Improv Your Life

As a kid, I loved staying up at night watching “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”. I was fascinated with how well each of these actors could take a suggestion, and turn it into a magical experience for me watching from home.

It took almost a decade later, but finally a local theater was teaching comedy improv classes and I knew I had to fulfill my childhood dream of being just like Colin Mochrie, Ryan Stiles, and Wayne Brady.

The classes went by pretty quick, and soon I found myself engulfed with the local improv scene, where people from all stages of life come to gather and make each other laugh. For over 5 years, I studied comedy improvisation in my spare time, and applied every lesson I could to hone my craft on stage.

Over those 5 years, I read over 20 books specifically designed for improvisation with others, in your daily life, and for entertainment. 3 of those years, I helped run a theater that performed improv comedy, sketch, and stand-up shows every weekend of the year. And a handful of times, I would travel and perform in comedy festivals across the West coast of the US.

Here’s how I believe you can use improv in your daily life to set yourself up for success.

Everything But The Kitchen Sink Rules

Within improv, there is a concept of “hidden rules” that improvisers know and use to set themselves up for success in every scene and show. If somebody with absolutely no improv experience took these rules and applied them, they would be successful on stage.

Don’t Deny

The first rule of improvisation is to always agree. To agree, you simply say Yes which means you’re agreeing with whatever your partner created earlier. For example, if I say “The results don’t look so good.” and you say “You’re not a doctor, That’s not even a clipboard.”, the scene immediately comes to a halt as we haven’t agreed on the base reality. Agreement can best be summarized as accepting your partners choice. You do not have to agree that it’s a good or bad choice.

Say “Yes, And”

The second rule of improvisation is to add something of your own. You’ve already agreed by saying Yes. Now you will be adding something of your own which is known as Yes, And. Using Yes, And promotes contributions as it’s everyone’s responsibility to contribute and you need to make sure you are adding something to the table.

Don’t Ask Questions

The third rule of improvisation is to make statements. Every time you ask a question, you are putting pressure on somebody else to ultimately answer. Imagine you’re working on a project and your project owner only asks questions. That person is a drag to work with because their contributions are nothing more than asking for clarity. Instead, by making statements you are putting yourself out there for others to contribute upon. Pro-Tip: Hate getting something to eat because nobody will make up their minds on where to go? Recommend McDonald’s and everybody will have an opinion.

There Are No Mistakes, Only Opportunities

The fourth and final rule of improvisation is that there are no mistakes, only opportunities. Everything you may consider a mistake can be a blessing in disguise later on in a show. For example, if you’re pretending to drive a car and your scene partner believes you’re preparing for a tan instead, you are setup for a humorous opportunity to do typical car things, but in the context of tanning such as applying lip balm like a windshield wiper. At the end of the day, there are no mistakes but only great discoveries waiting to be found.

Many of these next rules are specific to the artform known as stage presence, so sadly we won’t be going over these here.

  • Don’t Dictate Action
  • Don’t Talk About Past Or Future Events
  • Establish Who, What, Where
  • Don’t Negotiate
  • Don’t Do Teaching Scenes
  • Show, Don’t Tell
  • Don’t Talk About What You’re Doing

What The Rules Really Should Be

  • Agree
  • Pay Attention
  • Don’t Deny An Established Reality
  • Care For One Another
  • The Other Person Is The Most Important Person And Answer To Your Problems
  • Artificially Imposing Facts Is Unhelpful
  • The solution lies in the connection between the people
  • Play at the top of your intelligence

Fuck The Rules

Learning about the rules is great, but you don’t need rules other than to understand how you can break them.

There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs. -Ansel Adams

Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist. – Pablo Picasso

Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively. – The Dalai Lama

I’ll tell you that these rules do nothing but give you a set of guidelines of what’s proven to work. But for every successful improviser, they’ve adopted their own rules that work for them. In other words, you don’t need rules other than to understand your own.

My personal rule is very simple, and that is:

Always behave and respond honestly in the moment.

Apply Yourself

Find a way to start embracing these concepts into your daily life. You don’t have to go as far as being a “Yes” person, or applying a “Year Of Yes” to your life, but many of these concepts we don’t normally think about in our day to day life. Give a full day of Yes a try, or make sure to ask less questions by making more statements. Finally, take more risks as any mistake that comes out of them is an opportunity.