertia and fear in our relationships - to step outside our comfort zone, be active, take risks, to speak up and say what is in our hearts and minds rather than holding back, or letting the other guy do the work.

Rather than being controlling or passive, experiment with being active, yet ready to yield and give room to others.

Rule #3. You can look good if you make your partner look good. One famous adage in improv is that everyone is a supporting actor. This concept follows directly from the others - acceptance, responsibility - now trust and commitment to each other. This is what makes improv relationships in some ways the perfect relationships. Rather than looking out for yourself, you're always looking to support the other actors - to offer suggestions when someone seems to run out of ideas and gets stuck - knowing that they'll do the same for you when you start to flounder or get stuck. If I help the other guy look good, and he helps me look good, together we have successful scene. It's the same impulse that drives the comradeship of soldiers in combat. We got each other's back, we all pull our weight, we leave no one behind. We're a team. What we do, we do together.

In contrast to such generosity is a stinginess and distrust that we see in many relationships. Mike and Loren are discussing what they might do together as couple over the weekend. It quickly has the feel of poker game. Mike is willing to do something on Saturday afternoon, if she will let him watch the ballgame on Sunday; Loren is willing to go for a hike if Mike promises to take the kids to soccer practice on Saturday morning. They are cutting deals, hoarding and counting some limited number of emotional chips. They each only show their hand if the other guy shows his first. They're strategizing and posturing and bluffing rather than being honest and committed to each other as a couple. Each has learned over the years to look out for himself because they each believe their partner won't.

Experiment with looking out for the other partner, not as a martyr, but as a support.

Rule #4. Be truthful, be vulnerable. One of the mistakes that new improvisers make that they try hard to be funny. It never works. It feels forced, it falls flat. Instead of funny go for vulnerable. Stay in character and be honest. This is always more interesting for the audience, always moves the scene along, and more often than not, turns out funny anyhow.

We know how being truthful and vulnerable can be difficult places to reach. They require the other three rules to be in place so that we can trust. But the message of this rule is honesty should always be our default, that it is our responsibility to try and bring our vulnerability into the relationship. In a pinch, when you don't know what to say, you say you don't know what to say. Like the other rules, you take the lead and help others to do the same.

Try not hiding behind pat answers, your standard role or response, but push yourself instead towards authenticity and immediacy.

Rule #5. There are no mistakes. In a good improv scene everything is incorporated, nothing falls to the wayside. A character's anger, someone's limp, the joke that falls flat, the imaginary cup that gets dropped all get acted and reacted to. You work around and with what others offer, and trust that you'll all somehow pull it out. All grist for the mill, you see what evolves, focus on what's being created in the moment.

The attitude behind all this is that everyone is doing the best they can, that most things that seem to go wrong can be fixed, and that the rewards of spontaneity and risk-taking outweigh those of staying safe and put. Worrying about mistakes is about living in some uncontrollable future, rather than paying attention to the present. Couples find themselves in stale marriages because they choose to stay in their comfort zone, and use routine and distance to replace spontaneity and confrontation. Others become preoccupied with following, what they imagine to be, the one path towards the one goal. They scold themselves when they feel they have strayed, when things don't turn out as they imagine they should, rather than patting themselves on the back for taking the risk and learning something new about themselves and their lives.

So try becoming a better improvisor of your own life.  Try imaging your day as if you were walking onto a stage set. People, actions and reactions come at you, and your job, as a good improviser, is get out of your head, give up control, trust your instincts, be honest, be generous, to look out for others and assume that they are looking out for you. Do the best you can, enjoy what you can, go home, go to sleep.

Realize that tomorrow is whole new adventure.