Improv is an enormously valuable skill for any actor. You don’t have to be part of an improv troupe to benefit from being able to think on your feet, adapt quickly to your partner’s choices, and follow your impulses organically and fully. But improv can be intimidating to newcomers, even to those with decades of professional acting under their belt. Whether you’re contemplating testing the waters or want to brush up on the basics, here’s a good starter kit for any improviser.
1. Yes, And. Perhaps the most famous rule of improv is referred to as “Yes, and.” This concept refers to how to react when your scene partner brings new information into the scene. The first bit of the rule, the “yes,” encourages you to uphold your partner’s choices, therefore strengthening the circumstances of the scene. While it might seem obvious, it is treacherously easy to succumb to the desire to control the scene and automatically discard ideas that conflict with your own plans. But the beauty of improv is that the plan is constantly evolving. And the first step to supporting that is to agree with and support whatever your partner establishes. The second part of the rule, the “and,” describes how to keep the plot of the scene moving. It is not enough to inhabit the choices your partner brings to the table–you must add to them. Otherwise, the scene stops growing and will flounder. Improv must keep moving or die. Like a shark. (Or rather, like that common myth about sharks that is only partially accurate to particular species).
If it’s difficult to wrap your mind around this concept, consider this simplified example:
Partner A: All I’m saying, is if you hadn’t stopped to call your mother, Kevin, we’d be on a plane to Mexico right now.
This gives you a lot of information. Your name is Kevin. You stopped something important to call your mother. You had plans to fly to Mexico with your scene partner. All of these things must be accepted. You must say “yes” to them. But you also have to move the scene along by contributing. Your response should not only uphold the information given to you but add something new.
2. Listening. In a world where there is no set script, listening becomes your most important job. If you are only thinking about crafting your next joke, you are robbing yourself of useful information and comedic opportunity.
3. Pacing. An improv scene is precarious. It is delicate. All balls must be kept in the air or the scene dies. Better to jump in and fail, keeping the energy up, than to hesitate and let it plummet to its untimely demise.
4. Failing. To be an effective improviser, you must lose your fear of failure. In fact, embrace failure as another opportunity to connect with and entertain the audience. Fail with panache. It will give you incredible freedom as a performer.
5. Questions vs. Statements. While asking questions in a scene isn’t necessarily negating your scene partner, be careful about how you use them in a scene. Remember that statements generally push the plot and contribute to the scene, while asking your scene partner questions about the circumstances forces them to do the heavy lifting of the invention. Questions stall the pace. If you’re asking a question when a statement will do, reroute.
6. Callbacks. Everyone loves a good callback. Jokes that refer to previous sketches or characters are a nice flourish of an improviser’s skill and provide excellent buttons for sketches and shows. It also invites the audience to participate in the journey of storytelling. You’re sharing and celebrating something that was created right in front of them, just for them. With that in mind, get in the habit of hoarding details and characters from sketches as you go. Take note of the bits that play especially well, and look for opportunities to sprinkle them into subsequent sketches.
Nothing improves improv like practice. The more you get out there and fall flat on your face, the braver you will be in your choices. A good improv class will strengthen both your technique and your ability to instantly get in touch with your impulses and emotions. Take a chance and give it a go.