My 3 Rules & The Iterative Process

I recorded the session of my Patterns & Games class at The Coalition Theater in which we tackled the My 3 Rules game I’ve previously presented as a warm-up.

One, the camera’s distance makes it hard for the viewer to really track the game in play.

Two, oh, man, looking for a drinking game? Watch me teach and drink every time I say, “Right.”

Three, My 3 Rules – like Kick The Duck, Red Rover – is a game played through iterations. With each iteration, students “get it” more and by the end are fully engaged in the mechanics and they’re laughing

In the following post, I’m going to share some clips from that night’s video showing the iterative learning process. My hope is that it’ll serve as a teaching lesson, both through how I provide instruction between iterations and how students loosen up and learn as a result of the iterations.

In the first video, I provide the students with My 3 Rules. But here they are in text:


  • Rule #1: To pass to your right or left, you turn to that person and say their name.
  • Rule #2: To return the pass right back to the person who just spoke to you, say YOUR name.
  • Rule #3: To pass to any player other than the players on your direct left or right, you lock eyes with that person and – in a character voice – say their name.

The second video shows the group’s first attempt. As expected, they play with “my rules” but do not think at all about establishing any rules of cause-and-effect for when to deploy each move.

  • “What determined whether, when it got to you, you kept it going in the same direction, changed direction or passed it across the circle?” “I don’t know.”
  • “What happened to make someone decide to change the direction?” “I don’t know.”

So after their first attempt, I debrief with them. We try to track what happened from the moment they started: It went four times to the right, then was reversed, then was passed across the circle…

They didn’t track any of that the first time. When I ask them what happened, they have no idea. Despite having done Kick The Duck, Red Rover in their first class, it’s not on their radar to try and connect “My 3 Rules” with rules of cause-and-effect of their own that would help them play this game I’ve saddled them with.

And they’re expected to “fail” the first time. In the third video, I remind them to focus outward, track what happened the first time, and then – knowing we’re all playing by the rules in our own minds – do their best to try and “make sense” of what’s been done through repeating what they saw.

  • First time it’s random
  • Second time it’s purposeful
  • Third time it’s expected

And that’s a lesson that will need repeating. The second time through the exercise, a few improvisers will “get it” but not all. And when everyone’s playing but not everyone “gets it” the “rules” get muddied, making it harder for everyone.

So in this fourth video, you can hear me reiterating:

  • We’re all playing by the rules in our own heads…
  • …but if we’re all focused outward…
  • …trying our best to make our choices in service of what we observed happen already…
  • …then the game comes together.

And then they run it again, wiping the slate clean back to My 3 Rules.

This next video includes a repeat of my last debrief and my transition into having them start again.

If you can’t track the path of the game around the circle, no problem; the point is at the end. At about a minute and a half in, I stop it – I see confusion and ask about it. And listen to the confusion!

“I was trying to figure out if we were doing, like, two the right of the last person…” At this point are understanding the process – they’re tracking it! – and they’re able to articulate where and how the expected sequence changed.

Obviously Robin Williams wasn’t in my class; this moment from Hook just illustrates the point.


“You’re doing it, Peter.”

My 3 Rules is a heady exercise. You’re given rigidness and expected to loosen up. You have to work to track what happened and be open to evolution. And throughout it all you’re seeking complex collaboration while embracing the idea that everyone is working from the sense they’re making in their own heads.

And it works.

It works because of the clear, seemingly rigid instructions and the layering of additional instructions that is possible through an iterative approach. The iterations allow them to see in time what they never could have been told to see at the start – they had to be in it to see it. 

And as I point out to them in this last video, if you’re comfortable in your base “rules,” it’s easier to relax in the moment. With that comfort, it’s easier to play. And, interestingly, it’s easier to track what’s happening when you’re comfortable with what you’re doing and not wasting any attention on “doing it wrong.”

Listen to the LAUGHTER at the two minute mark. The content of this game isn’t funny; the PLAY is. 

They all know the game they were playing with My 3 Rules: “The fuck with Hannah game.” And they enjoyed it.

They had fun with the stiff, mind-fuck of an exercise they struggled with 15 minutes earlier.

The best part about running iterative exercises? They can feel their progress toward being better improvisers. Feeling how hard an exercise can be when trying to figure it out on your own, and then feeling shared success when the group aligns behind shared, articulated goals helps students learn – whatever the subject matter is.

To run an iterative exercise,..

  1. A teacher needs to know ALL the lessons s/he wants to teach with an exercise – really know them so as to be able to articulate them in multiple ways.
  2. Up  front, just share the bare mechanics of how they’re supposed to execute an exercise.
  3. Be really attuned to what they’re doing so as to be able to point out their progress through your lessons and to know when to set them up with the next lesson
  4. Don’t allow them to become too fixated on the failure (or success) they’ve just done; Keep them focused on what to do to work toward success the next time.
  5. Have the exercise serve a larger point that will be applicable in any improv scene they do – the first time! Iterative exercises can be exhausting; it’s critical at the end that students feel they’ve accomplished something worthwhile.

The Q2 2019 Coalition Patterns & Games class cast is: Tim Armstrong, Jameson Babbowski, Kelly Barnes, Annie Barone, Lucy Bonino, Josh Cromwell, Bill Hancock, Felipe Nascimento, Jamie Rule, Joanna Sandager, Drew Simmons, Shelby VanStavern, and Hannah Zaino


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