The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES. When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, “Freeze, I have a gun,” and you say, “That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,” our improvised scene has ground to a halt. But if I say, “Freeze, I have a gun!” and you say, “The gun I gave you for Christmas! You bastard!” then we have started a scene because we have AGREED that my finger is in fact a Christmas gun.
Now, obviously in real life you’re not always going to agree with everything everyone says. But the Rule of Agreement reminds you to “respect what your partner has created” and to at least start from an open-minded place. Start with a YES and see where that takes you.
As an improviser, I always find it jarring when I meet someone in real life whose first answer is no. “No, we can’t do that.” “No, that’s not in the budget.” “No, I will not hold your hand for a dollar.” What kind of way is that to live?
The second rule of improvisation is not only to say yes, but YES, AND. You are supposed to agree and then add something of your own. If I start a scene with “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you just say, “Yeah…” we’re kind of at a stand-still. But if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “What did you expect? We’re in hell.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “Yes, this can’t be good for the wax figures.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “I told you we shouldn’t have crawled into this dog’s mouth,” now we’re getting somewhere.
To me YES, AND means don’t be afraid to contribute. It’s your responsibility to contribute. Always make sure you’re adding something to the discussion. Your initiations are worthwhile.
The next rule is MAKE STATEMENTS. This is a positive way of saying “Don’t ask questions all the time.” If we’re in a scene and I say, “Who are you? Where are we? What are we doing here? What’s in that box?” I’m putting pressure on you to come up with all the answers.
In other words: Whatever the problem, be part of the solution. Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles. We’ve all worked with that person. That person is a drag. It’s usually the same person around the office who says thing like “There’s no calories in it if you eat it standing up!” and “I felt menaced when Terry raised her voice.”
MAKE STATEMENTS also applies to us women: Speak in statements instead of apologetic questions. No one wants to go to a doctor who says, “I’m going to be your surgeon? I’m here to talk to you about your procedure? I was first in my class at Johns Hopkins, so?” Make statements, with your actions and your voice.
Instead of saying “Where are we?” make a statement like “Here we are in Spain, Dracula.” Okay, “Here we are in Spain, Dracula” may seem like a terrible start to a scene, but this leads us to the best rule:
THERE ARE NO MISTAKES, only opportunities. If I start a scene as what I think is very clearly a cop riding a bicycle, but you think that I am a hamster in a hamster wheel, guess what? Now I’m a hamster in a hamster wheel. I’m not going to stop everything to explain that it was really supposed to be a bike. Who knows? Maybe I’ll end up being a police hamster who’s been put on “hamster wheel” duty because I’m “too much of a loose cannon” in the field. In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents. And many of the world’s greatest discoveries have been by accident. I mean, look at the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, or Botox.
* Improv will not reduce belly fat.
Source: Fey, Tina. “The Rules of Improvisation That Will Change Your Life and Reduce Belly Fat.” Bossypants. New York: Little, Brown, 2011. 84-85. Print.
To me, these rules apply not just to improvisation, but to any collaborative creative effort, especially the “Rule of Agreement.” There is no single word in the English language that kills creativity more than “no,” and as an aspiring film director, I refuse to allow the word to infiltrate my or my cast and crew’s vocabularies. The answer to ANY question on a film set is always “yes,” “we can do that,” or “we’ll make it work.” If we try and we fail, then that’s okay. It’s going to happen. But at least we gave it our best effort with the belief that we were going to make it happen.
I was once in the beginning stages of a band where the answer to every question that challenged the other members and push our boundaries of talent and ability was always “no, I can’t do that.” Somebody would want to play a certain song, and the drummer would say “I can’t play that part, it’s too fast”, or the guitarist would say “I can’t play that lead part,” without even giving it a good college try. We never even came close to playing a gig before the band fell apart and the members went their separate ways. Negativity is the opposite of creativity, and it will undermine the creative effort every single time.
So no matter what you do, whether you’re a musician, actor, artist, film director, writer, whatever, do yourself a favour and always say “yes.” In the creative arts, we have to believe that anything is possible, and we have to be willing to give anything a try. Otherwise, what’s the point?