I taught improvisational acting for a few years at our local community college. It’s simple to learn the basic concepts of improv, but much harder to actually master it. I’m certain I never did, but I could improvise well enough to be able to teach others how to do it.
The main rule of improv can be stated in two words: “Yes, and…“. This simple idea means that when your partner says something to you, the scene can only be moved ahead if your response is in the general form of “Yes, and…”. You don’t have to literally say, “yes, and…”, but you must agree with what your partner said and then add something that keeps the scene going. If you disagree, you’ve probably killed the scene.
It sounds simple, but in practice it’s quite difficult to do well. You have to overcome the urge to throw in a punch line, or take the scene over to move it to where you want it to go. Impatience is your enemy; you need to relax and trust that you’ll get an opportunity to use your great idea, if not in that scene, perhaps sometime later.
Improvising can be exhilarating, but it can also be terrifying. The risks of looking stupid in front of your peers (or even worse, a live audience) are real. Many actors never get comfortable with improv. They go through the motions in their classes when they’re required to, but never really dedicate themselves to it.
Most actors have traits that interfere with performing improv well. A big one is that we don’t listen well, or perhaps it’s better to say that we don’t listen completely. We’re used to jumping in with our idea as soon as we have it, rather than letting the person we’re talking to finish their thought first. So much context is lost in that kind of interrupted conversation.
Another common issue, which I mentioned earlier, is impatience. We want to get to the funny part (or the “big moment” if the scene is dramatic instead of comedic) right away. Selfishness is a problem, too; we often have a hard time letting someone else get the big moment or laugh. Improv also requires a lot of trust between scene partners, and that can take time to build, just as in other types of relationships.
Improv is helpful even when you’re doing something familiar, including acting in a scripted play. What happens when someone forgets a line, or a light or sound cue doesn’t happen, or another actor misses their entrance entirely? The ability to gracefully improvise in those situations has saved many a scene, sometimes so well that the audience is unaware that anything went wrong.
Most of us improvise every day. Nobody wakes up in the morning with a script lying next to their bed. Every interaction we have is unscripted, though certainly some situations are more common or familiar than others and end up playing the same way as dozens or hundreds that came before. Each of us has a level of tolerance for improvisation. Some prefer to only engage in situations that are predictable, while others relish the chance to experience something new.
The ability to improvise well can make the difference between a career that requires only repetitive tasks and one that allows you to be creative and effect change. How comfortable are you with improvisation?