When you take improv classes, you start off by learning the rules. The first, and most famous, rule is to say “Yes, And.” You may have heard of it if you’ve seen Yes Man, read Bossypants by Tina Fey, or ever had a friend take an improv class.
There are a lot of principles encapsulated in this phrase – agreement, support, building something together, advancing the scene. Most of the other rules are derived from this fundamental axiom. (Don’t ask questions. Why not? Because you are not saying “yes, and” and you are stalling the scene.)
Tina Fey has said, “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.”
I think it could be even simpler. The REAL first rule of improv is “Be Courageous.” Not “Don’t Be Afraid,” because fear is something that we feel, and it is outside of our control. Courage is how we choose to respond to fear – by continuing forward anyway; saying “yes, and” forces you to add something that moves the scene forward.
The rest of the rules of improv are techniques for being courageous on stage when you are frightened; for when your lizard brain is telling you to go with the blandest, safest choice, and get off stage and out of the spotlight as quickly as possible. Fortunately, we can use higher thinking to override the lizard brain, and pursue something more meaningful than our basic needs. Something like creating a meaningful scene, or connecting to our audience with a story that makes them feel something.
There is a quote by William James that I really like: “Do something everyday for no other reason than you would rather not do it, so that when the hour of dire need draws nigh, it may find you not unnerved and untrained to stand the test.” Eleanor Roosevelt eloquently summed it up when she said, “Do something every day that scares you.”
The cool thing about doing improv is that you have opportunities to do something that scares you multiple times in a single show. The downside is, sometimes you let the fear get the best of you. Mick Napier, in Improvise. Scene from the Inside Out, says that fear is the reason that bad scenes happen. According to Napier, not only does learning the rules NOT prevent you from doing bad scenes (as any early-intermediate improviser can attest), but it may actually CAUSE bad improvisation, because it makes you think. You retreat into your head and you stop playing. You become afraid to make a choice, because it might violate one of the rules, or it might not be “good enough” for the scene, and that fear paralyzes you.
Unfortunately, we cannot simply say “F*** fear!” and go do good scenes. We must condition ourselves to move toward the fear, to put ourselves into danger and steel ourselves against the outcomes… to jump and let the net appear, to continue into the unknown, damn the consequences! We must learn to be comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. The best part is, as you train yourself to not be stopped by fear on stage, you’ll notice that you will also be less and less controlled by fear in life. You can confront fears on stage to learn to face fears in real life, and you can seize opportunities to do things in real life that frighten you, so that you will be better prepared on stage!
Stop being cautious. Stop thinking, and judging, and trying to find the best alternative for every choice you face. Just choose something, and choose the next thing, and keep choosing until the end, and be happy with wherever you arrive, knowing that it was your choices that got you there. And if you want to end up somewhere else next time, have the strength to make different choices, but never relinquish your right to choose. Otherwise, you will become a boring bystander in your own scene, or your own life.
By Randall Reed
Aside from being an ensemble member of Automatic Improv, Randall also blogs about improv at improveveryday.com